Friday, January 19, 2007

Some Local Literary History

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to Rockdale Temple, “the oldest congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains” and the fourth oldest congregation in the United States. Rockdale, a venerable Reform congregation now located in suburban Cincinnati, has been going through some changes in the last few years. Its membership has gone down, and it is currently in the midst of a major restructuring and renovation, having sold its buildings and property to Cincinnati’s Jewish Foundation. The Temple will become part of a campus that will also include the new Cincinnati Jewish Community Center, all slated for completion later this year.

At Rockdale, I met with Rabbi Sigma Faye Coran to discuss what I’ll be doing as the Temple’s latest scholar-in-residence. This will entail three talks over the last weekend of April: one on Jewish American fiction, one on poetry and midrash, and one on the relationship of the sacred to the secular in the Jewish literary imagination. (No doubt I’ll have more to say about these as the date gets closer and I begin to panic.) As we were winding down our discussion and I was looking at the Rabbi’s bookshelves, I noticed a volume called (I think) The Poet and the Rabbi, which turned out to be a book about Rockdale’s Rabbi Victor E. Reichert (1897-1990), who had a long friendship with Robert Frost. Reichert had a summer home in Vermont near Frost’s place, and the Rabbi, as it turns out, was something of a poet himself. Reichert, who served as Rockdale’s rabbi from 1938 to 1962, published his poems in a volume called Tower of David in 1946, presenting copies to the entire congregation. An expanded edition was published in 1964 and again presented to the Temple’s membership. Reichert was also an active scholar: he wrote a commentary to the Soncino Press edition of the Book of Job, and translated classical Hebrew texts.

Learning about Reichert’s interest in poetry, I couldn’t help but be curious about the work. Rabbi Coran delicately indicated that I shouldn’t get my hopes up; she was more enthusiastic when telling me about Reichert’s widow, Louise, who is a hundred years old and still lives in North Avondale, which for much of the last century was one of Cincinnati’s big Jewish neighborhoods (and still one of the city’s more successfully integrated ones). Nevertheless, I borrowed the two editions of Tower of David and started browsing. Rabbi Coran proved to be an astute reader.

I knew I was in for trouble when I noted a quote from a review of the first edition, reproduced on the cover of the second: “It’s a joy to turn from the obscurantism which dominates contemporary poetry and delve into this.” Oh, that contemporary obscurantism! And as Rabbi Coran told me, Reichert may have been friends with Frost, but he really didn’t get what Frost was up to either. The poetry had none of the freshness of Frost’s imagery, none of his sly voicings, and certainly none of his dark and for me, truly frightening scepticism. (I just finished teaching him in Modern American Poetry, and once again was led to appreciate poems like “Design” and “Desert Places.”) But what is interesting to me about Reichert’s verse is not merely its utter conventionality, its sentimentality and total lack of risk, but the way in which it proceeds as if modernism never happened. The poems are pure American Fireside. Even the poems on Jewish subjects sound like “The Jewish Cemetary at Newport,” only not as deeply engaged with history, and without, of course, Longfellow’s belief that “the dead nations never rise again.” I couldn’t help but think as I leafed through the books that many of Reichert’s themes were similar to those of Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), who was Reichert’s almost exact contemporary. Both, for instance, were fascinated with King David. This is Reichert’s “David’s Harp”:

Above the couch of Israel’s poet King
There hung a harp unfingered through the day
And silent in the first watch of the night.
But with the midnight hour, our sages say,
Soft through the open door of David’s tent
A northern wind would blow, waking the strings
To such celestial song no ear had ever heard
Before or since. Then would the poet King
Arise, and while the music lingered on,
Weave wondrous words to song whose majesty
Has voiced the faith, the longing of mankind.
Thus David labored with the Psalms. But when
The eastern sky flamed with the pillar of the dawn
The breeze was gone. The harp was mute again.

And here is Reznikoff giving voice to David in his “King David”:

The Lord tookk me from following the sheep
to be ruler of Israel,
and now He ha given me rest from all my enemies.
Who am I, my God, and what is my house
that You have brought me so far?
I was surrounded
by the sorrows of death,
and the flood of ungodly me
frightened me;
I cried to my God!
He shot out His lightnings;
He took me
and drew me out of the deep waters.
By Him
I have run through a troop,
and jumped over a wall;
He teaches my hands war,
to bend the bow
He has given me my enemies:
I made them as dust before the wind;
I threw them away as dirt in the street.

The currents of literary history move in odd directions, and the engagement of poets with their cultural heritage likewise produces some ironic twists and turns. I could do a close comparative reading of these passages, but most readers can probably guess what I’d have to say. Besides, it would be unfair: Reichert was, apparently, a beloved religious leader; no one made great claims for him as a poet. For me, as a reader of Jewish American poetry, what we have here is less a matter of sentimental imagery or completely conventional form, and more a matter of piety, which, I think, has no place in poetry, even poetry that sincerely seeks to express religious devotion. It leads me back not only to Reznikoff, but to many of the other Jewish American poets I admire. They treat their Jewish source material with respect, but what counts for them (ah, modernism) is their devotion not only to culture, not only to the Text, but to language.


myshkin2 said...

I like this post--it gets at/to a lot things I find important. One thing I find interesting is that convential "piety" is essentially dishonest and disrespectful to its sources. Reading Reichert's poem, you'd never think that his psalmist ever pleaded to have the heads of the children of his enemies "smashed againt the stones." Moreover, the Rez poem seems to recreate the sense of the psalms he's referring to. At least as they come across in English, particularly the specificity and parallelism.

webgirl said...

Thanks, enjoyed the references to Reznikoff, how the source material keeps getting reworked in an ongoing dialogue with the present.