Many thanks to Alicia Ostriker for her nice framing of a perpetual question, one which is particularly important in regard to Jewish poetry. Chances are that most of us are out there on the same limb, and maybe being out there is part of the answer, if indeed there really is an answer, or even needs to be.
Alicia's post has been on my mind while I've been reading Rabbis of the Air, a new book of poems by Philip Terman. In a recent e-mail, after we had exchanged books (yes friends, Passing Over is now available!), Phil spoke about his style in contrast to mine, given his commitment to "narrative structures, use of personal experience, memory," etc. Mine, especially in recent years, has been much more disjunctive in various ways. But be that as it may, there's poem in Rabbis of the Air which illustrates the problem that Alicia raises with admirable tact, poise, feeling and economy. It's called "A Response to Jehuda Halevi":
"Is it well that the dead shall be remembered,
And the Ark and the Tablets forgotten?"
Yes, Jehuda, I would rather recall
the business cards of my father's
used car lot than the five books
and all their commentaries, the recipe
for my grandmother's kuchin than
the Kabbalah and its interpretations,
her delicate matzo balls than all
of the much-sought-after mystical
masterpieces. I would rather discover
the dandruff of my dead friend's dark
hair than the inscribed stones Moses
bloodied his flesh--twice--to attain.
Because I am nothing without them,
whose words accent my speech,
whose motions choreograph my gestures--
dreamstuff are my dead, demanding
my devotion--yes, Jehuda,
it is well they shall be remembered,
their names the undertone whenever
my own name is called, their ghost-souls
more present than this corporeal furniture
of the world which, like the ark and tablets,
hold their form in bodies of beauty
then dissolve, indistinguisable from the dust.
Ordinarily I would have a lot of trouble with a poem in which the speaker invokes his grandmother's "delicate matzo balls," but in this case, the gamble with sentimentality pays off, given the strength of the ensuing stanzas. It's a poem that raises one of those big questions, as Alicia does, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of Halevi, whose devotional poetry carries such an erotic--i.e. profane--charge. Terman makes a powerful claim for cultural Jewishness over religious devotion here, in the name of the "ghost-souls" of his dead. For more along these lines, check out Rabbis of the Air.