Jewish Poetry?


At a writers’ conference recently someone came up to me and asked if I would sign a copy of my book. “I love these poems,” the man said, “except not so much the Jewish poems.” As someone who in one way or another disowned being Jewish for a good part of her life—who slipped off, like a bug from cut-price flypaper, a Conservative Jewish upbringing—I found what he said funny. They were a very few Jewish poems, and nothing like the writing I have done since.

You see, I am Jewish, and I’m a poet, but I’m not a Jewish Poet. By that I mean when I’m asked to be on a panel about Jewish Poetry, I decline, because I don’t know what a Jewish poet is, exactly.

There are plenty of Jewish poets like me who don’t write many Jewish poems. I think there are few truly Jewish poets, by which I mean all of their poems feel Jewish. But there are Jewish poems. What, as the Haggadah might ask, is the meaning of “Jewish Poem”? I am not talking, necessarily, about poems that refer to Jewish liturgy or Rosh Hashanah or great-aunt Ruthie. I mean poems that truly are Jewish, that feel Jewish. Poems that, if I heard them talking or singing to themselves or arguing with someone at the ticket counter at an airport, I would immediately sense were Jewish. (I like to think there’s a chance some even have been penned by non-Jewish poets.) As further explanation, I offer a quick tour of four types of Jewish poems.

The Wise Poem

The authors of Wise Jewish poems, like brilliant and innovative attorneys, take special pleasure in language, using and bending and breaking its laws and finding loopholes by which to define new and magical and sometimes terrifying poetic forms. The structures that make a poem a poem—such as rhyme or repetition—are plainly evident in these poems. And sometimes a Wise poem, like a good rabbi, tells a long and intricate story.

Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue” takes the myth the Germans told themselves about the Jews and turns it into a nightmare poem as orderly as the Nazi system for cleansing the earth of Jews. Its rhythms are brutal and regular. Here is part of the opening stanza, translated from the German by John Felstiner:

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance

Daisy Fried’s “Aunt Leah, Aunt Sophie and the Negro Painter,” from her recent book My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, is a totally different kind of Wise Jewish poem. It’s like an hour you might spend at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, sitting around with your elderly aunts and waiting to go to the dinner show. The poem evokes a family history of sore points, memories, and mis-rememberings, all happening over decades and in the space of a conversation at the same time. It unwinds amid cigarette smoke, plastic bead necklaces, martinis, and casual barbs about schvartzes. It's also relaxed, which is unusual for a Jewish poem: the political hot buttons aren’t hotter than the glow of a dying Benson & Hedges. Here is a section from the middle:

1980, Leah and Sophie voted for Reagan.
My father wouldn’t speak to them for six months.
Now he tells me the good side
of Ariel Sharon. I don’t speak to him much.
Leah says: “Arthur was her first Republican.
After Sophie married him, she was happy
for awhile.” Leah lights a cigarette off her
burnt-down cigarette—curlicues
of smoke. She says: “I just can’t understand how
your father became a Conservative Jew.”

A couple of other Wise poems: Philip Levine’s weary and beautiful report from the far shore of the immigrant working class in “Words,” and “Spit,” by C.K. Williams, in which an SS officer and a rabbi are frozen in what might appear a near-kiss. Against that image the poet sets the baby Moses eating a live coal, which injures his tongue so that he spits and stammers his whole life.

The Wicked Poem

Wicked poems are uncomfortable with being Jewish. The long tradition of the self-hating Jewish artist has yielded poems in this category that are funny and disturbing. Wicked Jewish poems are transgressive, irreverent. They may curse God and take the forbidden—drugs, sex, Christ—into the sweep of being Jewish. In the well-known poem “Kaddish,” Allen Ginsberg cries out in a “roar of bonepain” as he binds up Emily Dickinson, death’s heads, Buddhism, and Orchard Street in an elegy for his mother. Other Wicked Jewish poems skewer the assimilated American Jewish life. Here is the opening of Albert Goldbarth’s “The Nile” (from A Lineage of Ragpickers, Songpluckers, Elegiasts & Jewelers: Selected Poems of Jewish Family Life, 1973-1995):

Elijah this.
The Children of Israel that.
And Moses. Moses in the bulrushes, Moses
blahblahblah. The doors closed
and the dark, fake-woodgrain paneling casketed us
away from the world for an hour and 45 minutes every afternoon
in Rabbi Lehrfield's neighborhood Hebrew School. Here, as one,
the pious and the derelict chafed equally. The vehicle
of Rabbi Lehrfield's narrative drive was Obedience,
all the wonder in those stories was run down methodically
and left behind like so many roadkills.

Goldbarth writes a lot of poems, and most of them aren’t about Jewish life per se. But they are so smart and unrelenting in their maniacal detail, and so funny, that to me they’re all Jewish. If it’s true, as teachers of poetry like to say, that every poem makes an argument, you want Goldbarth on your side of the bench. Nothing gets past him.

“Everyone’s Jewish sometimes,” Rachel Zucker says in “Hey Allen Ginsberg Where Have You gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs?” (from her forthcoming book Museum of Accidents). Hers is a long, sad, hilarious poem about brisket, affliction, and anti-obsessional medicine, among other things. If modern pharmacology calms a neurotic Jew, overpowering the “refugee gene,” would the poet perish if the enemy, whoever that is, turned up? Jesus and a “beautiful blue-eyed day trader, gentile” are in Zucker’s mix, and a Pharaoh you feel a little sorry for. Here’s an excerpt from the middle:

I am calm now with my pounds of meat
made and frozen, my party schedule, my pills
of liberation, my gentile dream-boy, American
passport, my grey-haired psychiatrist, my blue-
eyed son, my brown-eyed son, my poems on their
pretty little fleet-feet, my big shot friends, olive-skinned
husband, my right elbow on fire: fire inside deep in the nerve
from too much carrying and word-mongering, smithery, bearing
and tensing choosing to be better to live this real life this better orbit this Jack

Kerouac never loved you like you wanted.
Only Jesus and that’s his shtick,
He loves

everyone: smile! that’s it,
for the camera…

Other Wicked poems blow past tame ideas of assimilation into a kind of lust for Christianity. Arielle Greenberg has talked about being influenced by Sylvia Plath, a (non-Jewish) poet who declared “I think that I may be a Jew” in her 1965 volume Ariel. Greenberg is a lapsed Modern Orthodox who is married to a non-Jew. In her second book, My Kafka Century, she wrestles with her religious upbringing. Here is the ending of one poem, in which she talks about her young daughter:

This girl I have given to the world:
she might have come from Jew,
but she is no Jew. She’s totally
clean, a quarantine sweetheart. 
You can taste the bleach
in her blue public eye.

Does it mean Greenberg considers her daughter, who is Jewish by Orthodox law, to be gentile? Does she harbor a desire for her to be Aryan? Is the idea of being “bleached” clean the opposite of being a dirty Jew? Well, the poem is called “Neurosis.” So the answer, like any midrash, would be complicated and interesting.

The Faithful Poem

These poems spring more from faith than doubt. They may argue with Jewish tradition or with God. But they don’t so much upend or lash out against the whole enterprise of being Jewish. Alicia Ostriker’s “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz” is a Faithful poem that doesn’t even take up Jewish subject matter. Ostriker is one of the few poets I can think of who may truly be a Jewish Poet. She is steeped in the Torah and has internalized its stories, so that no matter what she writes about, questions of innocence (Adam and Eve, and the Fall, hover around many of her poems), obedience, faith, and the sacred come up. “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz” (which appears in her book The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998) takes place in a small, specific place in California, but it also takes place within a world, a sphere where there is a moral compass that might spin toward innocence or sin. In the end, the dogs become symbols of the ecstatic—a very Jewish subject. Here is the opening of the poem:

As if there could be a world
Of absolute innocence
In which we forget ourselves

The owners throw sticks
And half-bald tennis balls
Toward the surf
And the happy dogs leap after them
As if catapulted—

Black dogs, tan dogs,
Tubes of glorious muscle—

Pursuing pleasure
More than obedience… 

Another Faithful poem is “Tattered Kaddish,” by Adrienne Rich (from The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001). It is about the poet’s former husband, written on the 20th anniversary of his suicide. It’s true that suicide is against Jewish law. But I don’t consider “Tattered Kaddish” to be a transgressive poem. In calling for the mourner’s prayer, which is allowed in the case of suicide, Rich presents all suicides to the “reaper of the wild apple field”—a reference to the shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the divine spirit—and seeks their redemption. Here is the last part of the poem:

Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough

Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us

Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable

Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.

The Poem That Asks No Questions

This is a rare Jewish poem indeed, because what is more Jewish than asking a question? The Unquestioning poem is pure song. Pure praise. The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, the Biblical book of erotic love poetry, fits this description. Here are a few stanzas from the translation by Marcia Falk:

Your lips—
like woven threads
of crimson silk

A gleam of pomegranate—
your forehead
through your veil

Your neck—
a tower
adorned with shields

Your breasts—
twin fawns
in fields of flowers…

You could argue that, even though it is a Jewish poem of praise and sensual pleasure, the Song is a most controversial part of the Bible. Scholars long have tried to suppress its sexiness by insisting that the poem really is about God. And the fact that women speak the bulk of the lines in the Song has made a lot of rabbis chafe over the centuries. But I could then argue that the poem’s gossip value only increases its Jewishness.