All Who Are Hungry
By RACHEL BARENBLAT
brings an embarrassment of riches for Jewish poets: both National Poetry Month
and Passover. Wouldn't it be nice if they were a few weeks apart so we could
celebrate each with appropriate focus? But the calendar often demands that they
collide. It's overwhelming.
For Jews who observe the traditional rigors of ridding one's house of hametz (leaven) before the festival
begins, the ramp-up to Pesach is a time of obsessive-compulsive housecleaning.
Some dispose of bread, or ritually "sell" it to a neighbor. Others
clean out cupboards and freezer, even flip the pages of every book to ensure
that no crumb of leaven is trapped in its pages. With practices like these, who
has room for poetry?
Meanwhile, the celebration of Passover itself is often unpoetic at best. While
I remain fond of the Silverman haggadah of my childhood, with its funky
bicolored woodcut illustrations, I think it's safe to say that poetry was not
at the forefront of its editors' consciousness. Even the psalms of Hallel were
transmuted into doggerel in its pages.
But Passover and poetry can be deeply aligned. Start with the preparation: for
those with a spiritual bent, the process is as much about internal
housecleaning as about scouring every corner and shelf, and that internal work
can offer fertile material for poems.
Hametz comes from the verb lachmotz, to sour or ferment. In the
Hasidic imagination, hametz
represents the sourness or puffery of excessive ego. Hametz is that within us which needs to be winnowed away.
The obligation to winnow is familiar to any poet. The weeks leading up to
Pesach invite each of us to revise her life, cutting away the lines which don't
serve the greater purpose of her poem.
D'var acher, another interpretation.
One of my mentors at Bennington, the poet Jason Shinder (of blessed memory),
used to pose the question "if this poem had to be published tomorrow, what
would you do to make it ready?" No point in lingering with a draft;
imagine that this poem must be sent out into the world in the morning, and
revise ruthlessly now to make it shine.
In hindsight, this tactic is one of the most Jewish things about Jason. It's
the Exodus story on a microcosmic scale. The Israelites, our story tells us,
departed on a moment's notice, without even the chance to let their bread rise.
The story of Pesach is a story of leaping, ready or not. Committing oneself to
the writing of poetry is, too.
Midrash tells us that the waters of the Sea of Reeds didn't begin to recede
until Nachshon ben Amminadav took the first steps into the sea. He waded up to
his neck before the waters parted. This movement, too, may be familiar to the
poetic sensibility. What else does any poet do when she sends her work before
the tender mercies of an unknown editor?
There's a small irony in celebrating this festival of empty-handed leave-taking
with a ritual which is so encumbered with verbiage. But I love the words. Once
I attended a seder which featured a one-page haggadah, and I came away bereft.
I wanted the thicket of texts which makes up the classical haggadah, that
anthology of stories and commentaries and meta-commentaries. That stripped-down
haggadah was haiku when I wanted rich allusive verse.
Today I celebrate Passover using a homegrown haggadah (the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach)
which is jam-packed with poetry. In our household, lines by Martín Espada
herald the first ceremonial bites of matzah, and Marge Piercy's words add new
meaning to the eating of the hardboiled egg. The cryptic midrash of the rabbis
who stayed up all night celebrating seder until the time came for the morning
shema is recast as a prose poem. Poems by Jay Michaelson
and Alicia Ostriker
(and, okay, also yours truly) share the page with the psalms of Hallel.
Poetry can be a language for expressing what matters, for elevating the
ordinary. In this, it serves Passover well. And the obverse is also true;
Pesach offers countless opportunities for poetry's aha!, from the stories and
meta-stories of the Exodus from Egypt (metaphor for liberation from all forms
of constriction) to the million different variations on the seder, each with
its own form of retelling.
It's the retelling that makes Passover feel so aligned with poetry. What is a
seder if not a performative sort of poetry reading, each word carefully chosen
and sanctified by the attention of those who participate and attend?
There's a category of mitzvot which basically translates to "the more, the
merrier." Celebrating seder falls into this category. It's incumbent on us
to celebrate on the first night (or two), but nothing says one can't have a
seder every night of the festival week. Poetry, too, fits this bill—and
National Poetry Month invites us to overindulge, soaking ourselves in words of
poetry like an effervescent bath.
But why not do both at once? In the end, what makes poetry and Judaism such
natural partners is the value each places on language. The words we speak can
transform us, and the stories we tell about ourselves constitute us as
community: this is axiomatic in both realms. This year, notice the poetry
hidden in the classical texts, and celebrate the classical texts hidden in our
poetry. Let them serve one another. And let all who are hungry—for ritual, for
language, for storytelling, for praise—come and eat.