The Poet at the Plate


A few weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraiser at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco: an exhibit (and auction) of, of all things, seder plates. To be honest, I had basically forgotten such things even existed, and had trouble imagining what they would look like, though when I thought about it I could after a little while remember the one I saw every year on my grandmother's seder table. It was white and blue, porcelain, and had six shallow declivities, each with a picture of a symbolic food, an actual version of which, during the seder, would rest on top of its picture.

When I was a kid Passover was an exciting time, because we would usually spend it at my grandmother's house, with my four oldest cousins. I would go from being a sullen older brother, both resentful and protective of my status in the family hierarchy, to just another irresponsible member of a pack of wild kids tearing around the house and generally creating minor mayhem. This freedom was contrasted with the solemn, choreographed, ritualistic character of the seder, a sort of torture of waiting. There seemed to be a kind of virtue in deprivation, smelling the food from the kitchen for what seemed like hours while "food" itself remained an abstracted subject of discussion and an occasion for instruction. One year, goaded by hunger and one of my older cousins, I surreptitiously ate a piece of horseradish root that exactly resembled a small chunk of turkey, and had to run out of the room, tears pouring from my eyes. The entire seder experience was the exact opposite of any other kind of eating we did the rest of the year, when the instant the food landed on the table everyone tore into it like a bunch of refugees.

The seder plate is designed to instruct; any artistic elements are purely decorative, and subordinate to the main purpose of teaching us what each of the six main foods "means." The seder itself is to a great extent organized around explaining the meaning and significance of those six foods, which leads the group through the story of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. To take one example, you dip the karpas, a vegetable (usually parsley, in my experience) into salt water at the beginning of the seder. The salt water is symbolic of the tears of the Jewish slaves, and dipping the karpas in them and eating it is supposed to evoke this fact in a way that merely describing it could not. This equation—something normal and recognizable in the real world, like a candle or an article of clothing or salt water or an egg, becomes a symbol, which in turn is used to remind us of something or to teach us how to behave ethically—is extremely characteristic of Judaism.

I very much doubt this experience is where my general distaste for didacticism came from. But it was funny to me to walk around the rooms of the museum, looking at seder plates as art, thinking how everything about these plates exemplifies what I am against in poetry. One particularly harmful idea many people have about poetry, one which completely interferes with a real and direct experience of poems, seemed at that moment absolutely exemplified in the very nature of the seder plate.

In a seder, the foods are not primarily what they are, but symbols of something else. This idea in poetry—that the words in a poem, like the foods in the seder, are some kind of symbolic code for something else—is highly corrosive. It distances a reader from what the poet is actually saying, and causes him to run away from the actuality of the poem into all sorts of ridiculous and untethered searches for the true message that supposedly underlies all the fluff of the poem. I am constantly and futilely telling people that objects in my poems are exactly what they are in real life, and not some symbol for something else "important." The poetry in poetry is not an optional or decorative aspect of the central "message," but the message itself.

Strangely enough, having such a strong feeling in one direction—in this case, that the seder and by extension Judaism are antithetical to poetry itself—caused me to remember something else. Beyond the highly ritualistic symbolism of the plate and other elements, there is great terror and ambivalence and mystery in that evening. The scariest moment of the seder for me was always during the very solemn recitation of the 10 plagues God visited upon the Egyptians, to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go. Each plague is recited in both Hebrew and English, and for each plague each person at the seder puts his finger in his glass of wine and puts a drop on his plate. The plagues are horrible—water changed to blood, infestations of frogs and lice and locusts, hail, boils, darkness, and the Hebrew names are spooky and primal—dam, tzefardeyah, choshech, barad, kinim, and so on.

Finally in the list comes the 10th plague, unimaginably the worst, makkat bechorot, the killing of all the first-born sons of Egyptians. The name in fact of the holiday comes from this final plague: the doors of the homes of the Jews were marked, so that the angel of death would "pass over" them. At that moment, those plagues don't stand for anything else: they are what they are. And no one who listens to them can, at that moment of family and warmth and safety, fail to think of the suffering of others. Although we have undergone some of the greatest suffering of any people in the history of the world, at that moment we remember others suffer as well, maybe even, God forbid, by our hands. That moment of darkness within safety, mortality within light, is also what poetry at its best can bring.