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"What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!"
Kafka's quip—paradoxical, self-questioning, ironic—highlights vividly some of the key issues of identity and self-representation for Jewish writers in the 20th century. No group of writers better represents the problems of Jewish identity than Jewish poets writing in the American modernist tradition—specifically ...
"What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!"
Kafka's quip—paradoxical, self-questioning, ironic—highlights vividly some of the key issues of identity and self-representation for Jewish writers in the 20th century. No group of writers better represents the problems of Jewish identity than Jewish poets writing in the American modernist tradition—specifically secular Jews: those disdainful or suspicious of organized religion, yet forever shaped by those traditions.
This collection of essays is the first to address this often obscured dimension of modern and contemporary poetry: the secular Jewish dimension. Editors Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller asked their contributors to address what constitutes radical poetry written by Jews defined as "secular," and whether or not there is a Jewish component or dimension to radical and modernist poetic practice in general. These poets and critics address these questions by exploring the legacy of those poets who preceded and influenced them—Stein, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen, and Ginsberg, among others.
While there is no easy answer for these writers about what it means to be a Jew, in their responses there is a rich sense of how being Jewish reflects on their aesthetics and practices as poets, and how the tradition of the avant-garde informs their identities as Jews. Fragmented identities, irony, skepticism, a sense of self as "other" or "outsider," distrust of the literal, and belief in a tradition that questions rather than answers—these are some of the qualities these poets see as common to themselves, the poetry they make, and the tradition they work within.
1. Some years ago, one of the editors of a forthcoming, prominent anthology of Jewish American literature mentioned to me that he thought Gertrude Stein (among other poets of particular importance for innovative American poetry) would not be included in the book. It struck me as deliciously odd that in a time of affirmation of the many distinct cultures that make up U.S. literature, these editors would consider leaving out of their anthology perhaps the most famous Jewish poet of the modernist period. Evidently, being Jewish was not enough to be a Jewish poet. By the same token, my children go to a Jewish camp for those who have no religious Jewish beliefs, a camp with a seventy-five-year history of secular Jewish commitment; but I wonder whether there are Muslim or Pentecostal or Catholic camps for nonbelievers? But that's because, at least in some sense, you can't really be a lapsed Jew.
Yes I know I am trading on the ambiguity of religion and ethnicity. I mean to continue to do so.
9. Here are the set of questions I posed to a 2004 panel on "Radical Jewish Poetry / Secular Jewish Practice": What are the innovations and inventions of AmericanJewish poets, over the past century? Can we say that there is distinctly Jewish component to radical modernist and contemporary poetry? What is the relation of Jewish modernist and contemporary poets to the historical avant-garde and to contemporary innovative poetry? How do Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions manifest themselves in the forms, styles, and approaches to radical American poetry? What role does a distinctly secular approach to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists mean for "radical Jewish culture"?
4. Over the weeks leading up to the panel, several of the participants, but most notably me, expressed confusion about the topic-are we being asked to put forward some positive correlation between Jewish poets, or we might say poets of Jewishness, and innovative poetic practice, or to affirm the value of Jewishness in reading or valuing such work? I feel a deep ambivalence on all these issues and I want to insist that this ambivalence itself, the questioning of Jewishness, is just as Jewish as the designer yarmulkes and Glatt kosher Peruvian restaurants of my neighborhood, the deep Upper West Side.
Remember Kafka's question: "What have I in common with Jews? I don't know what I have in common with myself." Or, in a recent translation, I wouldn't want to have an ethnicity that would automatically count me in its number ... when the saints go marching in ...
Am I Jewish? Is this Jewish? I am no more Jewish then when I set my Jewishness adrift from fundamentalist religious practice. I am no more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness means. I am no more Jewish than when I attend to how such Jewishness lives itself out, plays tunes not yet played. Jewishness can, even must, in one of its multiple manifestations, be an aversion of identification-as a practice of dialogue and as an openness to the unfolding performance of the everyday. Call it the civic practice of Jewishness.
10. Amos Oz, in an essay published in 1993, writes:
Now suppose a new Kafka is growing up right now, here in San Francisco, California: Suppose he is fourteen years old right now. Let's call him Chuck Bernstein. Let's assume that he is every bit of a genius as Kafka was in his time. His future must, as I see it, depend on an uncle in Jerusalem or an experience by the Dead Sea, or a cousin in a kibbutz or something inspired by the Israeli live drama: Otherwise, with the exception of the possibility that he is growing up among the ultra-Orthodox, he will be an American writer of Jewish origin-not a Jewish American writer. He may become a new Faulkner, but not a new Kafka.
Fortunately, we have America so as not to need a Mr. Oz to police who is Jewish or, indeed, what is Jewish. But this America, unfortunately, is still somewhere over the rainbow.
2. The obsessive focus in literary journalism on the American Jewish novel has had the effect of cutting off consideration of the formal and processural features of secular Jewish art. We have ended up with a set of representative figures for an approach in and to a culture that highly values the rejection of such graven representations.
In other words, the often frame-locked focus on Jewish content as the sine qua non of Jewish literature has distracted from recognition-not so much of Jewish forms, whatever they might be, as from formal, rhythmic, dialectical and dialogical and colloquial, dimensions of literary, musical, and visual works that do not have explicit Jewish thematic focus. In happy contrast, we do have such recent anthologies as The Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature and Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, ed. Eric Selinger and Jonathan Barron, along with Jerome Rothenberg's groundbreaking A Big Jewish Book (and its shorter version, Exiled in the World).
5. & yet, increasingly, official American Jewish discourse has been dominated by concerns for Jewish demographic sustainability viewed through the frame of Jewish family life and defined by affiliation to organized religious institutions, when it is not strafed by concern over the catastrophe of Israel. This duel focus-the Scylla of ethnic preservation (as if Jewish life was already a museum show, a kind of Lower East Side Sturbridge Village) and the Charybdis of Palestine-is explicitly (and legitimately) paranoid in orientation; but the effect is counterproductive insofar as it disenfranchises sectors of current and future, and indeed historical, Jewish life, just that part of Jewish culture that can be called secular-and which had its greatest flourishing in the United States in the left Yiddishkeit culture of the 1920s and 1930s, that world of nonreligious-indeed often antireligious-Jewish artists, intellectuals, socialists, comedians, musicians and songwriters, and assorted free thinkers that thrives in New York even to this day.
7. While Jewish secular culture has sometimes-well maybe often, well sometimes or often, I really can't be sure-wanted to erase-or shall we say put under erasure?-its explicit Jewishness, especially insofar as such identity-politic might remove or ghettoize us from the larger culture of which we are an integral part-nonetheless there is no particular reason, in other words, no necessity, to take such bracketing of Jewishness as anything other than Jewish. Read the text of this aversion. Interpret it. Talk back to it. Within historical Jewish time there are certain icons of radical secular Jewish thought, icons that don't define a poetic practice for Americans but suggest a constellation of possibility. This is a constellation most explicitly noted by Isaac Deutscher in his Non-Jewish Jew and that includes Spinoza, the three Marxes (Chico, Karl, and Groucho), & the three Steins-Ein, Wittgen, & Gertrude; our own Yiddishe Trinity: Freud, Kafka, and Celan; Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and the Gershwins's "It Ain't Necessarily So"; Emmanuel Levinas's faces, Emma Goldman's dancing at the revolution, & Fanny Brice's Baby Snooks; Alfred Steiglitz & Chaim Gross; Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish," Edmond Jabes's imaginary rabbis, and Jacques Derrida's midrashic commentary, Hannah Weiner's dialogic voices and Larry Eigner's linguistic fields, Ad Reinhardt's shades of black & Lenny Bruce's "Religion, Inc.," the space between Morton Feldman's notes and Arnold Schoenberg's scales; and, lest we forget, Mickey Katz's foundational "Borcht Riders in the Sky."
In this respect, I want to acknowledge the important work of John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series & beyond that the work of Sander Gilman and Daniel and Jonathan Boyeran and Maria Damon.
6. The weekend before the panel, several of us participated in a centennial celebration at Columbia and Barnard for Louis Zukofsky, who along with Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Muriel Rukeyser, and Laura Riding constitute an important constellation of Jewish second-wave modernist poets. The interest in this work should not be understated: the capacious philosophy hall lounge was filled to capacity. But of course the interest was not primarily because of Zukofsky's Jewishness.
The first conference to celebrate the Objectivist poets, and, in effect, Jewish-American modernist poetry, was not in America at all but in France, in 1989 at Royaumont. I remember after a talk I gave on Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi sternly reprimanded me for the Jewish motifs in my piece: "We were secular," he said, and Jewishness was not a legitimate lens through which to read the work. While Rakosi's remarks seemed particularly ill-suited to Reznikoff, for whom Jewishness is an explicit and central concern, it is, nonetheless, an important statement of poetic license that I do not wish-entirely-to ignore. (An even more striking rejection of Jewish identification is to be found in Laura [Riding] Jackson.) But you can't separate Jewishness, and in particular the Jewish cultural context from which, for example, Zukofksky emerges as a poet, from his work, even if this aspect of his poetry was rarely mentioned at the conference (Rothenberg's concluding address being a significant exception). Consider only that Zukofsky's first major work, "A Poem Beginning 'The'" is not only a Jewish response to Eliot's "The Waste Land" but also an extraordinary poem about the tensions of assimilation for the young poet with Yiddish in his ears into an Anglophilic literary culture. In this respect, I want to commend Stephen Fredman's recent book on Reznikoff, A Menorah for Athena, the title itself playing out the tensions that would underlie some of the most important formal innovations in second-wave modernist American poetry; for example, the way Reznikoff, Oppen, and Zukofsky insist on resistant particulars against airy generalization.
8. Several years ago I wrote the libretto for Shadowtime, an opera about Walter Benjamin. A collaboration with composer Brian Ferneyhough, Shadowtime was commissioned by the Munich Biennale. The opera opens with the death of Benjamin; not the suicide, by the way, because whatever else, to think Benjamin committed suicide is too easy an out for all of us. Perhaps "suicided." After this scene, the opera envisions a journey for "our" imagined Benjamin, as told, largely, through a chorus of angels, a chorus of the angels of history. The whole secular Jewish culture in Europe was completely wiped out between 1937 and 1945, along with the rest of European Jewish culture. What would have become of all these intellectuals and artists? We have to imagine our character "Benjamin" living in New York. It is interesting that two people living in America created an opera in English, commissioned and premiered in Munich, on this character. Our "Benjamin" is born in the space of contemporary American thought. The historical person leaves the face of the earth, but not our imagination. How do we "hear" him? How do we hear the flapping of the wings of history? That's also a translation: how is "Beniamin" translated into "Benjamin"?
In other words, at a certain point it became apparent to me, and not just me of course, that the secular Jewish culture that was wiped out in the Second War-I realize this was not the only Jewish culture destroyed-stranded the correlative developments in America. Imagine Klezmer music played by Jews in Poland, not as museum pieces but as a living culture? Imagine European poetry and philosophy by the descendants of Benjamin and Heine. But, to a large extent, this is not to be, or anyway, insofar as it to be, it too must be the task of secular Jewish culture on this side of the Atlantic and of our radical poetry and ambiguating poetics. I think it is difficult to acknowledge this unwanted and perhaps even insufferable task, certainly it has been difficult for me. But perhaps this is what we have been chosen for.
11. Not long ago I had an extended discussion with the secular Jewish zen poet and priest Norman Fischer. Our questions wove in and out of the mid rashic practice of textual dialog and interpretation: the insistence that the fixed text was nonetheless open to multiple, possibly infinite (but then again, maybe not) interpretations; the revelation that any text, like any word, poem, event, person, or people, requires complex interpretation in terms of its multiple levels. Call it the PRDS of interpretation - the truthfulness of the refusal of the literal in the pursuit of meaning: Peshat-literal meaning; Ramez (remez)-suggested meaning; Drash(derush)-allegorical meaning; Sod-hidden or mystical or esoteric meaning. You can call it Paradise but maybe it's just People Really Digging the Secular. We wondered whether such a practice of deliberately delicious ambiguation and intoxicating complexifaction could lead to a greater ethical and aesthetic responsiveness in and resonance with the social world, such as we associate with secular Jewish politics and art. Some dare call it reason. Norman and I ended with more questions than we started with; this is how we knew that the conversation had value for us. But how Jewish was it? As Bartleby might put it, I'd prefer not to say.
Originally presented as part of a program I organized for the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History in New York on September 21, 2004. Paul Auster, Kathryn Hellerstein, Stephen Paul Miller, Marjorie Perloff, and Jerome Rothenberg joined me on the panel. The quote from Amos Oz in section 10 is from "Imagining the Other: 1" in The Writer in the Jewish Community: An Israeli-North American Dialogue, ed. Richard Siegel and Tamar Sofer (London: Associated University Presses, 1993), 122. I quote the same passage in the autobiographical interview in My Way: Speeches and Poems.
There is no need for me to Mintz my words, and thus whatever Perl-of wisdom I can come up with, I will say it.
* * *
I have learned, for example, that Halakah is a secret anagram, an amalgam of Hanukah and my own name, Hank Lazer, and thus the particular Halakah citations I will make, in answering that vexing question, who is a Jew?, will have the requisite Halakic authority.
* * *
Who is a famous Jewish American poet? I have it on the best authority. I googled. The very first source listed indicates, "This is a list of famous Jewish American poets." And the website itself is answers.com, so how much better can it be?
Charles Bernstein (I'm not making this up-he really is listed first), Joseph Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Allen Grossman, Marilyn Hacker, Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Richard Howard, Chester Kallman, Bob Kaufman, A. M. Klein, Kenneth Koch, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Emma Lazarus, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Howard Nemerov, Alicia Ostriker, Robert Pinsky, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff, Adrienne Rich, Jerome Rothenberg, Muriel Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Gerald Stern, Mark Strand, Boris Zubry, Louis Zukofsky, Zvi Yair.
* * *
As for who is a Jewish poet, there is one fundamental test: humor. If not ever funny, then not Jewish. Pound is probably not Jewish. Zukofsky maybe. Oppen may have a problem.
* * *
For me, it all comes down to one story. If your son-let's give him a happy name: Felix-doesn't want to have a Bar Mitzvah, makes that his decision, and you don't push him, but very near to his thirteenth birthday he decides he does want to have a Bar Mitzvah, and you contact a good friend, say, a poet you have known for a long time, perhaps a poet who is a Buddhist priest, and also a Jew, to do the ceremony, and, thank god this is in New York City, you inquire around, and, in fact, it is possible to rent a Torah, and you do so for the sake of your son's Bar Mitzvah and to assist the Jewish-Buddhist-poet-friend, then you are a Jew.
Excerpted from Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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