What Makes a Jewish Poet?

Two New Collections Offer Variety of Intriguing Answers

Bloom of Poetry: Harold Bloom once asserted that there could be no major Jewish poet in English, because no Jewish poet could get close enough to his or her Protestant forebears.
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Bloom of Poetry: Harold Bloom once asserted that there could be no major Jewish poet in English, because no Jewish poet could get close enough to his or her Protestant forebears.

By Stephen Burt

Published March 17, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
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● The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry
Edited by Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman
Bloomsbury Academic, 272 pages, $120

● THE EIGHTH DAY
By Geoffrey Hartman
Texas Tech University Press, 128 pages, $21.95

‘What does it mean to be a Jewish American poet? Posed as baldly as that”— so wrote the poet and critic Norman Finkelstein in 2001 — “the question is impossible to answer.”

We can, however, ask what answers individual poets and poems imply. What would make a modern American poem (not the author but the poem; not the poem’s topic, but the poem itself) Jewish? We can list qualities, some mutually exclusive: terms, words and phrases from Yiddishkeit, or from a broader range of immigrant experience; allusions and quotations from the liturgy and from the Tanakh; traditions of Catskill, or Hollywood, or gallows’ humor; aniconic qualities, a refusal to visualize whatever is sacred; apparently endless argument, illimitable interpretive dispute; questions that lead to questions, without fixed answers; urbanity; dispossession; this-worldly commitment to social justice; self-conscious reaction against any, or all, of the expectations above; allusion to earlier Jewish American poets, such as Charles Reznikoff or Adrienne Rich; dialogue with the literature, the land and the actions of Israelis and Palestinians.

We can find most of these qualities, if we look for them, in the recently released “Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry,” but we might have to look hard. Hardly the first book of Jewish American poetry, it seems to be the first to gather only contemporary American poets (born after 1945), 112 of them (myself among them), most with one or two poems apiece. They make an enthusiastic, sometimes disorganized crowd. Through the pages tromp baby boom versions of ethnic history, marked by foodways and by popular culture: “raspberry-swirled, rugelach… now an eaten memory”; “Oh, to have been Koufax!” But there are less predictable entrants, too. In the title poem from his first collection “Dancing in Odessa,” Ilya Kaminsky ) remembers and scrambles his youth, and his ancestors’ youth as well:

My classmate invented twenty names for Jew.
He was an angel, he had no name,
we wrestled, yes. My grandfathers fought
the German tanks on tractors, I kept a suitcase full
of Brodsky’s poems. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.

Crowded with polyglot echoes, Erika Meitner’s “Yiddishland” is the best of the poems that treat Ashkenazi ethnic heritage: “The people who sang to their children in Yiddish and worked in Yiddish/ and made love in Yiddish are nearly all gone. Phantasmic. Heym… When my sister finally pulls back the sheet. all the things/ my grandmother was barely fit on the face of the marker.” Meitner does rare justice to the idea that being Jewish, or being a Jewish writer, can never mean only one thing.


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