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.

(page 2 of 3)

Finkelstein (not to be confused with the political scientist of the same name) has argued that Jewish poetry negotiates between a history that can be retold in secular terms and a ritualized, or repeated, sacred memory. We can hear both sides of that debate in Arielle Greenberg’s harshly vivid “Synopsis,” whose character seems to be reborn throughout history:

I hid under a trapdoor in Spain, crying half-language.
Coveting, coveting, yes, no, like a jezebel on a rooftop terrace.
I eat nothing containing cartilage.
The oven is full of rock salt.

Greenberg concludes by remembering Jonah, that fugitive from the divine and from history: “I hid from God and was found.” Jewish history occurs more often, to these poets, than Jewish ritual, but the latter occasions fine lines: For Nomi Stone, the pause of Shabbat reveals “those stars/ behind the stars you recognize.”

“What is a Jew in solitude?” asked Rich in her poem “Yom Kippur, 1984.” No Jewish writer, her poem reminds us, can write as if she were the first one. It is one of the few claims about Jewishness on which Rich and Harold Bloom clearly agree: In his notorious 1972 polemic “The Sorrows of Jewish American Poetry,” Bloom asserted that there could be no major Jewish poet in English, because no Jewish poet (and presumably no Muslim or Buddhist) could get close enough to his or her Protestant forebears to become a great poet by breaking away.

No serious critic would make that claim today, but many critics might agree with another of Bloom’s declarations: “Nothing is more self-deceptive,” he wrote, “for any Jewish writer than the notion that he (sic) can define the Jew.” We have been talking and writing for too long, arguing over too many conflicting definitions for mi yehudi, “who is a Jew?” for anyone now to have the first, or the last, word. Instead, to write in a particular Jewish tradition means to notice the writers and the teachers, the professors, the mothers and fathers — if not indeed the prophets, and the musicians, and the comedians, and so on — who have already been there.

By now many poets have been there: Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, Rich, George Oppen, Allen Grossman — all may be taken as models by one or another young poet, though nobody could imitate them all at once. No earlier poet stands closer to editors Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman’s crowd than that poet at once of American civics and of Jewish family life, Robert Pinsky (himself born in 1940, just a few years too old for the anthology). Pinsky’s litanies give Meitner one model, and his half-comic tone and his collages lend Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet another. Stonestreet’s “De Profundis” begins with the Psalms, then shifts course: “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord/ —more like out of the middle, the soft/ chewy center.”



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