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Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

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Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

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Feb 18, 2011


"What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!"
--Franz Kafka

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.
Feb 18, 2011

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Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture - Hank Lazer


Meet the Preface

Stephen Paul Miller

there's ecstasy in God being one

             With God-in-one

         distances between creation and judgment collapse,

  and since there's nothing stopping us—

ongoing intensity, neurotic ongoing intensity

   marks not only the best Jewish poetry but simply

             hot poetry.


             If God's one, time's blue toothed to

        the portable eternity in

his or her belly—

perhaps the portability

of monotheism's and


literally lighter idol load suits

nomadic shepherds, and

nonnegotiable, scorched earth,

theocratic identification with

and domination of a place is

the iconic, and thus sacrilegious, elephant in the room.


      If God's one, I'm an other,³ a junk-to-junk jumping

and boat-borrowing James Bond,

      segueing between wildly reserved

      Jewish feedback mechanisms, and

                                 powerfully unattached Judaisms.

You beat it, Red Sea parts,

   escape again, and Charles

      Bernstein's eyes light up. The Center

         for Jewish History asks I propose

           poetry events. Everyone I tell

              suggests they and their friends

  read, period. They fear fundamentalism

           getting too close to

             the text.

           But Charles meets my preface at the boat.

       Knowing no religion but wildly liberating textual scrutiny,

     Charles suggests talking

   "secular Jewish culture/

  radical poetic practice."

Read this note first.


1. Many of the essays in this collection acknowledge that however one characterizes Jewish poetry, you need not be Jewish to write it. Hank Lazer, for instance, describes Jewish qualities in Fanny Howe's work; Benjamin Friedlander construes Saint Paul as an innovator within secular Judaism; Norman Fischer illustrates how a continuum between silence and articulation blends Jewish and Buddhist perspectives; Marjorie Perloff sees beyond simplistic historicizing to recognize Paul Celan and Wallace Stevens as poetic contemporaries; and my poem-essay points out Spalding Gray's self-portrayal as Jewish.

2. Anita Feldman, in a 2008 conversation, said, Some Israeli settlers have turned their idea of ‘the land’ into an icon, a sacred image, like the golden calf that the erring Hebrews set up as an object of worship. They've identified ‘the land’ as a sacred object replacing the moral law and the Jewish commitment to justice. Remember the person in the audience [at the Center for Jewish History ‘secular Jewish culture / radical poetic practice’ panel] who faulted Jewish writers for not ‘making aliyah’ to Israel? I think of her as someone who has replaced the Jewish devotion to justice with reverence for ‘the land’ as sacred. Feldman's critique of the sacredness of Israel does not, I believe, negate but rather enhance the cultural value of Israel.

3. To speak means to be forever on the road. Osip Mandelstam, Talking about Dante (1933), trans. Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes, Delos 6 (1971): 75.

4. The quality of poetry is determined by the rapidity and decisiveness with which it instills its command, its plan of action, into the instrumentless, dictionary, purely qualitative nature of word formation. One has to run across the whole width of the river, jammed with mobile Chinese junks sailing in various directions. This is how the meaning of poetic speech is created. Its route cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not tell how and why we were leaping from junk to junk. Osip Mandelstam, Talking about Dante (1933), trans. Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes, Delos 6 (1971): 66.

5. Like the Homeric depiction of Odysseus, the cinematic James Bond is a wandering man who is never at a loss, and, since James Joyce in perhaps the proto-postmodern English language text re-characterizes Odysseus as Jewish, through a twisted metaphoric logic, Bond can also be reimagined as Jewish.

6. See Edward Mendelson, New York Everyman (book review essay of Richard M. Cook's Alfred Kazin: A Biography), New York Review of Books, June 12, 2008. Mendelson juxtaposes the Jew as an outsider, with no special loyalties to any collective with the Jew as a member of a separate and unique group of people. He associates Alfred Kazin's literary strength with the former and temptation with the latter. Kazin believes some tempters trivialize the Holocaust for unrelated political purposes. Other tempters had been Kazin's childhood Brooklyn friends and CCNY classmates who became Reagan followers and neoconservatives. Indeed, Kazin quips that he saves his soul by writing scathingly about them, likening them to useful idiots.

Alfred Kazin believed the ambiguity of being Jewish, in Mendelson's words, central to all aspects of modern culture. Kazin likens Jewish sensibility to American literary character itself by paradoxically planting our alienation on native ground. Mendelson points out: Kazin quotes Thorstein Veblen on the ability of a Jew to become an intellectual leader by escaping from his native culture and refusing to be assimilated into a Gentile one. As an outsider to both cultures, the unassimilated Jew is necessarily a skeptic, and ‘the first requisite for constructive work in modern science, Veblen continued, is skepticism.’ Kazin . . . thought it wholly appropriate for a lapsed Norwegian Lutheran to portray himself by describing a Jew.

7. Strictly literal interpretation seems to have been anything but a given for early Jews and Christians. For instance, discrepancies within and between favorite gospels did not seem to bother early Christians. Similarly, Chief Justice John Marshall, in his 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland decision, apparently was stating the obvious when he said the Constitution was intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. Even Thomas Jefferson, who advocated limited government, did not equate checks on government with a future generation's reluctance to reinterpret the Constitution. Jefferson compared Americans accepting laws and constitutions uncritically as dead and limited terminal language to full-grown adults wearing their childhood clothes. Both religious and judicial fundamentalism (a term used by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and others) occur after original intent recedes so far in the past and can seem so obscure that the positing of original intent's sacredness can easily facilitate interpretive manipulation illegitimatizing rather than incorporating valid interpretations. Indeed, Schlesinger marvels at how U.S. Supreme Court justices combine judicial fundamentalism with post-eighteenth-century philosophy: "For them all [the 1935 Supreme Court's ‘conservative four’], life was an evolutionary contest in which the intervention of government, by permitting the unfit to survive, could only mean catastrophe. This view had seized the Supreme Court so deeply that its devotees might well have supposed that Herbert Spencer had been in Philadelphia in 1787. It was against this view that Holmes had vainly protested thirty years before when he wrote, in a celebrated dissent: ‘The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics.’" Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Politics of Upheaval (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 460.

8. Paul Mariani, in an April 6, 2009, talk at St. John's University, drew attention to the need for ways to describe religious sensibilities in poetry, particularly as concerns clearly present Catholic sensibilities. I commented that religious and cultural connections are particularly apparent when considering Judaism because for thousands of years there was so little differentiation between Jewish religion and culture. Indeed, Judaism was arguably an innovative way of achieving and disseminating culture. Even today one born into a Jewish family is often presumed, by both oneself and others, as irrevocably Jewish because what one as an adult believes or endorses about religion appears insignificant on some other personal level when compared to one's initial Jewish acculturation. One therefore often notes seemingly distinctive tonal and dialogical progressions within the products of what might be called a Jewish writing process. A practitioner of this kind of writing certainly need not be raised Jewish for one's writing to appear Jewish, and many Jews do not write in anything that might be called a discursively inflected Jewish manner. Nonetheless, assimilating various forms of Jewish culture seems to be one way of kindling this kind of Jewish writing.

Before the Napoleonic Codes and often afterward, interrelations between Jewish culture and Jewish religion were further enhanced by an often-tenuous identification between Jews and the lands they inhabited. Increased Catholic participation within nation-states may tend to deflect and diminish a similar Catholic equivalence between religion and culture. Nonetheless, I told Paul Mariani that my sense is that there is also a distinct Catholic cultural identification. Saint Paul modifies Judaism culturally, and eventually the power of the shared communion seems to contribute to the communing upon an individuated subject with a correspondingly individuated focus as an artistic and a poetic component that is detectable as characteristically Catholic (or Anglican) in works as diverse as T. S. Eliot's poetry and Alan Ball's screenplays.

This mode of focus, Mariani reminds us, is very much in keeping with Gerard Manley Hopkins's notion of inscape in which all things are unique and rippling from a divinity. The sense of perceptual transformation implicit in a concept such as inscape perhaps speaks to a distinction between a Catholic cultural tendency and ones associated with Buddhism and some other Asian belief-systems. Whereas Noh plays and Buddhist ceremonies call for objects of presentation to be presented starkly, these focal points might not tend to be reimagined into anything like Hopkins inscape.


Daniel Morris

In 2003, the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History in New York asked Stephen Paul Miller to host a poetry event. Miller sought a dynamic topic in itself generating discussion, yet those he talked with simply suggested that he or she and their friends be asked to read and participate. However, when Miller posed the problem to Charles Bernstein the drive and specificity of Bernstein's plan surprised him.

Bernstein seemed to have seen a need and was responding to it. Conservative and fundamentalist coalitions were dominating the religious institutional and political terrain, and Bernstein proposed an alternative that would facilitate the public life of imaginative and interpretive, as opposed to fundamentalist, forms of religious life and support. Bernstein also stressed the secular, which significantly underscores practical realities of religious life and culture and its relations with culture at large.

Miller happily deferred to Bernstein, and the result was Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice on September 21, 2004, at the Center for Jewish History. The event featured talks by Bernstein, Miller, Marjorie Perloff, Jerome Rothenberg, Kathryn Hellerstein, and Paul Auster. Many of these responses to Bernstein's guiding questions are reproduced in this volume, in addition to other answers written for this collection.

For Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice, Bernstein asked: What are the innovations and inventions of American Jewish poets over the past century? Can we say that there is a 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’?

When we decided to edit a book based on the ideas the symposium generated, we added these foci: traces of religious Jewish texts and practices in secular Jewish radical poetic practice, including relations of poetry to prayer and other uses of sacred materials in secular poetics; assumptions that there is a Jewish essence, identity, or quality that a poet may express prior to the act of writing; asking how Jewish poetry can be written by non-Jews; expanding how Jewishness might look and sound and act in a poetic context; relating intense textual scrutiny with secular rather than, for instance, fundamentalist religious considerations; Yiddishkeit poetry and culture and Yiddish modernism; contemporary Jewish American culture and poetics on a continuum with pre-Holocaust European Jewish culture and poetics; eclectic strategies for doing Jewish (as opposed to simply being Jewish); Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions in experimental American poetry; work that accounts for the large body of experimental poetry concerning secular Jewish culture; secular approaches to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists and their relations to radical Jewish culture: the secular as a paradoxically religious and in some ways characteristic Jewish concern that is germane to radical poetic process; Jewishness as an alternative to religious and cultural forms of classification, an alternative positing identity crises as positive; Hebraic and Jewish poetic form in modernist and contemporary experimental poetry; Jewish aspects in non-overtly Jewish work.

This volume contrasts with Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry (1997), in which the editor Steven J. Rubin presented the first anthology devoted to Jewish American poetry. In his introduction, Rubin writes that his purpose throughout this collection is to present the best and the most representative work of those writers who can properly be classified as American Jewish poets (11). He goes on to state that he has not included those poets who, although nominally Jewish, do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience. How did he define best or representative? What does he mean when he says that certain nominally Jewish poets do not deal significantly with the American Jewish experience? Does Rubin consider certain kinds of American Jewish experience insignificant? Would Rubin consider a text such as The Artifice of Absorption, an eighty-plus-page essay in the form of lineated verse by Charles Bernstein, an insignificant expression of American Jewish experience? Although his poem does not focus overtly on Jewish themes (such as the Holocaust, immigrant experience, Diaspora, anti-Semitism, the family, the place of Yiddish in American poetry, or the Bible), Bernstein seems to express his Jewishness in many ways, especially through the poem's half-serious / halfcomic scholarly tone, the concern with issues of absorption and exclusion, the way he tests the borders between genres, and argues for the instability of the relationship between content and style. Rubin as editor does not venture a guess about how such a poem could be understood as the work of a Jewish author. He does not include Bernstein, or Bob Perelman, two prominent Jewish experimental poets, in his anthology. Rubin's project is commendable, but his anthology fails to offer a sustained critical apparatus or theoretical perspective through which readers could evaluate how his selections were made. We mention the critical lacunae and theoretical shortfalls of Rubin's anthology because it is precisely in such gaps and silences that our collection would like to lay stress.

A discussion of the problems associated with Jewish poetry begins our collection with a transcript of Charles Bernstein's comments on September 21, 2004, at the Center for Jewish History. Describing betweenness as the (not) space of the radical Jew, Bernstein constitutes his Jewish identity by way of his distance from a secure sense of what it means to be Jewish. I am no more Jewish than when I refuse imposed definitions of what Jewishness means, he writes. Ambiguity (such as the distinction between ethnic and religious meanings of Judaism), hybridity (such as Bernstein's fascination with the Glatt kosher Peruvian restaurants he frequents on the Upper West Side), and an absence of explicit Jewish themes, paradoxically, constitute for Bernstein the site of radical secular Jewish texts and identities. Following in the tradition of queer theorists such as Judith Butler, who emphasize the performative, rather than the essential, aspects of identity, Bernstein understands Jewishness as something made, not given, as a practice of dialogue and as openness to the unfolding performance of the everyday. Call it the civic practice of Jewishness (5). Bernstein's invocation opens Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice, and in the spirit of a tradition of Jewish commentary, subsequent works will address one another.

The emphasis on a lost or erased origin that maintains its spectral power over the secular Jewish culture of America, as well as the acceptance of an unstable, linguistically oriented sense of self that exists in between clearly delineated spaces is as evident in the poetics of Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime, which imagines the tragic life of the German Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin, as it was already in the Yiddish modernist poetry of Mikhl Likht, whom Merle Bachman refers to as an Exotic on East Broadway. Born in a Ukrainian village in 1893, Likht became immersed in the vibrant Café culture of New York Yiddish modernism in the 1920s, where immigrant writers and intellectuals gathered to debate the latest developments of both American modernist culture (Likht was a translator of Stevens, Pound, and Stein) as well as of international modernism. Likht describes himself as a modernist's modernist, an author so committed to an introspectivist poetics and kaleisescopic stylistics—he was the poet who took chaos seriously, writes Bachman—that even fellow Yiddish modernist found him to be utterly incomprehensible. Occupying a threshold position, Likht may well have been a writer who committed himself to having no legitimate readership. Doubly inaccessible, Likht positioned himself as a Yiddish writer who eschewed proletarian themes, and as an American modernist who wrote in a language—Yiddish—that none of his peers (Stevens, Mina Loy, Carl Sandberg) could have understood. No poet discussed in our collection could be said to have occupied the precarious space between interpretative communities other than Mikhl Likht, whose strangeness is recovered in Bachman's translations. Following Bachman on Likht, our volume stays with the modernist period in order to discuss several strains of radical poetics in the work of Charles Reznikoff, Louis Zukofsky, and Gertrude Stein.

Ranen Omer-Sherman reads Charles Reznikoff as a poet who translates diasporism from a deficit state into a literary opportunity in which the possibility of redemption coexists with the face of loss. Omer-Sherman speaks of the joys of cosmopolitanism and the ingenuity of adaptability and renewed life—in the context of the humiliating connotations of exile. Far from being a Pollyanna when describing the plight of disenfranchised Jews, African Americans, and the working poor during the modernist period, Omer-Sherman notes Reznikoff's political radicalism in his powerful commitment to neglected histories . . . particularly in his caustic responses to the forces of industrialization, poverty, and violence (1). Imagining identity as an unstable interplay between self and other, Omer-Sherman reads Reznikoff as an exemplar of the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's Abrahamic emphasis on the duty of the self to the other. Describing Reznikoff's poetics as one of acute responsibility (5), Omer-Sherman argues that the poet performs his poetics of care without the presumption of a loving deity or even one remotely interested in the human world (5).

According to Joshua Schuster, Louis Zukofsky, like his contemporary Reznikoff, attempted to transform his alienation from traditional Judaism and the situation of diasporism into the grounds for a radical humanistic ethics and a poetics that celebrates the sublimity of the particular things found in everyday life. Demonstrating the influence of the non-Jewish Jew Baruch Spinoza's naturalist pantheism on Zukofsky's major long poem A, Schuster argues that Zukofsky thus uses Judaism to get out of Judaism as he tries to invent the very notion of secularism out of Judaism (6). Arguing that the age of Jewish exile is closing (7), Schuster views Zukofsky's Spinoza-oriented search for a positive relatedness and elective affinities between persons and things as a harbinger to the revision of Diaspora as a state of affirmation, not deficit.

Amy Feinstein considers the startling proliferation of explicit references to Jewish motifs in Gertrude Stein's compositions of the 1910s and 1920s, which at first glance seem to be ahistorical and nonreferential writings. In a radical process of creating abstraction through decontextualization, Stein makes the word Jew both strange and familiar as part of a varied and often-ambiguous Jewish lexicon that includes terms of endearment to Alice Toklas (Stein's little Hebrew) and references to the Old Testament, Disraeli, Zionism, and Palestine. Such references radically change the story of the Jew in modernism, uniting the historical with the quotidian, the cultural and the racial, and the personal with the political. A reading of these Jewish motifs also allows us to revise the sexual, racial, and political history of modernist literature.

Charles Reznikoff's diasporic poetics is carried forward in the work of several important contemporary Jewish American poets, such as Alicia Ostriker, Norman Finkelstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Michael Heller, who offer personal reflections and theoretical speculations on their work and its (at times contested) relationship to the core themes of this book. In Remains of the Diaspora, poet and memoirist Michael Heller, following Haim Bialik, argues that for the diasporic Jew language replaces essence and that the space of the between becomes an ironic foundation for poetic utterance. For Heller, as for other contemporary radical Jewish poets such as Norman Finkelstein in Tracks, the late Armand Schwerner in Tablets, and in The Nakedness of the Fathers by Alicia Ostriker, the Bible and other religious texts remain important sources of inspiration, even as these texts no longer possess canonical authority or signify the poet's allegiance to Judaism as a religious practice. Law turns into lore, according to Heller, and the radical Jewish poet operates in a void, suspended between the religious and secular worlds (3). For Heller, as was the case for Reznikoff and Zukofsky, the emphasis is on what Gershom Scholem called the holiness of the secular (12). For Ostriker, the gaps, silences, and omissions in the biblical proof text paradoxically represent a literary opportunity to, metaphorically, give birth to the feminine and maternal aspects of Judaism, which, she argues, have been repressed in the patriarchal tradition, but like the grandmother swallowed by the wolf in the fairy tale, await a return. Like Reznikoff, Ostriker also emphasizes a poetics of immanent spirituality, which she links to the Shekinah, or the feminine principal of a non-transcendent God. Ostriker's project is to encounter the physical selves of women, especially through attempts to reimagine the voice of the Jewish mother as something much more complex than the stereotypical smothering figure of Roth's Mrs. Portnoy. In yet another way Ostriker's contemporary feminist midrashic project dovetails with Reznikoff, whom she cites in her text, she imagines radicalism, and her version of cultural Jewishness, in a political context, as a call to social change . . . designed to benefit the powerless. As was the case with Reznikoff, the contemporary Jewish poets in this collection upend exclusionary ways of thinking about sacred and secular spaces, preferring to struggle to determine what Ostriker calls the sacredness immanent within matter.

The idea of recovering a repressed or ignored aspect of the tradition of Jewish poetics also informs Rachel Blau DuPlessis's remarks on an Objectivist forebear, Carl Rakosi (1903–2004). Where DuPlessis shows that Rakosi viewed his Jewishness as a mere coincidental aspect of the loosely connected group of poets known as Objectivist (Reznikoff, Oppen, and Zukofsky), DuPlessis, who is careful to historicize and thus de-essentialize Jewishness, nonetheless attempts to out Rakosi's Jewishness, especially to account for the specific characteristics of the post-Haskalah Jew that Yosef Yerushalmi called the gottloser Jude or godless or secular Jew. In a powerful revision of modernist culture, DuPlessis speculates that what Raymond Williams called a structure of feeling tended toward a Christian emphasis on epiphany that by itself excluded a Jewish way of deferring closure through this Jewish sense of textuality involved with endless writing, multiple commentary and vectors that suspends New Critical ideas of climax or the unveiling of Presence in a text. Oppen, for DuPlessis, becomes a metonym for a repressed Jewish relationship to textuality in the context of Eliotic modernism.

DuPlessis's sense of a Jewish poetics of endless writing certainly resonates with Norman Finkelstein's observations about identity and poetics in his reflection on Tracks. Self-consciously working within a (paradoxical) tradition of experimental American long poems that includes work by Oppen, Creeley, Duncan, and Spicer, as well as the midrashic tradition, Finkelstein describes Tracks as a self-interrupting whole, in which the shape of a life lived is constituted through the open work of self-discovery, the renewal of meaning and answerability, the overcoming of undeadness (9). If DuPlessis was interested in reimagining modernist poetics by recovering a repressed Jewish element of Objectivism, then we could say that Finkelstein is interested in considering the congruence between Jewish textuality and ‘radical’ poetic composition in a postmodern and Derridean context.

In her essay on Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen, Meg Schoerke underlines many of the aspects of a secular Jewish poetics that have remained so influential to contemporary authors such as Heller who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. For Schoerke, Rukeyser and Oppen are above all else figures of hybridity, of betweenness, that defy easy categorization. Both sought contact with others through language, and yet each wondered if the individual could escape isolation. Oppen, for example, wrote that somewhere half-way between the fact of being singular and the fact of being numerous is the fact of being Jewish (5). Language, for them, remained a gateway and an obstacle to communication between people. Poetry mediates between the perceptions of the isolate self and appears for community, between difficulty and clarity, silence and speech, and between linguistic experimentation and direct assertion (5). Oppen and Rukeyser, who both rejected privileged yet emotionally traumatic upbringings, and the bourgeois version of Jewishness upheld by their families, rallied against capitalist exploitation, spoke out about the wrenching traumas of world wars, and about the barriers of social conditioning and self-interest, but both for long stretches refused to write poetry (Oppen joined the Communist Party in 1935 and did not write again until 1958) because they did not feel that avant-garde poetry and the radical individualism associated with it were commensurate with a communal politics. For them both, Jewishness remained a form of liberalism, an openness to all that is human, what Rukeyser called a guarantee, against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit (11).

The emphasis on a lost or erased origin that maintains its spectral power over the secular Jewish culture of America, as well as the acceptance of an unstable, linguistically oriented sense of self that exists in between clearly delineated spaces is evident in the poetics of Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein. Discussing his libretto for Shadowtime, the opera about the German Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin, Bernstein imagines his work—and the project of the radical Jewish intellectual in general—as a projection of European Jewish culture circa 1937–1945 into the context of contemporary New York culture. In his essay on the poetics of Marjorie Perloff, Daniel Morris argues that Perloff's childhood experience as an Austrian Jew who was forced to flee Vienna in 1938 affects her theories of poetry and identity as an American academic in the postmodern period. Trained from youth in the German classics, and then at graduate school in High Modernism during the heyday of the New Criticism in America in the 1950s, the memoir Vienna Paradox shows how Perloff in the early 1960s begins to rework her relationship to the meaning of a hyphenated identity as a highly cultured, immigrant American Jew during her early teaching career. In the memoir, she does not dwell on her Jewish background as an influence to her rise to becoming a successful American academic whose topics of study from the modernist Yeats to the postmodernist O'Hara have not tended to be Jewish, but she also does not deny the indelible fact of her Jewishness. Countering her Viennese forebears’ dissociation from their Jewishness as a significant identity marker, and at least qualifying the contemporary trend in academic cultural theory to perceive all identity markers as antiessentialist, and thus to view the self as a performance in which Americans, à la Gatsby, or, more to the point, Barbra Streisand as the cross-dressing Yeshiva girl in the film version of I. B. Singer's story Yentyl, have the freedom to compose and recompose their character as often as they should like, Perloff responds: Jewish identity can never be merely expunged, for the simple reason that, as the refugees from Hitler were forced to learn the hard way, one is always a Jew in the eyes of the Other (234). She continues: Given this state of affairs, one cannot stop being a Jew, whatever one's response to the Jewish religion and however strong one's rival affiliations, whether professional, intellectual, national, or familial. It is a reality the upper class Viennese Jewish refugees were reluctant to face: many remained staunchly in denial even after they came to America (236). We may thus read Perloff's endeavors as critic and scholar as a conversation about identity formation that pivots between essentialist and constructivist modes.

According to Charlie Bertsch, Charles Bernstein's libretto for the 2004 opera Shadowtime, which uses the 1940 death of Walter Benjamin as the starting point for a rich engagement with that Jewish thinker's ideas about language, time, and spirituality, superbly demonstrates the poet's ability to balance theory and craft. Ranging widely through different techniques, the text manages to be both accessible and esoteric, channeling the populist cadence of the Beats and the avant-garde silence of OUILIPO with equal strength. As impressive as the libretto is, however, reading it in book form can be deceptive. Bernstein's words take on a much different aspect when placed within the context of composer Brian Ferneyhough's unapologetically Modernist score. Indeed, the opera casts the bulk of the libretto in shadow, making it close to impossible to pick out most of the words that comprise it from the stream of sound. And that's no accident. Ferneyhough often layers the text until it becomes a palimpsest in which it's possible to perceive the presence of language stripped of its communicative function. Even the portions of the opera that present the libretto straight manage to obscure meaning through the interplay of word and music. Interestingly, however, Bernstein has expressed complete approval of the violence done to his poetry in the service of art.

Bertsch's essay takes the status of language in Shadowtime as a starting point for a consideration of Bernstein's relation to the legacy of the Modernist avant-garde and the cutting-edge criticism, of which Benjamin's work is a prime example, that emerged alongside it. Paying close attention to Benjamin's writings on language and the work of his friend Theodor Adorno on both literature and music, Bertsch first places Shadowtime within a tradition of thinking about death and redemption in terms of the experience of totalitarianism. Next he submits a number of pieces in Bernstein's libretto to close readings that demonstrate his own take on those themes. After then describing how those pieces are presented in Ferneyhough's score, Bertsch uses material from interviews conducted with Bernstein in order to argue that Bernstein's willingness to subordinate the music of his words to the music of another provided him the ideal opportunity to probe the limits of language in the age of technological reason and, furthermore, to consider the implications of those limits for Jewish thought in the wake of the Holocaust. In the end, Bertsch concludes that the loss of control to which Bernstein consented in signing on to Ferneyhough's project actually gave him the opportunity to make points that his printed work, for all of its brilliance on the page, is unable to achieve.

In his reading of Bernstein as part of an omnibus essay on a group of contemporary Jewish American poets who each strive for democratic belonging, but express skepticism about its possibilities in the context of what he calls the hyperamnesia of a culture that is often complacent about remembering past horrors that would provoke democratic vigilance, Tom Fink emphasizes the radical morphogenerativeness of language in Bernstein as a way to emphasize the polysemous nature of identity that wants to avoid dangerous and reductive forms of Jewish identity. Working in the tradition of Gertrude Stein, as well as language-oriented comics such as Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce, Fink sees Bernstein as occupying an interstitial relationship to Jewishness that turns away from Yiddish without embracing assimilationism. Stephen Paul Miller, another contemporary poet-theorist discussed by Fink, then follows with a hybridic work, Relentlessly, that offers a relentless sort of ongoing discourse (which Miller associates with the Jewish secular poet Kenneth Koch) in the form of a type of lineated verse that captures the Yiddish-inflected swing cadences and at times the anapestic rhythm that Miller (and his ninety-year-old mother, Rita) associate with dovening, the oral and bodily prayer ritual that Miller reminds us stems from a term for the divine in Indo-European root languages. Miller de-essentializes Jewish identity by finding what Jewish sounds like in such non-Jewish and even anti-Jewish figures as Eliot and Pound, Whitman, Duke Ellington, and Spalding Gray.

Like Fink's essay on Bernstein, Miller and several other younger Jewish American poets with a radical bent, Eric Murphy Selinger's contribution is capacious in that it covers many writers who are discussed elsewhere in the volume, including Charles Bernstein by way of Stein, Norman Finkelstein, and Alicia Ostriker, but also writers we don't discuss elsewhere such as Jackie Osherow, Jay Ladin, and a detailed reading of the political poetry of Ammiel Alcalay, as well as Howard Nemerov. As disparate as is the group of poets mentioned above, Selinger's argument is to foreground Jewish difference and Jewish differences, as well as a persistent Jewish way, that he describes variously as obstinacy, rebelliousness, or the biblical idea of Jews as a stiff-necked people. He speaks of the Jewish way of resistance [that] trumps any more obedient Judaism as a marker of identity (11). Quoting from several poems that foreground debates among rabbis in classical Judaism, such as the question and answer style of Debate with the Rabbi by Nemerov and Rabbi Jose the Angel by Jay Ladin, as well as the dialogic format of Ostriker's The Volcano Sequence. Following upon the idea that God likes a lively opponent (3), Selinger argues that Debate itself as Jewish, indeed as more Jewish than either religious faith or communal affiliation (11).

Selinger transfers the Rabbinic idea of dialectical Jewishness into a Freudian (and Derridean) context of internal dialogue and debate that he argues goes on within the psyche of the individual Jew in poems by Osherow and Finkelstein. He thus foregrounds what Harold Bloom calls the ceaseless agon within the self (5). Quoting Finkelstein (the one is two), Selinger emphasizes a Jewish poetics that acknowledges the other within the self as well as the ethical dimension of Judaism which honors (as in Leviticus 19:34) the stranger among us in a social context. In his moving discussion of the political poetry of Ammiel Alcalay, who writes not only on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but also on the wars in the Balkans, Selinger notes the Levinasian ethics of responsibilities for and to the Other, indeed a willingness to see the ethnically, historically, and linguistically Other as inextricably part of the self (23).

In a stunning verbal display of jouissance that includes linkages to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, the beehive hairdos of the Ronettees, Walter Benjamin's observations about the detritus of history in The Angel of History, and the relationship between arc-hives and beehives, Maria Damon playfully addresses The Wall and other multimedia and electronic performance pieces by Adeena Karasick, a Canadian Jewish feminist Kabbalist poet. Damon interprets The Wall as a visual/verbal pastiche that resembles (or re-assembles or dis-assembles) our interpretation of the meaning of the Wailing Wall, or the Western Wall, the remaining fragment of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Damon reads Karasick's wall as a hypermediated space that also resembles the polymorphous pleasure zones of the female body. In Karasick's poem the supposedly solid-state Western Wall becomes instead a figure of bricolage, a dynamic ecosystem, and an archive of feeling. Damon focuses on both the poem's and the Western Wall's multitude of cracks and fissures stuffed or unstuffed with paper, [which] reads like a female body whose orifices have been dammed up" (8). An archival site that is continually producing and reproducing knowledge in the context of a missing original source (the destroyed first and second temples), Damon points to the alternate meaning of the Western Wall in Karasick to the standard narrative of exile and return to a point of origins. Instead, we have the language of the poem (and in the wall) as a terrain in which the fluctuating movements of history and culture are performed. Karasick's own comments about the relationship of her poetry to Kabbalah follows Damon's remarks.

If Damon's essay on Karasick is perhaps the most radical in the collection in terms of style, it is fair to say that in terms of stretching the idea of a Jewish poetics the most radical essay in the collection belongs to Benjamin Friedlander, who interprets secular Jewish culture as a radical sect within Judaism by claiming the precedent of Saint Paul. Friedlander shows that, like Michael Heller in his essay, and like the Reznikoff represented in Ranen Omer-Sherman's essay, Paul proclaimed an ethics without adherence to the law. A harbinger of a nonobservant Jewish culture that emphasizes love over law, Paul without Christ, for Friedlander, anticipates a wide grouping of contemporary Jewish American poets in promoting a tradition of reading the Torah radically and of offering a critique of tradition from within.

Along with the essays I have briefly described above, Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture also includes poetry by Bob Holman and Paul Auster, commentary by Hank Lazer and Jerome Rothenberg, as well as writings by Bob Perelman and Marjorie Perloff.

Radical Jewish Culture / Secular Jewish Practice

Charles Bernstein

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 American Jewish 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 Benia-min 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

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