- Jewish Oral Tradition and the Individual Talent
and like Jacob I think in the spirit world they can never
experience pleasure the way the flesh can the body
everything else is theology and folly—Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “seasonal”
The definition of poetry is perhaps that poetic vision is truer and, in a certain sense, more ‘ancient’ than the vision of its conditions.—Emmanuel Levinas
T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” postulates a usable literary past that present conditions alter. Jewish tradition similarly adjusts. The four poetry books discussed here shape different facets of Jewish tradition. In the first few centuries after the Second Temple’s destruction, a newly coined “oral Torah” of talmudic exegesis reprocesses ancient Israelite traditions, and Lea Graham’s Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You shifts biblical and talmudic signifying powers into contemporary poetry that makes us acutely aware of those powers and their origins. Similarly, the streamlining of Jewish law by thinkers such as Moses Maimonides pre-figures later eighteenth-century Western European Judaism’s increasing secularization, assimilation, and centering within humanistic belief, and Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011 also displays humanist ideology yet embodies divergent political and semiotic [End Page 103] talmudic daring. Also in the eighteenth century, Eastern European Judaism links its cultural markers to mystical exaltation, and both Jake Marmer’s Jazz Talmud and Hank Lazer’s N18 (Complete) reveal different modes of elated, although rationally enlightened, Judaism. Jazz Talmud, applying a pleasurable sense of ongoing talmudic exegesis to all phenomena, reveals sacred meaning in cultural practices whether or not they are Jewish. Although Lazer’s N18, like Marmer’s poetry, suggests creative interpretations of both written and oral Torah, Lazer also doggedly presses a quietly joyous commitment to scribal tradition, using a groundbreaking visual form of physical writing to “vector” talmudically nuanced thought and exaltation (80). Through these transferences, all four poets engage Judaism as a collectively artistic cultural prism transforming previous legalistic and theological meanings.
Each book vitalizes different strains of oral tradition. Graham infuses a signifying primacy into talmudic process. Ostriker reintroduces Jewish tradition to its roots within ancient Israelite social justice. Marmer extends Eastern European Jewish enthrallment beyond ethnic separation, and Lazer harnesses Jewish scribal tradition to exact a paradoxically iconoclastic Jewish visual art exhibiting prophetic qualities. The four poetry books facilitate appreciations of the intrinsic pleasures and communal values inherent in different strains of Jewish tradition. Significantly, each book is an exemplar of a living Jewish poetic and literary tradition reaching back to ancient Israel and subsequent talmudic process.
Lea Graham was raised a Southern Baptist who from an early age memorized large portions of the Bible. Formally, Graham owes much to biblical prosody, which when written as poetic lines is basically one sentence or thought a line (or sense of line—the Hebrew Bible like contemporary poetry is not broken into neat lines) with each line/sentence/thought having two clauses of about two to five words with a pause between them. For example, compare “The sorrows of death compassed me, [pause] and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid” (Psalm 18:4) with Graham’s line from “Crush 19”: “Her smirk & catch, [pause] poised before a cigarette” (32). Of course, neither the Bible nor Graham is always predictably formal. Books of the Bible such as Psalms are certainly poetic, but more historical sections such as Kings or Chronicles are much more structurally open. The books of the prophets, however, combine verse and prose.
Although Graham is formally closer to Psalms than the Book of Isaiah, she nonetheless improvises within psalmic form. Less self-conscious of oral tradition than some Jewish poets, Graham with abandon engages [End Page 104] its place within American and Western culture, bridging geniuses of biblical poetics and storytelling with talmudic exegesis...