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Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

Edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris, with contributions from Hank La

Publication Year: 2010

"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.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ii-vi


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pp. vii-ix

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p. x-x

Merle Bachman’s essay “An ‘Exotic’ on East Broadway: Mikhl Likht and the Paradoxes of Yiddish Modernist Poetry” originally appeared in different form in her book Recovering “Yiddishland”: Threshold Moments in American Literature (Syracuse University Press, 2007). Marjorie Perloff ’s essay “‘Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps’: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice” originally appeared in...

Meet the Preface

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pp. xi-xvi

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pp. 1-11

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...

Radical Jewish Culture/Secular Jewish Practice

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pp. 12-17

Who or What Is a Jewish American Poet,with Specific Reference to David Antin,Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis,and Jerome Rothenberg

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pp. 18-31

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The House of Jews

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pp. 32-39

Every time I appear in a Jewish anthology—except those of my own devising— something goes wrong. Lines are omitted or placed out of sequence, prose is set as verse or verse as prose, and footnotes are used that represent an editor’s imagining of what a word might mean or a place- name represent. I believe that the God of the Jews has something to do with this—a punishment for ...

Zukofsky at 100: Zukofsky as a Body of Work

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pp. 40-48

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pp. 49-59

Given the intractableness of the question, it’s fitting that my three approaches are incommensurate. The first, based on Susan Handelman’s scholarship, neatly divides Jews and Christians; the second, my own musings, agonizes about the possibility of any dividing line; the third, a nonserious application of homeopathic notions, is obviously counter intuitive but may represent my most serious thinking on the subject...


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pp. 60-70

On Yiddish Poetry and Translation of Yiddish Poetry

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pp. 71-78

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An “Exotic” on East Broadway: Mikhl Likht and the Paradoxes of Yiddish Modernist Poetry

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pp. 79-102

It’s a little- known fact that in New York in the 1920s, Yiddish immigrant writers were participants in the internationalist modernist breakthrough, and like their colleagues in other languages and lands, gathered to debate literature in cafés and published their poetry in little magazines. Although these poets were fluent in English, they chose to write their poems in Yiddish. It was a choice made out of dedication and love that ironically guaranteed the poets'...

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Revisiting Charles Reznikoff’s Urban Poetics of Diaspora and Contingency

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pp. 103-126

Who or what is not ultimately diasporic in Charles Reznikoff ’s (1894–1976) emotively restrained but deeply compassionate rendering of the universe? From diaspeirein, the Greek (mis)translation of the galut of Hebrew Scripture, are constituted “seed,” “sperm,” “dispersal,” “spore”—all these evocative cognates and even more inventive variations are expressed in Reznikoff ’s...

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Looking at Louis Zukofsky’s Poetics through Spinozist Glasses

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pp. 127-150

No one so far knows what a poem can do. That might be “Objectivist” poet Louis Zukofsky’s response to the famous challenge launched by Spinoza in his Ethics—“no one so far has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities”1— which is quoted by Zukofsky in his poem “A”- 12. Yet Spinoza, a lens grinder by profession who never wandered outside of a few cities in the seventeenth century...

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“Can a Jew be Wild”: The Radical Jewish Grammar of Gertrude Stein’s Voices Poems

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pp. 151-169

During and after World War One, Gertrude Stein combined the strange and the familiar in a poetic style that consisted of conversational excerpts by unattributed voices.1 In these “voices” poems, habitually unmoored from any static context save the human voice, short statements with varying degrees of sense follow one another creating “voice-montages” that make it difficult to ascertain where sense-continuity begins and ends (Moad 1)...

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Remains of the Diaspora: A Personal Meditation

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pp. 170-183

If the diaspora is my ground of no- ground, and yet the place where both signification and metaphor operate, then what does a term like “radical poetics” mean to me? If the diaspora is geographic and physical, it is also psychic and emotional, rife with constantly agitated language and even more agitated silence. Scattered, scatterings. I can only speak of it via some indirection, speak ...

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Secular and Sacred

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pp. 184-198

My intuition was then, as it is now, that valid poetry comes to be only when the man or woman with work to do has exhausted all means other In this essay I speak as a poet who was raised as a third- generation atheist socialist Jew, who began wrestling with the Bible and Jewish tradition in the middle of the journey of her life. In connection with my book The Nakedness of the Fathers, I discuss the fact that ...

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Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A personal essay in several chapters)

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pp. 199-224

In 1998, I participated in a panel on the Objectivist poets with Michael Heller, Jenny Penberthy, and Carl Rakosi (1903–2004) at a summer session at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. A student had just asked Rakosi a very good question about the Jewishness of the four central players in the fi rst “Objectivist” formation of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Reznikoff, Zukofsky...

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Secular Jewish Culture and Its Radical Poetic Discontents

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pp. 225-244

The question has been posed; the books surround me. I have been asked to reflect upon the relationship between secular Jewish culture and radical poetic practice, or more broadly, how Judaism and experimental poetry relate to each other. As is my wont, I prepare for the task by turning to my bookshelves, seeking the new texts with which I am currently engaged as well as the old, reassuring works that have guided me in the past. As I dutifully read and research...

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Radical Relation: Jewish Identity and the Power of Contradictions in the Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen

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pp. 245-273

...“Effort at Speech Between Two People,” first published in 1935, and “Leviathan,” first published in 1962, raise questions not only about the challenges of communication between people, but also about the possibilities of inter-textual dialogue between two poets who, although contemporaries, have rarely been considered in relation to each other. The poems articulate...

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“Yes and No, Not Either/Or”: Aesthetics, Identity, and Marjorie Perloff ’s Vienna Paradox

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pp. 274-286

In her splendid memoir, Marjorie Perloff defines the Vienna Paradox. The paradox concerns the sad fate of the sophisticated upper- class Jews of Vienna (circa 1930) who perceived themselves as Austrians, not as Jews, because they revered Germanic high culture, Goethe especially. Being Austrian, for these non- Jewish Jews, had nothing to do with the racial mythology that, under Hitler, became the defining category of national belonging. Of course, with...

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“Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps”: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice

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pp. 287-309

Paul Celan’s reception, at least in the English-speaking world, has always been connected to his status as great Holocaust Poet, the poet who showed that, Adorno’s caveat notwithstanding, it was possible to write poetry, even great poetry, in the German language, after Auschwitz. As “Poet, Survivor, Jew”...

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Language in the Dark: The Legacy of Walter Benjamin in the Opera Shadowtime

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pp. 310-322

“Is it possible to forget without remembering that one has forgotten?” The words ring out clearly, in stark contrast to the ones that precede and follow them, forming an island of sense in a sea of sonic confusion. The woodwinds and horn notes that punctuate the preceding minutes of the score, distracting from the singing, have fallen away. And for once, only one voice is heard. Even so, the words don’t sound right. There’s a trace of a lisp in the voice. The...

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Danger, Skepticism, and Democratic Longing: Five Contemporary Secular Jewish American Poets

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pp. 323-342

The five Jewish American poets whose work I will discuss (in reverse chronological order) alert us to various dangers, practice similar modes of skepticism, at times in divergent ways, and use different strategies to imply or articulate some form of democratic longing. While David Shapiro (b. 1947), Charles Bernstein (b. 1950), and Stephen Paul Miller (b. 1951) are close in...

Relentlessly Going On and On: How Jews Remade Modern Poetry without Even Trying

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pp. 343-353

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Azoy Toot a Yid: Secular Poetics and “The Jewish Way”

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pp. 354-377

To begin, an old joke—a canonical joke, I suppose, since it’s in the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature. The young rabbi of an old congregation found himself in a pickle. Week after week, when the Shema was said, half the congregants would stand, and half would stay seated. Each group yelled at the other to sit back down or get up on their feet. Baffled, the rabbi turned...

A Jew in New York

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p. 378-378

Imp/penetrable Archive: Adeena Karasick’s Wall of Sound

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pp. 379-396

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In the Shadow of Desire: Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime and Its Kabbalistic Trajectories

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pp. 397-408

According to Kabbalistic thinking, the world is strewn with fragments of light, sparks of desire that are continually scattered and bifurcating. And though we are constantly trying to create Tikkun (reassimilate the shattered fragments), as Shadowtime points out, “this is an impossible task.” Journeying through its ghostly portals, through spectral voices, nursery rhymes...

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Hijacking Language: Kabbalistic Trajectories

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pp. 409-417

Perhaps since the panel on Jewish Radical Poetics last year in New York, there has been a lot of talk about Jewish writing. Is Jewish writing something that foregrounds Jewish themes? Is it a stylistic methodology that defines itself through (as maybe Maria Damon might say) nomadicism, vagrancy, exile, or does it take on a more Bernsteinian flavor—and embody all “that which is formal, rhythmic, dialectical, dialogical and colloquial?” Or perhaps it’s...

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Letter to the Romans

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pp. 418-438

The broad outline of Paul’s life comes from his own letters, and from Luke’s account in the book of Acts. A diaspora Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul (born Saul) was a Pharisee, trained in scripture by Gamaliel the elder. Early on, he fiercely opposed the adherents of Jesus, condemning Stephen to death and overseeing the destruction of churches. Then, a visionary encounter...


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p. 439-439


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pp. 441-445


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pp. 447-456

E-ISBN-13: 9780817385163
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817355630

Page Count: 472
Publication Year: 2010

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Subject Headings

  • Judaism and secularism.
  • Jewish poetry -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Jews -- United States -- Identity.
  • Judaism and literature -- United States.
  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American poetry -- Jewish authors -- History and criticism
  • American poetry -- 21st century -- History and criticism.
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