MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.4 (2002) 501-536
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Picturing the Poetry of Anna Margolin
Thank you for your book of poems. Who are you?
—Ch. N. Bialik to Anna Margolin
Ch. N. Bialik's letter to Anna Margolin, probably written in the early 1930s, is a brief, strange document. Bialik was living at the time in Tel Aviv, revered as the greatest of modern Hebrew poets. It is interesting to speculate what led Margolin to send him her book—a modest affair, a simple volume without a proper publisher, written by an unknown, no-longer-young, Yiddish woman poet living in New York. What did she expect in return? What did Bialik mean for her as a poet? His reply is a lovely mix of propriety and bluntness:
To Mrs. Anna Margolin
Thank you for your book of poems. Who are you? It seems that
until now I have not come across your name. Your poems are
genuine. You are a true poet. I swallowed up the book as soon as it
fell into my hand. Thank you very much.
Ch. N. Bialik 1
While her unknownness is almost a given in the face of his fame, sending the book was, in retrospect, a typically Margolian gesture, a display of poetic confidence that appears throughout her letters, [End Page 501] though more and more fleetingly as the years pass. It is also the kind of token that one suspects Margolin herself would have appreciated receiving—a sign of homage from a distant reader. Historically speaking, the exchange alludes to the quasi-iconic status of Bialik himself during a formative period in modern Jewish history, when literature generally, and poetry in particular, was intimately tied to sea changes in Jewish culture and society.
Margolin's work is an example of what might be called in retrospect "Jewish imagism." This brief flowering of verse had distinct ties to Anglo-American imagism, as well as to Russian acmeism and German expressionism. Indeed, the radical formal experimentation of these poets reflects one of modernism's abiding tensions, between image and text, and engages essential questions of individual and collective identity at a time of enormous social, political, and geographic upheaval. Jewish imagism also exemplified modern Jewish culture's larger revolution regarding the Second Commandment taboo on graven images. A rejection of the perceived strictures of this prohibition expressed itself in a wide variety of discourses, including religious thought and historical writing, as well as in music and other fine arts. 2 Its most obvious manifestation was an open embrace of what were considered idolatrous or pagan elements in European culture. An awareness of the Second Commandment prohibition was also implicit in the rejection of forms of cultural expression that were not explicitly didactic or ideological. Furthermore, an anxiety regarding image making undergirded pantheistic treatments of the natural world and descriptions [End Page 502] of a new, more embodied sense of self. 3 My discussion of Margolin's "visual poetics" refers to this wide sphere of ideas, in which a specifically Jewish self is posited in terms of the tension between image and text, as an amalgam of competing, contradictory cultural forces; these forces were themselves thematized as emblematic of an essential tension between Jewishness, on the one hand, and idolatry and pantheism, on the other.
In modern European Jewish society, expectations of the poet as prophet ran high. It should not be surprising, then, to detect an iconoclastic rhetoric in critiques of those strands of modern Hebrew and Yiddish belles lettres that repudiated the ethical mantle and celebrated art for art's sake. The practice of a visual poetics in Hebrew and Yiddish modernism was therefore Jewish writing's most severe test of its own ethical constraints. 4 Thematically and formally, visual poetics challenged the division between image and voice at the basis of Jewish culture's understanding of itself and of its relation to other cultures. Treating visual motifs and the related themes of the body and the natural landscape explicitly, visual poetics also attempted to close...