- Anglo-Jewish Poetry from Isaac Rosenberg to Elaine Feinstein
Peter Lawson's book is the first extended study of Anglo-Jewish poetry and, taken together with his earlier anthology of post-war British-Jewish poetry, Passionate Renewal (2001), it constitutes an attempt to establish a distinctive tradition in which to locate poets whose work has tended in the past to be read in other contexts. Hence Lawson reads the work of Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, two canonical first-world-war poets, as heavily inflected by their ambivalent sense of their Jewish heritage. Lawson persuasively uncovers traces of contemporary antisemitic discourse in some of the Protestant convert Sassoon's poetry, co-existing with an idealized, nostalgic invocation of an ancient Hebraic culture with which Sassoon identifies. In contrast, Lawson finds in Rosenberg's allusions to Hebrew texts a prophetic note. Lawson suggestively juxtaposes Rosenberg's sceptical attitude towards expressions of English patriotism with his Utopian vision of a socialist-Zionist world in which Jewish identity might be a source of renewal and rebirth. Lawson then makes a case for the importance of four poets who might be considered as marginal figures in the canon of English poetry. John Rodker, who is usually assigned a bit-part in the grand modernist theatre bestridden by the notoriously antisemitic Pound and Eliot, is reclaimed as a "minority Modernist [a phrase which is curiously italicized throughout the book, with one exception] at work in specific Anglo-Jewish social circumstances" (p. 76). Similarly, Lawson provides a sensitive, long overdue reappraisal of the work of Jon Silkin, a poet too often neglected, damned with faint praise, or reductively labelled as "a committed [End Page 200] radical, northern and ecological poet" (p. 111). Finally, Lawson considers the work of two contemporary female Anglo-Jewish poets, Karen Gershon and Elaine Feinstein, as post-Holocaust authors who take up contrasting positions on the significance of the Shoah. For Gershon, Lawson argues, it signifies the end of European Jewish civilization, an apocalypse for which (an imagined version of ) Israel provides redemption; for Feinstein, it forms part of a continuum of Jewish history that informs her work.
These last two chapters are problematic in methodological terms. Although Lawson refers in passing in the previous chapters to letters, memoirs, plays, interviews, essays, and other primary material by his chosen poets, his primary focus is always on their poetry. In the chapter on Gershon, however, he announces his intention to give equal prominence to Karen Gershon's fictional and non-fictional prose works, on the basis that these, as much as her poetry, are examples of "diasporic literature" (p. 139). It's difficult to argue with this, but the title of the book is Anglo-Jewish Poetry and not Diasporic Literature. Likewise, in the chapter on Feinstein, Lawson discusses Elaine Feinstein's novels and biographies alongside her poetry, moving seamlessly from verse to prose and back again, without any clear rationale for this sudden extension of his chosen critical topic. In choosing not simply to include Gershon's and Feinstein's prose works, but to accord them the same status in his chapter as their poems, Lawson changes fundamentally the nature of his study. There is, of course, no reason why a critic should not occasionally range beyond his or her immediate subject, but in this case Lawson's apparent unselfconsciousness about this move is symptomatic of a weakness that extends throughout his book. Lawson writes perceptively and lucidly about themes and ideas in poetry, but there's very little discussion of the formal qualities of the verse; very little sense of the poetry qua poetry. Instead, Lawson tends to gloss over the distinctions between the wide variety of different verse forms employed by these poets, and, in the case of Gershon and Feinstein, to conflate their poetry and prose.
There's a further problem in the book as a whole that becomes particularly conspicuous in the chapter on Gershon: namely, Lawson's reticence about the variable quality of the work he is discussing. In his "Conclusion...