- Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture
This large provocative book contains many insightful essays that inter-animate one another to produce a lively dialogue around the place of modern Jewish poetry in American culture. In addition to praising its contents, I would like to think about how the terms “Jewish secularism” and “radical poetics” are deployed and also to point out an unexplored mechanism, Jewish mimicry, which helps account for the ways in which Jewish poetry stakes its claims in the larger culture.
As Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age, the rise of secularism in the Christian West has affected the horizon of belief, transforming belief in God from a social given to a conscious choice.1 Jewish secularism, though (which Taylor does not treat), arises from different motives and circumstances than Christian secularism; in fact, “secularism” may not be the best term for it. In a religion that rests ultimately on a family-centered rather than a belief-centered social structure, quarrels with orthodoxy became a feature of Jewish culture long before the present “secular age.” In “Letter to the Romans” (418–38), poet Benjamin Friedlander makes this point in a radical way by arguing that Saint Paul was an early prototype of the non-observant Jew, a dissenter who, like many subsequent Jewish thinkers, mounted an antinomian critique of Judaism in a cosmopolitan world. Although other essayists attempt to make rough-and-ready distinctions between an observant practice of Jewish law (Halakah) and divergences from it (Eric Selinger depicts secular Jews as those “who recite the Shema [the profession of faith in one God] less frequently and reverently than they tell Jewish jokes” ), the discussions of Jewish secularism throughout the book rest finally on the claim that the work should be treated as Jewish—regardless of the poet’s knowledge or observance of Jewish law.
So if the issue of secularism can be seen as something of a red herring in a book of essays that creatively demonstrates the impact of Jewish lore, ethics, history, and practice on a wide range of modern (mostly American) poetry, there is also not much direct argument for what might constitute a “radical” poetics. The essayists either depend upon acceptance by the reader that there exists a radical tradition among Jewish poets, headed by Gertrude Stein, moving to New York with the Yiddish poets and the Objectivists, continuing after World War II with poets of the 1960s like Rothenberg, David Antin, and Michael Heller, in the 1970s with Language poets like Bernstein, DuPlessis, and Bob Perelman, and expanding in the 1980s and after to include [End Page 947] a range of unaffiliated poets such as Lazer, Norman Fischer, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Paul Miller, Joseph Lease, and Adeena Karasick; or they take the entirely different tack of discussing Jewish dilemmas present in American poems without reference to whether the poems are formally or politically radical.
The deepest probing of the intersection of radical poetics and Jewish culture occurs in some of the refreshingly frank meditations by poets on their vexed and productive relationships to Judaism. One poignant theme is the admission by several avant-garde poets that they write out of a bottomless sense of the loss of European Jewish culture. According to Bernstein, if there is to be a “European poetry and philosophy by the descendents of Benjamin and Heine,” then it “must be the task of secular Jewish culture on this side of the Atlantic and of our radical poetry and ambiguating poetics.” He admits his difficulty in acknowledging “this unwanted and perhaps even insufferable task,” but affirms, fatalistically, “perhaps this is what we were chosen for” (16). This statement by the author of Shadowtime, an opera exploring Benjamin’s death, is echoed by DuPlessis, whose long poem Drafts becomes more and more elegiac as it unfolds: “I feel, increasingly, as the work goes on, that I am being spoken through, almost as if I were single-handedly building into existence some...