What Have I in Common with Jews? A Review of Radical Poetics

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December 30, 2010

“What are the innovations and inventions of American Jewish poets over the past century? Can we say that there is a distinctly Jewish component to radical modernist and contemporary poetry? What is the relation of Jewish modernist and contemporary poets to the historical avant-garde and to contemporary innovative poetry? How do Jewish cultural life and ethnic and religious forms and traditions manifest themselves in the forms, styles, and approaches to radical American poetry? What role does a distinctly secular approach to Jewishness by poets and other Jewish artists mean for ‘radical Jewish culture’?”

These and other questions posed by poet-critic Charles Bernstein are taken-up with great passion, care, and sincerity by the poets and scholars included in Stephen Paul Miller’s and Daniel Morris’s anthology of essays on poetics, Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, many of whose names will be familiar to a reader of contemporary poetry. Some of these names include Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Auster, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Heller, Bob Perelman, Bob Holman, Marjorie Perloff, Maria Damon, Alicia Ostriker, and Ben Friedlander. What is striking about the responses to Bernstein’s questions is both the range of response, and the sense of discourse, especially the strong sense of agreement and overlap among many of the contributions.

Where the contributions overlap takes place especially around a quotation that recurs throughout the anthology, from Franz Kafka’s diaries: “What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.” What Kafka’s quotation points to is key to the anthology and what I glean as the meaning of a “radical poetics” as it both inflects and is inflected by “secular Jewish culture.” This has to do with identity, with what the non-Jewish Martinique poet and literary theorist Eduardo Glissant calls “root identity” in its opposition to what he calls “relation,” but we might call anti- or non-essence.

With very few exceptions, this anthology is anti-essentialist. Which is to say, it is against fundamentalist formulations of ontology in regards to particular identities. If it reveals any particular Jewish essence in fact, in a paradoxical move, it reveals that an aversion to identification is the hard kernel of Jewishness. That A does not equal A (contra Aristotle); that, likewise, to ‘pin-down,’ to reduce one’s particularity or uniqueness outside relation, is to exhibit harm. It is, perhaps in the sentiment of Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical philosophy, to commit violence, or (closer to the subject of this anthology) to resist the qualities of “things being together without violence to their individual intact natures” which Louis Zukofsky identified as those qualities of poetic “sincerity.”

The propositions Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture puts forward about Jewish identity as they are expressed by aesthetic practice (“radical poetics”), are in fact also propositions that have been discussed by Queer and Critical Race theorists, post-Colonial writers, and Post-Structuralism. Similarly, “experimental,” “avant garde,” and “innovative” poetries in particular present a special challenge to essentialism through their embrace of hermeneutic models and formal expressions that reinforce indeterminacy, non-foreclosure, and polysemy, and welcome participation, dialogue, and debate; expressions redolent with various cross-cultural models of textuality and performance, but especially with traditionally Jewish forms such as those found in Rabbinical scholarship (Midrash, Talmud) and mystical practices (Gematria, Kabbalah).

I am reminded, reading Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, that many of our most innovative aesthetic practices are of Jewish practitioners; even more so, I think it may be safe to say that the affinities of artists with a spirit of historically-inflected Jewish textual and performance practices is overwhelming in the 20th and now 21st centuries. The predominance of Jewish-American aesthetic practices comes across in this anthology, in which the cultural field is leveled by references to Walter Benjamin and famous Jewish comedians such as Lenny Bruce and the Marx Brothers in tandem. This predominance is also foregrounded by the qualities of Jewish poetry that are enumerated and expounded in the anthologies, qualities such as ambivalence, indeterminacy, and openness which have come to be identified with post/modernist writing, art, and performance.

This Jewish influence begs the question: could Robert Creeley or John Cage not be considered Jewish practitioners in regards to the qualities expressed by their work (as a student at SUNY Buffalo I recall Creeley repeatedly making the remark that he was in fact Jewish in his heart). To what extent, I might add, could Language writing, though many of its practitioners are not ethnically Jewish, be considered an aesthetically Jewish practice? Language writing’s roots in Objectivism, Gertrude Stein, Laura Riding Jackson, European and Russian avant gardes, and poets such as Jackson Mac Low, David Antin, Larry Eigner, and Hannah Weiner definitely suggests this case of elective affinity, if not kinship itself.

Miller’s anthology is also a crucial blow to the fundamentalisms that have recently governed geopolitics. In this configuration the predominantly Christian fascism of the United States and Europe has seemed the flip-side of fascisms in the Middle East and East Asia—those attributed by Western ‘conservatives’ to Islamic terrorism and militancy. Anthologies like Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Poetics oppose these fundamentalisms through their insistence on symbolic exchange, cultural contact, and a general ambivalence about identity.

One of the richest essays in the volume insisting on intersectionality is Norman Fischer’s “Light(silence)word,” in which he describes the confluences between contemporary Buddhism and Jewish spiritual and aesthetic practices. A similar ambivalence is described by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, for whom Jewishness is determined by a set of social practices rather than an essential ethnic or religious identity: “I resist religion, so often deployed as a club to beat others, as a fundamentalist intolerance. That is, I am secular not because I am a bad or lacking or ignorant Jew, but because I think religions as social practices are basically retrograde, exclusionary, controlling, and morally—if not politically—supercilious. I am a cultural Jew not by default, but by choice.” One is Jewish, then, because one elects particular actions and forms of conduct in the name of their Jewishness, which for DuPlessis and others in the anthology is to make a practice of drawing out the contradictions inherent within socio-political expression and to attempt to respond adequately or, in some cases, at all towards these contradictions. DuPlessis’s senses of her Jewishness in regards to her practices as a poet, scholar, educator, and citizen are echoed in Meg Schoerke’s “Radical Relation: Jewish Identity and the Power of Contradictions in the Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen,” where she encounters the poetics of George Oppen and Muriel Rukeyser whose poetics grew out of their life-long commitments to political activism and reflection about social responsibility.

Another trend in this anthology that I find particularly compelling, is one that can be traced back to any number of discourses about modern Judaism, the tension in Judaism between Law and Faith. It is expressed most extensively and eloquently in Benjamin Friedlander’s essay on Paul of Tarsus. In his essay, Friedlander situates Paul within a historically Jewish discourse about the Law in regards to the Law’s inverse—Faith. Implicit within Friedlander’s subtle arguments about Paul’s antinomianism is the recognition that “radical poetics” performs a similar antinomian function within contemporary literary and aesthetic discourse, if not Jewish culture at large. To take up “innovative” or “experimental” forms within a discourse about poetry is not to break with tradition, but to be radically in relation to it. It is to test the limitations and boundaries of tradition—of what has been said and done before, and established both formally and informally as law—in order to transform it.

This kind of antinomianism is a different way of conceiving ongoing Modernist practices, of which many of the contributors to the anthology participate in and have helped to extend in crucial ways; as that which continues to be in relation to something that may be broadly considered as constituting a culture’s narrative of itself, in which laws, moral codes of behavior, and cultural practices shape and define this narrative. Or, as Gertrude Stein puts it: “Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.” Which is to say, what is new is defined by a sense of change, and each new generation’s registration and response to this sense of change. To respect this sense of change, to own up to it as it were, is indeed to have faith in the way Friedlander is using the term after Pauline Judaism. One keeps faith because one has been faithful to the need for change in relation to something already existing or presupposed.

I am particularly moved, reading Friedlander’s essay, to find interspersed amidst his discursus not only a number of beautiful lyrical passages in which he meditates on the meaning of Law in relation to Faith, but also his inclusion of excerpts from no less than twenty modern and contemporary Jewish writers, many whom I recognize as Friedlander’s friends, colleagues, and contemporaries. Without exegesis or explication, the inclusion of these passages do a kind of work, a work which is in keeping with many of the essays and papers included in this anthology, which is to make a set of texts dialogic to one another:to put them in an active conversation without recourse to constant explanation or explication. Friedlander’s essay folds back on Norman Finkelstein’s comparably exquisite essay, in which Finkelstein also mingles his voices as a poet with many others, not to mention Stephen Paul Miller’s playful lineated essays in which footnoted passages nearly outnumber non-footnoted ones (a Midrashic form?).

Through an insistence on form, too—that form, and not just thematic content, successfully transmit cultural influence—many of the essays of this anthology evoke what previous anthologies about Jewish poetry have neglected such as the anthology edited by Stephen J. Rubin, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, cited by Daniel Morris in his introduction: that radicality is about upturning roots, and roots extend from tried cultural forms, tendencies, and conventions. As Bernstein writes of this problematic in regards to an existing literature about Jewish American poetry:

the often frame-locked focus on Jewish content as the sine qua non of Jewish literature has distracted
from recognition—not so much of Jewish forms, whatever they might be, as from formal, rhythmic,
dialectical and dialogical and colloquial, dimensions of literary, musical, and visual works that do not have
explicit Jewish thematic focus. In happy contrast, we do have such recent anthologies as The
Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature and Jewish American Poetry, ed. Eric Selinger 
and Jonathan Barron, along with Jerome Rothenberg’s groundbreaking Exiled in the World.

What all of the contributions to Miller’s and Morris’s anthology prove is that Jewishness is a discourse, and as such it is historically determined and expressed through a set of social, aesthetic, and cultural practices that are constantly being conveyed while they are also being negotiated, opposed, taken-up, and transformed. And perhaps the phrase “secular Jewish culture,” if it can do any useful work at all contrasted with “religiously observant” Jewishnesses, can point to the fact of history as a culturally biding force. While the conversation goes on about what constitutes Jewish identity, the conversation seems to have barely begun about how the practices of innovative Jewish writers impacts such a dialogue. Consider this book a conversation starter, of which I hope there are many more.

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