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This review of Gary Pacernick's book of interviews with fourteen English speaking Jewish poets originally appeared in the March 15-21 edition of _The Jewish Advocate_ under the title "Jewish Poets Look at Judaism."
Meaning & Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets
by Gary Pacernick
The Ohio State University Press, 2001
254 Pages. Paperback.
Review by Ian Thal
Special to the Advocate
There are many sorts of Jews and thus many ways of relating to one’s own Judaism: Some relate through obedience to the Law, some by railing against the Law; some by embracing the history and customs, and some by attempting to reshape or reimagine that inheritance. It can be of no surprise then that there are many sorts of Jewish poets, unified by their continued relationship with Judaism and the poet's intimacy with words.
Gary Pacernick spent five years interviewing a number of prominent Jewish poets in America and England, initially to counter Theodor Adorno’s claim that poetry is impossible after the Holocaust, and second, to debunk the claim of the literary critic Harold Bloom that Jewish poets cannot make authentic contributions to Anglo-American literature because of their inability to completely assimilate themselves into the dominant Protestant canon in the process of finding their own voice. Pacernick’s interviews bear witness against both Adorno and Bloom: Jewish poets live, and write.
The poets featured are neither Rabbis nor seminarians. They are Jews who happen to be poets in a world in which they are a minority. Their concerns and influences are wide ranging. Allen Ginsberg clearly states the situation when he answers the question that all fourteen
poets are asked: “do you consider yourself a Jewish poet?” He answers: “I’m Jewish. My name is Ginsboig [sic]. I wrote a book called Kaddish,” but then adds that he is also a Buddhist poet, a gay poet, an academic poet, a beatnik poet, and a New Jersey poet. Denise Levertov rejects the label of “Jewish poet” but tellingly uses a Yiddish word to describe herself: “mishmash.”
Pacernick presents a number of interesting characters. One encounters Philip Levine as the working class son of immigrants, turned university professor. Levine’s experiences with anti-Semitism lead to an identification with all oppressed peoples. His poetry celebrates those who resist, honoring the anarchists who first opposed European Fascism, or “tough Jews” like his fictitious Sephardic prize-fighter, Baby Villon.
Irena Klepfisz spent her childhood in the Warsaw Ghetto, her father sacrificing himself to save his comrades during the uprising. Her own work preserves the Yiddish culture of Ashkhanazi Jewery in that she composes bilingual poems and translates Yiddish literature into English, while being a vocal proponent of the language and the social justice component of Yiddishkayt.
Marge Piercy, a feminist poet, recounts her disatisfaction with the paganism she explored in the 1970s, and her rediscovery of the agrarian and seasonal roots of the Jewish calendar and the Shekinah, the feminine serifot of Jewish mysticism. She states that Judaism’s rich traditions contained what she needed to be spiritually fulfilled as a feminist.
There are surprises for younger generations. Ezra Pound, today as well known for his anti-Semitism as for his poetry, is often cited as an influence. Carl Rakosi, 92 years old at the time of his interview, explains: “...when I was young, anti-Semitism was so prevalent in this country, both in the general population and the universities, that I had to face it as a given and go on from there.”
If there is a unity among the fourteen poets of “Meaning & Memory,” it is in the title. Jewish memories, be they in the rhythms of prayer or in the subtleties of Yiddish, are what make these poets’ works meaningful, and a vibrant contribution to English language poetry.