Poetry That is Better Than Poetry
by Albert Goldbarth
There have been Jewish American poets for about as long as there has been American poetry. Some of them predate, for example, even Emma Lazarus (author of the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty) and the “sweatshop poets,” who wrote politically charged slice-of-life poems powered by the griefs and angers of the turn-of-the-century New York Jewish ghetto and the dehumanizing low-pay labor of the Garment District.
Jews are famously the People of the Book, and if the names of Jewish novelists (Bellow, Roth, Malamud) resound more familiarly for literary audiences, rest assured Jewish poets are still alive and thriving. I hope that what follows is a useful thumbnail guide to some of the Jewish voices that have contributed lately to the rich ongoing pleasures of American poetry.
The world of poetry recently lost three great poets—major literary figures by any standard—Philip Levine and Maxine Kumin (both recipients of the Pulitzer Prize) and the widely respected crown prince of American poetry, Kenneth Koch. Levine remains one of the most affectionately revered poets of his generation—“Uncle Phil,” as one of my old poetry-loving friends always called him. But although his work can be tender in an adult way, particularly in its understanding look at the world’s disadvantaged, there is nothing warm and fuzzy in Levine’s poems. They are unsentimental considerations of blue-collar existence, of the spirit-deadening factory work in the Detroit of his childhood, of the Spanish Civil War and of the difficulties of our racially divisive country. Light in a Levine poem can shine gently from a menorah but can as readily burst forth from the fires of rage in a ghetto, such as in his famous “They Feed They Lion,” so prescient of the headlines surrounding Ferguson, Missouri. His are poems of great empathy and enormous gusto for living amid both our glory and our grime. His book Sweet Will (1985) is as good a place to start as any, along with Strangers to Nothing: Selected Poems (2006) and his forthcoming posthumous volume, The Last Shift.
Light in a Philip Levine poem can shine gently from a menorah but can as readily burst forth from the fires of rage in a ghetto, such as in his famous “They Feed They Lion,” so prescient of the headlines surrounding Ferguson, Missouri.
Maxine Kumin, like Levine, was a part of the generation of American poets whose career arcs followed the transition from rhyme and meter to the currently prevailing free verse. Kumin’s later work, however, sometimes incorporates, or at least bears the marks of a lineage of, formal constraints: She has written about how serious swimming early in her life, with its metrical counting off of strokes, influenced her writing. With a conscience sparked to eloquence—by public concerns (antiwar politics, women’s issues), and with an equally rich understanding of the private realm (domestic love, motherhood, the pleasures and rigors of rural life—especially the raising and riding of horses, and her near-fatal riding accident late in her life), Kumin’s accessible writing serves as a wonderful introduction to contemporary poetry. In a poetry world often defined by the challenges of experimentation and willful disjunction, Kumin’s poems are rooted in clarity and in the objects of this world: Her collection House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate takes its title from the German poet Rilke and serves as a kind of implicit rallying cry for readers who know that transcendence can be found in the everyday. Her final volume was And Short the Season (2014).
With Kenneth Koch we lost a writer whose exceedingly witty, endlessly inventive, and often surreally startling poems (so different from the slice-of-life, reality-grounded poems of Levine and Kumin) were highly influential for a generation of American poets looking to break free from rhyme and meter and from placid, overly precious poems about sunset over Nantucket. Poetry itself was his favorite topic, and he famously wrote, “Our idea is to write poetry that is better than poetry.” An early poem of his, “Fresh Air,” is not only a wild embrace of Koch’s vision of poetry’s possibilities but also a laugh-out-loud embodiment of it: This poem features “the Strangler,” whose job it is to pounce upon and kill bad poets of the old school. His work ranges from one-line to book-length poems; from an African travelogue to crazy daily life in the hip New York City art world (he was a close friend of Larry Rivers and similarly well-known artists); from mock epics to poems-as-Japanese-Noh-theater to operetta. Given his talent for the whimsical, the dreamlike and the spontaneous, it’s no surprise that he’s authored seminal books on the teaching of poetry-writing to children. Certainly he kept his own inner child fruitfully alive. His Collected Poems (2005) is available, and his poem “To Jewishness” may be of particular interest.
David Lehman makes for a perfect transition into the realm of living Jewish poets. An admirer and personal friend of Koch’s, he recently published the collection Yeshiva Boys (2009), and its poems, while clearly Lehman’s own, exhibit all of the urbane wit and sparkle of the older poet from whom he learned so much. Some may also recognize Lehman as the series editor for the widely read Best American Poetry annual anthologies, wonderful volumes for gaining a sense of what’s currently available in a richly varied poetry world.
Philip Schultz, over his prolific career, has a Jewish New Yorker’s eye for the conflicted comedy of everyday situations. However, his latest work, The Wherewithal (2014), is a book-length consideration of the Holocaust. Brave, sad and unflinching, it belongs on shelves alongside such Holocaust novels as Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews (1979) and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979). Nor has poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker turned her gaze away from topics that are difficult to contemplate. Her collection The Book of Seventy (2009), for which she won the National Jewish Book Award, deals movingly and intelligently with aging; and The Mother/Child Papers (1980) examines the tricky balancing act in 1970s America between feminism and motherhood, and the atrocities of the Vietnam War as well as those surrounding our invasion of Cambodia. Her work can also be a fine receptacle for the sweetness of existence; as poet Mark Doty points out, hers are poems of “tenderness and ferocity,” reflecting both the beauty of a garden flower and the universal winds that blow through it. Her newest title is The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014).
Anyone interested in exploring the diversity of current American poetry should read both Jane Hirshfield and Ben Lerner. Hirshfield’s poems are typically compact, plainspoken, and containers of deft language that imbue the occasions of daily life (a cup of water, a heartache, a rat in the yard) with the transforming magic of what I can only call a Zen Buddhist sensibility. She threads grand tapestries of thought and emotion through the needle eyes of her poems. The best Hirshfield poems have a lasting effect dozens of times larger than the sometimes minimalist space they take up on the page. Her newest collection is The Beauty (2015).
Jane Hirshfield’s poems are typically compact, plainspoken, and containers of deft language that imbue the occasions of daily life with the transforming magic of what I can only call a Zen Buddhist sensibility.
Readers new to 21st-century poems may find Lerner to be an excitingly challenging experimental poet. His unique voice has made him a favorite among the younger generation of readers and their proponents in the world of literary criticism. His poems are difficult to describe or quickly summarize; they are often poems of concept as much as of people and places. Anyone interested in the pleasures of quick-paced, jittery, multitasking intellection, of our ever-farther-branching rumination, and of writing that welcomes the whole of the world and then recombines its elements in new, highly individuated ways, should try diving into a collection of Lerner’s. His most recent book of poems is Angle of Yaw (2006), and his just-published collection of literary criticism is intriguingly titled The Hatred of Poetry.
And beatific Gerald Stern! (I think of him as poetry’s Vincent Van Gogh.) Oh, wait—and Ilya Kaminsky! And Richard Michelson, who has been a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and a recipient of both gold and silver medals from the Association of Jewish Libraries. And Jerome Rothenberg, whose embrace goes (as a Jewish poet) from 1930s Poland and the experience of steerage immigration to (as a genre-expanding anthologist) Native American myths and Shaker hymns. The world of Jewish American poets is hoppin’-poppin’ populous.
Finally, I must mention two more poets: Marvin Bell, who, through a long life of dedication to the art and by his many-faceted teaching career (including many years at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop), continues to put a vital, resilient, unflagging face on the idea of an “elder statesman,” and a young poet, Sam Taylor, whose second collection appeared in 2014. Early on, Bell’s erudite wit, his snappy line, and his ability to mix dry, wry humor with pathos earned him this commendation from the poet Donald Justice: “If there were a Jewish school of poets, as of novelists, Marvin Bell could be the whole school himself. He is a very funny sad-man, a very honest liar… [in poems] salted with Jewish wisdom.” His work has evolved interestingly since then, and many experts would say that his decades-long series of “Dead Man” poems is, like John Berryman’s earlier Dream Songs (1964/1968), a major experiment in the extended sequence; it’s inarguably a one-of-a-kind voice, meant to be true to the whole of the human condition.
Sam Taylor says that his recent book, Nude Descending an Empire (2014), brings a “spiritual vision of mystery and suffering into dialogue with a historical perspective [that is still] engaged with our contemporary moment.” Indeed, if a true mystic—but a 21st-century American mystic—can (or must?) incorporate into his daylong mantra shopping malls and ecological disaster and carnality and multiculturalism and a public voice to match the interior journey, then Taylor is the mystic for you as he is for me. His poems are lushly lyric and never at the expense of chronicling the full spectrum of us, from despair to delight. A Jew of Eastern European and Russian descent, born “only 30 years after Hitler’s genocide,” Taylor is currently working toward a book of poems intended to tell a “story of displacement and exile” that will (even as it serves as a personal narrative of self-discovery) “recover, map, and imaginatively recreate [the] missing history of the diaspora” and “fully integrate it into a new American identity.” The promise here is large.
The People of the Book? Yes, as represented in so many bookstores and library categories—and as indicated by the enthusiasms of the poets themselves. In “Fresh Air,” mentioned earlier, Kenneth Koch zestily calls for “poems of the relationships between terrific prehistoric charcoal whales,” for a poetry “entirely original…[and] so exciting that it cannot be here repeated…/Once you have heard this poem you will not love any other…Once you have visited the passages of this time’s great art!”
I hope this brief survey will entice you to visit those bookstores and libraries—to find the poetry that takes its proper place amid “this time’s great art.” The journey awaits.
Albert Goldbarth has published more than 30 collections of poetry and essays. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award in both 1991 and 2001 and is the only poet to have received this honor twice. His forthcoming book of essays, The Adventures of Form and Content, will be released next year by Graywolf Press.