WONDER JEWS AND POETS: Jews and Poets Looking Forward. Be(a)ware. Wonder.

a version of this piece originally appeared in Winter/Spring 2015, in the extraordinary print magazine, House Organ, available for free from its editor Kenneth Warren.

Who will stand up for the Jews and Poets among us? Please don’t get your ideas about Jews and Radicals and Secularists and Poets only from the people below. “Which people?” you ask. “The People of This Book,” I answer, in what follows:

Poetics_cover-200x300There’s a cadre of Jews and Poets—actually only two editors and their consultants—who are looking backward as Jews and Poets, appropriating histories and traditions they have jumped the ballpark fences to be inside of and, in the process, have left many of their fellow Jews and Poets watching from Wayland Ave, outside Wrigley Field. I have only come to this realization lately: there’s an anthology of Jewish writers and poeticists out there, out there for a few years now, called Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, edited by Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller, published by The University of Alabama Press, informed by consultants from the North and the South, and originally reviewed by Emily Warn in the magazine, Tikkun (June, 2011), a review then cited in Jacket2.

If this anthology implicitly claims a legitimacy of purpose and design, I wonder: “Who or what are the other Jewish writers and artists and poets I have known (of) for over 40 years, chopped liver?”

Don’t get me wrong. There is much to admire in Ms. Warn’s review, as well as in the anthology itself: the beautiful virtues of writings that range from Benjamin Friedlander’s “Letters to the Romans” to Joshua Schuster’s “Looking at Louis Zukofsky’s Poetics through Spinozist Glasses” to Maria Damon on Adeena Karsick’s “Wall of Sound.” But this is not about the talents of individual writers who have an essay or two or three to present about Jewish identity:

It is about what happens when an abyss is opened and we all fall in as if we thought we were filling up the space with something that stands for history.

I wonder: On the part of the editors and their consultants, why is there no conceptual fleshing out of the secular, why no sense of its history, its context, why are we not informed of who has been working this radical Jewish and poetic ground, what came before, who were the players, the issues, not even addressed? It’s more than ironic, ironic bordering on editorial backwards logic rivaling the Keystone Cops in getting things done, when a volume seems more concerned with following what Stephen Paul Miller says is (consultant) Charles Bernstein’s lead—Bernstein “constitutes his Jewish identity by ways of his distance from a secure sense of what it means to be Jewish”—than with a history of so-called radical poets and artists who are ignored because they could be too secure and too close to what it means to be Jewish or because they are completely forgotten. It’s not a question of a few names missing from this anthology that would make it more representative, but rather a kind of amnesia on the part of the editors and their consultants of what could be considered radical, secular, and poetic in the history of Jewish poetry in America.

Jews and Poets Looking Forward: We need a forum or a quorum. Let’s tawk:

( 1 )

I wonder why the word “secular” is flattened in this anthology, usually meant only as non-religious, and not examined in depth, in itself and in its origins. And, when it is examined, as in Alicia Ostriker’s essay, “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed,” I wonder why what we are offered is only the notion that there should be no hard and fast categories between the two ideas. “Why ‘secular’?” she writes. “As opposed to what? Who needs this polarization between “secular” and sacred? Who profits by it?” she says, admitting that “the academy has been allergic to religious thought” unless it is carted off and warehoused in religious studies departments.

But even Ostriker throws these terms around as if there were divisions: first, by conflating terms, the sacred, the spiritual, the religious all stand as the same in relation to the omniscient Secular; second, by talking about “the non-secular” poet who, by extension, becomes “the religious poet.” Curiously, the fact that “the secular” can stand as one (stable, authoritative) term with an agreed upon meaning while “the sacred” gets conflated with “the spiritual” and “the religious” may point to how little the concept of the secular and its power has been examined in this essay, as in the rest of the anthology. One need only look at Rachel Blau Du Plessis’s essay in the book, “Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics,” to read how “secular” becomes a code for the assimilated Jew who uses reason in the world versus someone who is religious and antagonistic to reason: we were, she writes about herself and the poet-scholar Michael Heller, who took part in a panel on the Objectivist poets, “curious about the (really various) “Jewishness” of the nonetheless generally secular Objectivist [poets].” Again, notice the oneness of significance she attributes to the secular: we seem entrenched in its overarching, singular meaning, and obviously and disappointingly it is not, like Jewishness, really various (What is ironic, of course, is that several writers in this volume, in a move to cover all bases, will agree that the secular might be a “fuzzy” category, but nevertheless one can agree on what it suggests in total—e.g. non-observance).

If only they took as an example recent studies in the anthropology of the secular and its relationship to Islam, these writers might indeed come up with a “really various” Jewish secularism. What, for example, would Ostriker say, how would she respond as a secular Jew if she were told that there are countless Muslims who see and name their practices and discipline as secular—that is, in and of the world, in line with rationalism, and part of a network of intersecting traditions of learning that historically extend from the Golden Age of Al-Andalus? As it relates to poetry, the point here is not that some poets may have both the secular and the religious in their work, or the secular and the sacred—most poets do, as Ostriker grants (e.g. Ginsberg)—but that the concept of the secular, where it gets its history, its power, its legitimacy, its taken for granted-ness, is not even broached, when there has been plenty written about it. To understand the formations of the secular, it does us little good to erase the division between the secular and the sacred, nor of showing how Ostriker believes social justice derives from the Biblical prophets (which is like saying Western Law owes a debt to the 10 commandments—o.k.—so, now what?), but of determining how and why and from where each concept gets its power, its authority, its history, its assumptions. To only call for erasing the division sounds like an academic and poetic summoning of Rodney King saying: “can’t we all just get along.”

So I return to the question: where in this book is there a real investigation of the concept of the Jewish secular, the way so many recent scholars and anthropologists have explored the notion of the secular in relation to Islamic and Christian thinking? The word may be, as a friend of mine suggests, a total misnomer and irrelevant in relation to Judaism or Jewish radicalism but then again, I say to my friend, it might be quite relevant, or could be made so, if only there was an exploration into how it has recently been appropriated, granted in different spiritual and religious contexts: for example, where the secular which takes the religious as its other usually does not recognize how deeply dependent its history is on the religious. Just check out the etymology of the word “secular.” Why, for example, if they are focusing on “secular” and “poetics” in their title, don’t the editors explore, like many thinkers on Islam, where the secular gets its power—what happens when, as Khaled Furani writes, “in its claim to self-sufficiency, the secular, in complex and contradictory ways, both denies and depends on an “other” which it anoints as “the religious?” Where do we read in this anthology a thorough examination of this concept of the secular, in itself, in its historical contexts, and in relation to poetry? See, for example, Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Saba Mahmood and Wendy Brown in Is Critique Secular, or Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Khaled Furani’s writings. I wonder, in order to move forward, how we could take some of these conceptual formations and, after we root them out, apply them to a radical, secular Jewish poetics context? How, for example, could the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s work on the secular (in On Revolution) be applied here? The anthology—particularly an anthology called Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture—would be served better had we found out more about the concept of the “secular.”

Jews and Poets Looking Forward:

( 2 )

I wonder why so many of the critics and the critiqued included in this anthology are so East Coast U.S-made, and how they have forgotten what some of us remember. Are they living in Vidal’s United States of Amnesia? I wonder: Is it just a bit of revisionist history for one of the editors to say that this anthology, unlike another one he critiques for omitting them, includes “two prominent experimental Jewish poets, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perleman.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry because I am old enough to remember the 70’s, when the appendage “Jewish” would never have been applied to these two what were then called “experimental, language poets,” but could have been applied to Jack Hirschman and David Meltzer, two poets noticeably and inexplicably absent from this anthology and who have been working this so-called radical Jewish and poetic ground for as long as they have been writing, only from the West Coast. Maybe, like Mel Brooks’ Cowboys and/or Indians, Radical Jews in the West look as anachronistic to East coast Forums as Yiddish speaking Indian chiefs who fall off their horses backwards and go missing.1

1 Missing: Poet from the West: Jack Hirschman, shaper of Kabbalah Surrealism, author of Aleph, Benoni and Zaddik Jerusalem, Ltd., ShekinahBlack Alephs: Poems, 1960-1968, translator 40 years ago of Eleazer of Worms and Abraham Abulafia’s The Path of the Names, as well as Carlos Suares’ Sephir Yetsira and the poems of Mallarme and Celan. Missing: Poet from the West: David Meltzer, shaper of Bop Kaballah, editor of the magazine Tree—a unique magazine in the United States which published radical American and European Jewish writers and poets (Edmond Jabès and Paul Celan) in the context of translations of ancient devotional and heretical Jewish texts—a poet who Jerome Rothenberg writes he first discovered in 1960 in Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, [a volume] “that celebrated the emergence over the previous decade of a new & radical generation of American poets… It was clear,” Rothenberg writes of a later set of Meltzer’s poems, The Golem Wheel, “that the judaizing here—to call it that—was something that went well beyond any kind of ethnic nostalgia, that [Meltzer] was tapping in fact into an ancient & sometimes occulted stream of poetry, while moving backward & forward between “then” & “now.”

(As an aside, I wonder how some of the smart people in this book, if they were asked, would not hesitate to critique a Supreme Court of exclusively (East Coast) Harvard or Yale justices ruling (while falling) from their benches (always we are remembering Charles Olson’s letter to Ezra Pound, “you dam well know anglosaxonism is academicism and shrieking empire—LIFE out of Yale, CULTURE out of Princeton, and THE BOMB out of Harvard—”.)

But should we wonder if the same smart people in Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, in an anthology which devotes several pieces to Kaballah and Poetry, makes no mention of Wallace Berman as Hebrew lettristic artist/poet, as editor of the seminal magazine, Semina, in 1950’s and 1960’s noir Los Angeles, a magazine which explored Surrealism, Kabbalah, and Artaud (can one get any more radical, Jewish and secular than this in late 1950’s and early 1960’s America)? Should we wonder why they are unaware of American Jewish poets who are simultaneously translating Mallarme and Celan, writing American Language Kabbalistic poems, translating Kabbalists, mingling verbal, visual, and sonic elements into a poetry of jazz, blues, and rock and roll, absorbing the political into the poetic, and so on…? What anthology is it in which American poets who identify themselves and are identified by others as falling under the radical Jewish secular (and mystic) poetic umbrella are not even acknowledged let alone summoned for their visions and are replaced with younger poets who one would have to think twice to think they share the same deep, historical space. It makes me wonder.

Jews and Poets Looking Forward:

( 3 )

I wonder why this Ashkenazi informed compendium does not even come close to occupying the Sephardic/Mizrahi spaces inhabited in different ways and for so many years by the so-called surrealist poet and translator Edouard Roditi or the child of Charles Olson and the New Americans, Ammiel Alcalay (yes, his “political poetry” is addressed in part in one essay by Sellinger, but this is not about us or him but about the Radical Arab-Jewish-American spaces and approaches he has opened up). See, for example, his After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, The Cairo Notebooks, his translations of Arab-Jewish Hebrew texts, his support and publication of Arab-Jewish writers in Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing, writers who have opened up conversations of the relations between, among other things, Native-American, African-American and Palestinian literatures being shaped by Arab and Jewish writers in Israel/Palestine and in America: none of this labor is followed up on by the editors’ and their consultants choices for this anthology, which means these issues have no sustained presence in this book. Nor do the writings of the Turkish/Jewish child of the spiritual secular poetics of Sabbatai Zvi and Paul Celan, Murat Nemet-Nejat, who has opened the Islamic-Sufi-Jewish-American roads to the radicals, whether through his essays (“Questions of Accent”), his poetics of “Eda, the alien other,” what Rothenberg calls “the rootedness of mysticism in language,” or his long poem, Structure of Escape, a project well in line with the American long poem, one such as Armand Schwerner’s wildly restorative invention of Sumero-Akkadian possibilities of expression in the English of The Tablets, another blast from the past Jewish writer and text now forgotten and whose perspective is lost among these editors and their consultants.

Jews and Poets Looking Forward:

( 4 )

I wonder why in an anthology which claims its writers deal with the problematics of secular Jewish identity that there is an absence of words on the question of Israel/Palestine among us—I wonder: is there anything more talked about in America than the question of Israel/Palestine among us—so where in this anthology are the American Jewish poets and writers who have absorbed this question of Israel/Palestine in their work?

Fellow Jews and Poets Looking Forward. Please wonder what professional academics decide how The People of the Book are compiled from now on in A Book of The People.

Onward. Beyond Looking Forward. To The Forum.


Benjamin Hollander was born in Haifa, Israel and immigrated to Jamaica, Queens (NYC) at the age of 6. Since 1978, he has lived in San Francisco. His books—featuring poetry, essays, fiction and other writings—include: In The House Un-American (Clockroot Books, 2013), Memoir American (Punctum Books, 2013), Vigilance: (Beyond Baroque Books, 2005), Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli, (Parrhesia Press, 2004) Levinas and the Police (Chax Press, 2001), The Book Of Who Are Was (Sun & Moon Press, 1997), How to Read, too (Leech Books, 1992), and (as editor) Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (ACTS, 1988).