Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections

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edited by Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger. Hanover: University Press of New England (Brandeis University Press), 2000. 416 pp. $60.00.

In the Introduction to Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections, the editors, Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger, proclaim that their "main goal is to announce the existence of a major contribution to American poetry: the various and increasingly self-conscious Jewish American poetic tradition." This tradition can be traced at least as far back as Emma Lazarus, a New York City-born poet of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry, whose sonnet, "The New Colossus," is the very first poem in this collection. Barron and Selinger open wide the portals of their volume with "the mighty woman with a torch, Mother of Exiles," who welcomed all to the shores of America, the "New Jerusalem."

Rather than present poems and essays representative of a single ideological or critical perspective, Barron and Selinger make a point of inclusiveness. The volume is organized into two parts. The first part consists of poems and commentary on their poems by 26 different Jewish-American poets. Of their selections, the editors note, "no attempt was made to be definitive or canonical about contemporary Jewish American poetry. Instead, our main goal was to get a representative selection of the various kinds of American poetry currently being written." To a large extent, the editors succeed in this goal. The volume is characterized not only by a diversity of poetic voices, but also by a diversity of poetic forms. The second part of the volume, "Reflections," written by contemporary critics of Jewish American poetry, also reflects the editors' commitment to variety.

Among the poets, one finds here practitioners of experimental or avant-garde language poetry like Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman, and Ammiel Altalay. One also finds more traditional poets like Anthony Hecht writing in such conventional forms as the sestina in his poem "The Book of Yolek." The majority of the poets here, however, are practitioners of the dominant mode of American poetry of the last hundred years: free verse. These include such well-known poets as Gerald Stem, Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine, Marge Piercy, Alicia Ostriker, and a host of other poets just now coming into prominence, including Hilda Raz, Jacqueline Osherow, and Michael Castro. The volume also makes room for the ethnopoet Jerome Rothenberg and for the feminist liturgical poet Marcia Falk. Essentially, than, one will find here a "house of worship" for just about any reader, depending on their cultural and aesthetic orientation. Nevertheless, it is problematic that there are not included any Jewish American poets living in Israel (Shirley Kaufman, for example) in the collection and very little mention of Israel in the poetry. This is a crucial omission because of the unique historical situation of the poets represented in the volume, living and writing during the time of the historical revival of Jewish nationhood.

It is especially interesting to see how the poets responded to the challenge put before them by the editors, to select a poem for the collection and to provide "a commentary about its relationship to the poet's own sense of his or her `Jewishness.'" How "Jewishness" is defined has long been contested among modern and post-modern writers, and in this volume we see just how unstable the term can be. For some of the poets here, like Anthony Hecht, for example, "Jewishhess" is tied to history and his own experience of liberating a Nazi concentration camp. For others, like Alan Shapiro and Marge Piercy, "Jewishness" is connected to family, and in particular to aging parents and grandparents, figures who in the poets' imagination invoke biblical stories.

For many of the women writers, "Jewishness" is a term to be redefined and re-imagined, either through the creation of a more responsive liturgy or a reinterpretation of traditional biblical figures and stories. …