Is There a Distinctive Jewish Poetics? Several? Many? Is There Any Question?

By Lazer, Hank | Shofar, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Is There a Distinctive Jewish Poetics? Several? Many? Is There Any Question?


Lazer, Hank, Shofar


This essay, initially presented as the Duffy Lecture (2007) at the University of Notre Dame, explores the applicability of Talmudic and Rabbinic interpretive traditions for a contemporary American experimental poetics. Drawing heavily on the writings of Marc-Alain Ouaknin and Susan Handelman, I argue for the ongoing conversational relationship of text and commentary. The Jewish poetics that I describe in this essay is insistently open-ended and generative, relying upon a strategic undermining of mastery. The essay also discusses an ongoing compositional practice of mine (for poetry) which I call serial heuristics.

Let me begin by answering my own questions. And please forgive me. I needed to come up with a title for the talk, and this is what happened.

Is there a distinctive Jewish poetics? Probably not. At least not one that resides exclusively with Jews or Jewish poets, even if we knew for sure what that was or is.1

Several? Yes. Many? Yes.

Is there any question? Nothing but questions, right?

So please allow me to proceed to speak in the direction of a Jewish poetics, perhaps of my Jewish poetics, and to do so by means of an avowedly Talmudic process, meaning that I will engage a particular text, Marc-Alain Ouaknin's Tfce Burnt Booh Reading the Talmud,2 in a kind of idiosyncratic process of commentary and adaptation, gradually making use of his writing to create another kind of implied poetics.

The author of Tfce Burnt Book suggests that "the only criterion forjudging an interpretation is its richness, its fruitfulness. Anything that gives matter for thought honors the person who proffers it . . ." (p. xv). I suggest that the same holds true for a poem or for a poetics; what's at issue, the heart of the matter, is generativity. Also, what rewards recurring attention over rime (as the reader too changes and is an other upon another reading). Such a view - an intimate interaction of text and commentary - amounts to a proclivity toward the attractively and provocatively inconclusive.

Or, to put it another way, "The written text must remain a matrix for future decisions; the dynamic aspect of belief must not be interrupted" (p. 30). Dogma, doctrine, language (as in journalism, as in the five paragraph essay) in the service of a kind of transparent transmission of facts, all of these uses of language interrupt the dynamism of possible relationships between text and reader (by hypnotizing the reader into a non-critical acquiescence). And often it, the poem-reader relationship, is principally an invisible relationship: when and how do poem and reader see or hear one another?

Or, "And so one can state that the meaning of a text - if it is a great text not just occasionally but always escapes its author; that is why understanding is not simply a reproductive attitude but is always a productive one" (p. 59). And, "the reader is actually a creator. Reading becomes an activity, a production. And so an infinity of books are constantly present in the Book" (p. 75).

That is why the Talmud is such a perfect source for thinking about and toward a Jewish poetics.

Thus, "The Talmudic page, since the first edition of 1523, takes the form of three columns" (p. 34), with the central text in one Hebrew character (or font), a column of commentary by Rashi and another column of other commentators (both of these in another font), with additional commentaries and references appearing as marginalia (in a smaller font). One might quite rightly talk about such textuality as an ongoing accretion, the page as a kind of palimpsest, or a perpetual additive thinking or conversing or interpreting. So that we might say that "the creation of meaning is a creation-production of time" (p. 171). Or we might acknowledge the pre-digital yet proleptic nature of that 1523 page and say it is an early example of Facebook or MySpace or an early blog or a Wikipedia entry.

Years ago, in fact a little ovet twenty years ago, oddly, about the time that Ouaknin's The Burnt Book was being published, I began to write in my poetry about text and commentary as a kind of primal performative pair, apposing text and commentary to Fred (Astaire) and Ginger (Rogers), thinking of the two as equal partners in an ongoing dance. …

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