Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew

By Ostriker, Alicia | Shofar, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Poetry after Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew


Ostriker, Alicia, Shofar


We inevitably begin with Theodor Adorno's famous 1949 injunction, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Susan Gubar disagrees, as do I. With the poetry of the Book of Lamentations in mind as precedent, and with the counter-injunction "therefore choose life" as moral guide, it has always seemed to me that to fall silent in the face of the Holocaust is to surrender to it. Dmitri Shostakovich, composing his Thirteenth Symphony based on Yevtoshenko's "Babi Yar," commented, "People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtoshenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence." Moreover, I believe simply that freedom to write -- to write anything and everything, profound or trivial -- is life's best response to death.

Gubar's views are considerably less simple. Surveying the debates around Holocaust art, she notes the danger of policing creative responses. Should only documentaries, testimonials, diaries and histories -- eyewitness accounts -- be considered "authentic?" Should any attempt to compare the genocide of Jews with other horrors of human history be considered profanation? Should specifically feminist studies of the Holocaust be condemned? But she also notes the phenomenon of fetishizing and commodifying the Holocaust in an anything-goes world, mining shock into schlock, using it for professional and commercial advancement, multiplying images of genocide into banality. As the saying goes, "There's no business like Shoah business." And is not the esthetic realm itself somehow suspect, she wonders, given the manipulation of "high culture" by the Nazis in the course of the Final Solution?

Gubar's response, first of all, is that there exists de facto an immense body of post-Holocaust poetry written by poets who did not themselves endure the horrors of World War II Europe, and which is worthy of our attention. More importantly, she argues that the memory of the Holocaust will inexorably die if it is not kept alive by post-Holocaust generations, and that poetry may be especially capable of avoiding what she calls "the sinister potential of our own rhetoric."

Central to Gubar's approach is the conviction that the Holocaust is like a black hole, a force field pulling into itself -- and annihilating -- whatever meaning falls into its orbit. Over and over, in chapters organized thematically rather than by author, and with excursions into the related arts of painting and photography, she sees Holocaust art as essentially absurdist, ironic, anti-cathartic. "Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?" asked Paul Celan. "The Jews I've felt rooted among/ are those who were turned to smoke," writes Adrienne Rich. A number of poems Gubar quotes in a chapter on "Masters of Disaster" brood over the issue of Holocaust-related suicide. Is it defiance, martyrdom, heroism, weakness? "To understand despair/ and be comfortable with it -- / something you could not do -- /is how we live," writes Harvey Shapiro apologetically to Primo Levi and Paul Celan. Roberta Gould on the other hand pleads against self-inflicted injury: "don't cut off your wrists as Jim did/ don't go mad every year like Renee....don't go sexually dead/ obeying the message/ "Work for death/ you handcuffed slave/ you pest!" In a chapter on the anguish of the child-survivor, reacting to "the void of the unspeakable" or the ongoing juggernaut of suffering crushing the next generation, Gubar quotes, among others, Marge Piercy, haunted as a child by ghosts at her bedfoot reminding her "What you/carry in your blood is us," and Louis Simpson's recollection of his youth:

They want me to stick in their mudhole

Where no one is elegant,

They want me to wear old clothes,

They want me to be poor, to sleep in a room with many others --

Not to walk in the painted sunshine

to a summer house

But to live in the tragic world forever. …

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