What Makes a Jewish Poet?

Article excerpt

Meaning & Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets, by Gary Pacernick. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2001, 264 pp., $60 hardcover; $24 paperback.

When I first perused the table of contents in Meaning & Memory: Interviews with Fourteen Jewish Poets, I was so impressed with this list of widely acclaimed contemporary Jewish poets that I felt had to find a bookmark ceremonially worthy of the volume. Readers of Gary Pacernick's work will recognize his recurrent focus on the Jewish experience and Jewish identity reflected in poetry. A professor of English at Wright State University, Pacernick is the author of Memory and Fire: Ten American Jewish Poets; Sing a New Song: American Jewish Poetry since the Holocaust; and several books of his own poetry. For this new collection of essays, some of which were originally written for the American Poetry Review, Pacernick conducted impassioned interviews with fourteen 20th-century Jewish poets. These poets, diverse in age and gender, were asked not only about the ups and downs of being a poet and about craft, but also about the impact the Holocaust had on their lives and poetry. Finally, Pacernick asked them if they considered themselves Jewish poets.

In his introduction to Meaning & Memory, Pacernick contends that "Jewishness creates a core of meaning and memory to which Jewish poets respond and that this process deepens their art." And, indeed, this seems to be the case with all of the poets, but in varying degrees. There is, for instance, Stanley Kunitz, whose poetry is only slightly connected to Judaism. And although David Ignatow did not believe in God, his poetry often included a Yiddish comic voice or a Talmudic quality. Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, wrote in the rhythm of Ecclesiastes. Marge Piercy and Alicia Ostriker are at the other end of the spectrum; they merge Judaism with feminism and place great emphasis on the Shechinah. Not until several years ago, when I read the work of two compassionate Jewish poets, Gerald Stern and Philip Levine, did I hear my own voice in poetry. It was like a homecoming, a feeling of belonging, like meeting landsmen. Stem writes with exuberance for life; he has a zeal for justice and pride in his Jewish heritage. Levine, a champion of the blue-collar worker, defends those who cannot speak for themselves. I recognized a Jewish sensibility--a combination of Yiddishkeit, gratitude, and the everyday struggle it takes to be a mentsh.

The religious backgrounds of the fourteen writers vary widely. Some were raised in a secular home, while others grew up totally immersed in Judaism. When I analyzed the information related in these interviews, I realized that the five oldest poets, Carl Rakosi (b. 1903), Stanley Kunitz (b. 1905), David Ignatow (1914-1997), Harvey Shapiro (b. 1924), and Dannie Abse (b. 1923), regardless of the amount of Jewish subject matter in their work, decidedly preferred the label "poet" to "Jewish poet." Abse, who is Welsh, did qualify his response by admitting, "If there were a new anthology of Jewish poets and I were not in it, I would feel very bad indeed." I strongly suspect the others would agree.

For Elaine Feinstein (b. 1930) and Ruth Fainlight (b. 1931), the other two British writers, the question is moot as far as they are concerned. They are, to their dismay, automatically pigeonholed as Jewish poets by their countrymen simply because of their Jewish names. …