Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Holocaust Poetry: Another View

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Holocaust Poetry: Another View

Article excerpt

In Robert Frost's famous poem "Mending Wall," the poet meets his neighbor each early spring to set fallen boulders back on the wall that divides one property from another. The poem begins "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and will repeat this line later on. The tone is amused, as the poet remarks that the wall is unnecessary since his apple trees will never get across and eat the other man's pines. The neighbor replies, "Good fences make good neighbors." He will repeat this saying again at the poem's end, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. The saying is, for Frost, less than obvious-rather, it is what we literary people today call "problematic":

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down."

By the end of the poem, it is clear that Frost's motive is more than mischievous. The neighbor doesn't get it and won't get it. Frost imagines him grasping his stones "like an old stonesavage armed":

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father's saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

I bring this poem up because I found myself thinking of it when I read Jay Ladin's essay, an essay that disturbs me in several ways, each having to do with taking questionable things for granted as if they were axioms, each having to do in a way with walls, each causing me to ask why?

Ladin early in his essay raises the question often raised, "whether there can or should be Holocaust poetry at all," observing that the Holocaust may be considered "unspeakable" either because it beggars conception and description ("its meaning surely exceeds the referential capacities of language") or because its details are so well known that repeating them collapses into "morally and culturally vitiating clichés." But he is aware that there exist thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of published poems dealing with the Holocaust. He accounts for this by declaring that Holocaust poetry is "a high-stakes act that commands . . . attention" in the way that is parallel to taboo-breaking work like that of Wordsworth writing about peasants, Whitman abandoning meter and celebrating sex, or Ginsberg writing about "fellatio, drugs, and be-bop." The implication seems to be that poets latch onto the topic because it will shock audiences, because it "trumps every trauma." This is not very convincing to me. I am more ready to believe that poets write of it because they are themselves shocked, distressed, agonized, traumatized-and writing is what poets do about trauma. We try to come to grips with what threatens to make us crazy, by surrounding it with language.

Ladin's more serious claim is that "exploiting the Shoah as a subject or pretext for art" (here he is quoting Susan Gubar) is shameful, and that "shame at turning atrocity into a pretext for art must be palpable as a revulsion against the very texture of the poetic." Italics mine; notice the prescriptive stance. Discussing Jason Summer's "Meyer Tsits and the Children," a poem based on a Roman Vishniac photograph, he declares that a "central feature of Holocaust poetics [is] the conflict between aesthetics and history, between the rarified world of poetry and the village-idiot-baiting, mass-murdering, photograph-perusing world beyond it." Excuse me? Is the perusal of photographs really of a piece with committing mass murder? I don't think so, any more than I believe that the world of poetry is "rarified" to poets. It isn't rarified to me, it's the core of my life and continuous with everything else in my life-and I believe many other poets would say the same. …

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