Ten Great Jewish Poets

By Marmer, Jake | Moment, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Ten Great Jewish Poets


Marmer, Jake, Moment


Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

Stein not only coined the term "Lost Generation" but became one of its foremost figures. Although her Jewish identity was notoriously confused, entangled and largely ignored in her own writings, a number of scholars have argued that Stein's propensity toward experimental poetics that defied genre and convention had a lot to do with her own marginal status, both as a lesbian and a Jew. Who can't see wry Jewish wit in her famous dictum: "To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write."

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Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938)

This great Russian Jewish poet is remembered as a leader of the Acmeist poetry movement, which sought to combine clear, accessible verse with the imagery of world mythology. Mandelshtam's reflections on his Jewishness appeared in his writing during the late 1920s in reaction to the threat of Stalinist purges that targeted, among various other groups, minorities, poets and non-conventional thinkers. In his essay collection Fourth Prose--composed during Stalinist rule--he suddenly exclaims "die honorable name of Jew, of which I'm proud." As Mandelshtam foresaw, he was arrested and met his tragic end in obscurity in a Siberian prison.

Paul Celan (1920-1970)

Widely considered one of Europe's most important post-World War II poets, Celan's poetic identity was largely shaped by his experience in the Shoah, in which his family perished. In "Death Fugue," he famously wrote: "Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night/Death is a master aus Deutschland." Celan wrote in German, and his fraught relationship with this language defined his voice: abstract, perplexing and dark. Unable to bear the weight of his past, the poet ended his life at the age of 50.

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

Bringing together meditations on Jewishness, Israel and diaspora, the divine, love and eros, Amichai's Hebrew-language poetry was equally influenced by Israeli colloquial street-talk and biblical Hebrew. Gende, pervasive humor makes his voice instantly recognizable. Poet Ghana Bloch, one of Amichai's foremost translators, has done a formidable job preserving and reconfiguring his voice for English-speaking audiences. She and Ghana Kronfeld collaborated on translating these memorable lines: "God is a staircase that ascends/to a place that is no longer there, or isn't there yet."

Samuel Menashe (b. 1925)

Largely unknown until his late 70s, the bestowal of the Neglected Master Award by the Poetry Foundation in 2006 put Menashe's terse, intensely spiritual poetry on the international map. With a propensity for density and mystery, the poet focuses on Jewish imagery at the heart of his writing. …

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