If poetry requires disclosure, I’ll start with one: I am a friend of Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s, and a fellow Yiddish poet. He sent me his book with a kind dedication, and an additional inscription in his neat hand: bet-samekh-daled. That is, the author of this book entitled “Prayers of a Heretic” noted that his signature to me was written “besiyata-dishmaya,” with the aid of Heaven.
Such a juxtaposition is an illuminating introduction to the contradictions in Taub’s work. He left the ultra-Orthodox community, but that is not the subject of his poems any more than sex is the topic of Yona Wallach’s — that departure makes the poems possible, but the volume is not merely a translation of his personal story into poetic biography. Rather, this transformation gave him a set of tools. To become someone else is a lasting condition of every living person; Taub’s particular experience of that change makes him able to perceive it in others.
Taub’s poems are like short stories, or cleverly caught snapshots. His depiction of diverse personalities is sympathetic, sometimes even tender in its broadmindedness, and nearly unerring. Characters in a city crowded with people, abandoned and alone in their apartment, “snot pooling on [their] floorboards” (this from “The Woman Who Did Not Turn Her Sorrow Into Art” — itself a thought-provoking title); couples gay and straight, old and young, having sex in a real bed or in their imagination; cigarette smokers thrown into the world (“Temporary Outcasts”).
There are the eccentric denizens of the libraries which are their only refuge, and the quasi prophets caught in a dystopia they are powerless to prevent (these are some of Taub’s most strident, least nuanced, and thus least successful poems). Of course, as well, we meet those who have left the ultra-Orthodoxy of Taub’s youth.
If, as Shelley had it, poets are the legislators of the world, then at this past year’s KlezKanada Poetry Retreat their law was music. Hosted at the large, week-long klezmer festival, the poetry was surrounded by accordionists, tsimbelists, people tapping out rhythms or tuning their violins. I was privileged to be co-teaching the retreat along with poet, scholar, and performer Adeena Karasick. It is a further privilege to introduce some of the poems, written at the retreat, to Forward readers. This kind of Jewish poetry, as it became clear throughout our sessions, doesn’t merely escape definitions. It drops words like notes into a stewing, communal, dialogical collective, quite like the one that unfolded amongst us.
How much of our yearning for transcendence is actually a yearning for love?
The sublimation of desire takes many forms. Mystics longing for the divine, clearly, but more subtly, even those religious who aver no such emotional fire, but who nonetheless gain senses of connection from the observance of rituals. And it appears in poetry, in art, and in human relationships of many configurations.
“Kill Your Darlings,” the new film about a lesser-known episode in the life of poet Allen Ginsberg, is as painful an evocation of this confusion of desires, particularly when they are unconsummated. The film tells the story of Ginsberg’s first transformations from awkward, suburban Jewish teenager into the history-making Beat poet he would later become (a period also captured in Ginsberg’s journals, published as “The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” which I reviewed for this publication a few years ago).
There are only glimmers of Ginsberg’s poetic genius here, however. What’s foremost in him, as portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, is longing. He yearns to break free, to challenge convention, to make a mark on history.
Or does he? “Kill Your Darlings” nails the ambiguity of Ginsberg’s longings, which may be more for the rebellious, beautiful Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) than for lofty goals of poetry and revolution. Carr is everything Ginsberg is not: rebellious, fearless, hip, and sexually vibrant. And gorgeous: DeHaan looks like Leonardo DiCaprio’s sexier little brother, and his waifish Carr is irresistible. (He also looks a lot like Ginsberg’s eventual lover, Peter Orlovsky.)
Carr is used to being the object of male affection, and much of the film revolves around his codependent relationship with David Kammerer, an older man who writes Carr’s college papers for him in exchange for sex. As the film reveals in the opening reel, Carr eventually kills Kammerer, under circumstances which are only gradually revealed. But Carr here is the villain; he exploits the affection of Kammerer and Ginsberg alike, and revels in rebelliousness while insulated from the consequences by his family’s wealth.
Former United States poet laureate Philip Levine has been awarded the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement. The award, which comes with a $100,000 prize, is given annually for “outstanding and proven mastery of the art of poetry.”
Levine was 83 when he was named poet laureate in 2011. Although he now lives in Fresno California and lived for some time in New York, he is most closely associated with the working class experience of his native Detroit. Levine began writing poetry during breaks between shifts as an autoworker, and his first collection, “On The Edge,” was published in 1963. “From the beginning of his career he has considered the assumptions of the American ruling class — especially those they have successfully transmitted to the rest of the country — with a degree of skepticism,” wrote Dan Friedman about him in the Forward.
Levine is known for his poetry collections, including, “What Work Is,” which won the 1991 National Book Award and “The Simple Truth,” which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. His “News of the World” was published in 2009.
“I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own,” Levine wrote about his motivation for becoming a poet. “I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”
Poet, publisher and bookstore maven Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, at 94, arguably the most popular living versifier, or at least author of the single most popular book of poetry — the million-selling “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1957). It’s a distinction he carries lightly in Christopher Felver’s new documentary “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.” The poet is rebelliously cheerful (in historic footage) while Allen Ginsberg is dour, accepting awards with surprise rather than vanity, buoyantly living his rebel life to the end.
Blame it on San Francisco, which properly occupies an oversize role in this charming film. Born in Yonkers as the son of an Italian father and a Sephardic mother, Ferlinghetti made it all the way to genteel Westchester the hard way.
When his father died six months after he was born and his mother was confined to an asylum, the boy was taken to France to live for his first years, until his aunt got a job in Bronxville and brought him there to grow up and go to school. Then came the University of North Carolina, where he began writing regularly (covering sports events for the school paper), then the Navy and back to France. And then, most decisively, to San Francisco. The bohemian city was waiting for him as he was for the city.
In the annual Forward Fives selection we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of our favorite works of poetry of 2012. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
This year, among the Forward’s five notable poetry books, there are two memorable retrospective collections by Alicia Ostriker and Michael Heller, as well as three books of brand new poetry from Adeena Karasick, Hank Lazer and Rachel Tzvia Back.
It is particularly curious to juxtapose Lazer’s “N18” and Karasick’s “This Poem,” as both books engage with the timely question of the poetic medium: What does poetry look like, and how might it be read in a time when the very process of reading — and the existence of a book — is a blinking question mark. Lazer’s hand-written “shape poems” move against the current of the reflowable text trend, hearkening to poetry’s hand-written past, and also pointing to what might become a hallmark of poetry’s future — multiple points of entry into the non-linear ocean of text. Karasick’s book, however, speeds right along with the media overload, incorporating its methods and lingo, laughing with and at it, both critiquing and poeticizing. Please note that the books are arranged in alphabetic order, based on authors’ last names.
When we think of great New York poets — Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson, among others — what they’ve immortalized and exalted have been the streets and energies of Manhattan or, on rare and less transcendent occasions, Brooklyn. The Bronx, when it did appear, has always been something of the old country — where immigrant parents and grandparents lived, a remote, provincial satellite. And certainly Riverdale, Bronx’s sleepy neighborhood with a large Jewish population, would appear to have nothing to offer to poetic imagination. Judith Baumel, featured on The Arty Semite last year, seem to have been the only exception.
And yet, Sarah Stern’s recent collection of poems, “Another Word for Love,” is profoundly grounded in Riverdale — in its subway stations and parks, buildings and streets. The first of the two poems featured today, “Morning Prayer,” takes place on the streets of the neighborhood, and features a curious juxtaposition of spiritual experiences, genders and visions. The second piece, “Reentry,” is an homage to exceptional character, evoked so vividly that he practically walks (or rather, waddles) off the lines of the poem.
An anthology, “Isaac Rosenberg: 21st-Century Oxford Authors,” reminds readers of a major modern writer who died in the trenches during World War I. Born in Bristol to Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian Jewish emigrants, Rosenberg (1890-1918) moved with his family to London’s East End, where he continued to face economic hardship.
Gifted at both literature and painting, Rosenberg could afford to study these subjects only when he found a – sometimes captious – patron. Despite being barely five feet tall, he joined the British army after the war broke out to ensure that his mother would receive some income. From this abbreviated life emerged poetry and prose radiant with Yiddishkeit. Edited by Vivien Noakes, “Isaac Rosenberg: 21st-Century Oxford Authors” includes the poet’s reviews of art exhibits. One such from 1912 discusses a London show of Pre-Raphaelite painters; of the works on display, Rosenberg prefers the Jewish artist Simeon Solomon’s: “So spiritual in feeling, so perfect in design, the gracious reticence of its colour.” The same year, ever-conscious of his identity, Rosenberg marvels about an exhibit of artworks by John Henry Amschewitz (1882-1942) and Henry Ospovat (1877–1909), although observing: “One would not suspect for a moment the Jewish parentage of this remarkable progeny.” In a wartime letter to his friend, the author and translator Sydney Schiff, Rosenberg notes anti-Semitism in one troop: “My being a Jew makes it bad amongst these wretches.”
After a transfer in 1916, Rosenberg reports better treatment “as our second in command is a Jewish officer who knows of me from his people.” Writing the poem, “The Jew,” about the enduring moral influence of Moses, Rosenberg also drafted a verse play in which the youthful Moses suffocates an offending Egyptian. Planning another “Jewish play” on Judas Maccabeus (“I can put a lot in I’ve learned out here,” he writes a patron), Rosenberg confides to Schiff that one of his leading poetic inspirations is Heinrich Heine (“I admire [Heine] more for always being a Jew at heart than anything else.”) By contrast, he rejects an essay by G. K. Chesterton on Israel Zangwill because Chesterton “seems sly and certainly anti-Jewish.” When a patron sends him Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s 1917 “Book of Jewish Thoughts for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers,” Rosenberg is underwhelmed. A gimlet-eyed poetic soul, Rosenberg’s death in 1918, when he was hoping to transfer to what became known as the “Judean Regiment” in then-Mesopotamia, was an incalculable loss to modern literature.
Listen to a choral setting of Rosenberg’s poem “August 1914” by composer Joel Boyd performed by the Milwaukee Choral Artists here.
Listen to a reading of Rosenberg’s poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” by Jonathan Jones here.
The tracks on Max Layton’s new album, “2 The Max,” are more stories than songs. Influenced by two of Canada’s greatest poets, his father Irving Layton and his close family friend Leonard Cohen, as well as his own interesting 66 years of existence, the singer-songwriter shares some hard-earned lessons on life and love set to a musical backdrop.
In this year, the centennial of his father’s birth, the Ontario-based Layton looks to the past and the future as he celebrates restored eyesight. It was a sudden onset of legal blindness a few years ago that prompted Layton to retreat into a private darkness to write his first album, “Heartbeat of Time.” His new album is a response to the restoration of his sight, thanks to “the miracles of modern medicine” as he writes in the CD’s liner notes.
Layton was taught as a young child to play guitar by Cohen, and has been playing and singing his whole life.
“My one constant was the guitar. I learned new songs wherever I went and played in coffee houses and on street corners whenever I got the chance,” he writes on his website.
Sheva Zucker’s late mother Miriam was still attending a women’s Yiddish reading group in Winnipeg until just a few months before she died last January at age 97. So, even before her mother passed away, Zucker knew what the best way would be to memorialize her.
“My mother was never a shul-goer, and davening is not the fullest expression of my Judaism, either,” Zucker, executive director of the League for Yiddish, told The Arty Semite. “I wanted some way some other than just saying Kaddish that was more meaningful for her and for me.”
That desire led Zucker to create a blog titled “*Liderlikht,” or “Candles of Song,” within weeks of her mother’s passing. The blog, on which she posts Yiddish poems about mothers, went live on February 9. Each week, she posts a different poem in its original Yiddish, with English translation and transliteration. She also includes a brief biography of each poet.
“Candles of Song” comes from a line in the first poem Zucker posted, “Frum” (Piously), by Rashel Veprinski: “Piously as my mother the waxen wicks / I light my candle of song.” Veprinski (1896-1981) came to New York from Ukraine in 1907, and began writing poetry at age 15. She was first published in 1918 in the journal “Di Naye Velt,” and she went on to write several books of poetry, as well as an autobiographical novel, short stories, and many articles for Yiddish periodicals. From the 1920s she lived with the famous Yiddish writer Mani Leyb, until his death in 1953.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Haviva Pedaya and Mois Ben Harash are the recipients of this year’s Yehuda Amichai Prize for Hebrew Poetry, the award’s panel announced, with the NIS 30,000 purse to be granted at a Jerusalem ceremony next month.
The Yehuda Amichai Prize for Hebrew poetry is granted by the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Culture to mark poets for collections published in the last seven years or for his lifetime’s work. The award’s declared purposes are the preservation and circulation of Amichai’s poetic heritage; encouraging Israeli poets and creation. Past recipients of the award include Sh. Shifra, Agi Mishol, Roni Somek, and Nurit Zarchi.
Pedaya will receive the award for “D’yo Adam” (Human Ink), a collection of poems published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 2009, while Ben Harash will be noted for his “Lo Holech Le’Shum Makom” (Not Going Anywhere), published by Resisei Nehara in 2010.
between Pesach and Shavuos
in the Greater Hungary spring
did Jews count
in cattle cars
without food or toilets
the hours, minutes, seconds
churning past burgeoning fields of new grain
until they reached
The irony of Pesach lies in the juxtaposition of the formative freedom narrative with the fraught mythic lore that goes along with its celebration. Today on The Arty Semite we’re featuring two poems by Talia Lavin that address this very juxtaposition through the lens of the contemporary Israel.
The first poem tackles the subject head-on: “we’ll sing the story of a book,/ a river of blood.” The second does not mention the holiday, but references the time of year that Pesach falls out on. This spring has less to do with symbols of rejuvenation and rebirth than with the sentiment of T.S. Eliot’s line, “April is the cruelest month.” In this piece, Lavin rethinks another formative myth and imbues it with gritty reality.
“Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on / the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village. / downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, / talking, reading the Kaddish aloud..”
So begins Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” a sprawling lament for his late mother, Naomi Ginsberg. Written in 1959, three year’s after his mother’s death, the poem — often considered Ginsberg’s best — tells the story of Naomi’s tormented life and the impact of her mental breakdowns on her son. On February 23, as part of the Park Avenue Armory’s Tune-in Festival, “Kaddish” was performed aloud, accompanied by an original score by guitarist Bill Frisell, and set to a changing digital backdrop designed by artist Ralph Steadman.
Narrated in two parts, with Hal Willner playing the role of Allen and Chloe Webb interjecting as Naomi, the performance brought to life Ginsberg’s struggle with both the life and death of his mother. The Kaddish, though recited for the dead, is in fact an affirmation of belief in God and his everlasting goodness. In many ways, Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” is too — an affirmation not in God, but in life itself, and ultimately in the mercy of death.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Yarona Caspi’s interest in poetry “is a meeting of souls,” says the singer and artist in a conversation about her fourth and latest album, “Mafia Shel Isha Ahat” (“One-Woman Mafia”). It is an album on which she manages to bring together her intense personality and her awareness of the pop audience through 12 texts by various poets for which she has composed music. Tonight she will launch the album with a live concert at Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 venue.
Caspi is not only a talented composer but also a rocker in her soul and an esteemed musician who has been operating on the fringes of the Israeli music scene since the 1990s. She appeared with Eran Zur’s band Carmela Gross Wagner around the time of the album “Iver Balev Yam” (“Blind Man in the Middle of the Sea,” 1995 ) and was a member of the band Gvanim Kehim with Itai Balter. Her third album, “Ego,” which features the lovely song “Shir Shel Hat’hala” (“Song of Beginning”), came out around two years ago and immediately, and rightfully, earned critics’ praises.
Across the centuries, Jewish hermeneutists — interpreters of the holy texts — have had radically different agendas: illuminating and whitewashing, edifying and indoctrinating. A poetic impulse, if not outright poetry, was occasionally part of the picture, too. And how could it not? Dealing with poetic texts of our national and religious mythos, imaginative responses only seemed natural.
Laurie Patton’s recent collection “Angel’s Task: Poems in Biblical Time” presents poems, named for and arranged by the weekly Torah portion. Today we’re featuring two works from this wonderful collection.
“Shemot” is a riff, a meditation on the theme of names and naming, that builds up, like a musical composition, resulting in a mighty metaphysical insight. “Vayechi,” referring to last week’s parsha, is more in the tradition of the dvar Torah — a miniature hermeneutic sermon. Connecting a personal story with the textual insight, it is a profound psychological commentary of the biblical figure of Joseph, and the bearing this figure has on the national Jewish consciousness.
“Shemot” was originally published as “Drawn Out” in Studio One, St. John’s University Journal of the Arts.
Something Urgent I Have to Say to You: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams
By Herbert Leibowitz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pages, $40.00
William Carlos Williams was a second-rate poet. Was.
These days, of course, he’s a towering figure of American modernism, the heir to Walt Whitman, the godfather of myriad schools of poetry, including the Beats, Black Mountain poets, confessional poets, esoteric poets and language poets. At the end of his long life, young poets made pilgrimages to see the Sage of Rutherford, N.J.
But in the beginning, he was considered a dabbler and dilettante compared to glamorous contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. While Pound was seen as an autodidact (he taught himself nine languages) and defender of civilization against the “barbarism” of the masses, Williams was seen as a part-time backwater scribe obsessed with capturing the chaos of the American experience.
On Tuesday, Jake Marmer wrote about poems as a noisy Mediterranean duplex. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think the maestro must have seen art — in his case, music — as something of a daily practice; a certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration — curiosity maybe — so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.
Working on the last stages of my new book, “Jazz Talmud,” I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor, publisher and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.
Jake Marmer is the author of “Jazz Talmud.” His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking — it’s a funny poem — but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things — out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny - don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
One of the most compelling themes, and even triggers, in contemporary Jewish poetic discourse is the question of otherness — our own otherness.
There’s no better time to contemplate this idea than during the winter holidays, when cultural differences come into stark relief and questions of identity resurface, as do millennia-old grudges and dilemmas.
Ivan Klein, who was previously featured on The Arty Semite about a year ago, is here again with a brand new piece, “Christmas Note.” Combining prose poetry with expository writing, reminiscing and rambling, Klein’s style is unique. In a way, it is a conversation with his higher self, and we’re lucky to listen in.