Poems after Auschwitz

David Lehman’s ‘Yeshiva Boys’ is an ode to the continued beat of poetry.

February 12, 2010 16:43
3 minute read.
The Oholei Torah elementary chool in Brooklyn. Poe

yeshiva boys 311. (photo credit: Jonathan C. Torgovnik)

In 2003, Newsweek ran an article titled “Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?” Its author, Bruce Wexler, wrote, “It’s difficult to imagine a world without movies, plays, novels and music, but a world without poems doesn’t have to be imagined.”

Why? According to Wexler, the “art form is dead.” Wexler doesn’t wag his finger at poetry, rather he points toward society. In the 1970s and ’80s, he wrote, American culture “became intensely prosaic.” “By the ’90s,” he continued, “it was all over.” According to Wexler, impatience, lack of knowledge and sheer laziness all contributed to poetry’s demise.

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And in autumn 2009, the magazine apparently checked poetry’s pulse and found it still enough for Wexler’s article to be resurrected for the Web site.

But Newsweek would have been well-advised to wait a few months for David Lehman’s Yeshiva Boys to hit the streets skipping. Dubbed “Poetry You Need to Read” by Entertainment Weekly, Lehman’s work is whimsical, thought provoking and crackling with life.

Perhaps that’s because a life lies between the two covers. Lehman, the editor of the Best American Poetry series and the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and nonfiction, offers intensely personal reflections on subjects ranging from his childhood in New York City to his religious upbringing to his parents’ escape from Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. Lehman also gives the reader a fresh look at pop culture, sex, history, politics and philosophy – often on the same page. Pairing Henry James and Coca-Cola, suicide bombers and Schopenhauer, Lehman’s writing is exhilaratingly inventive.

While many contemporary poets shun both form and rhyme, Lehman uses these tools – only to turn around and shake them off. A crisp testament to end-rhyme stands near a breathless number lacking punctuation, with only a sestina between them. Lehman places another sestina, a form known for its stringent structure, pages away from a prose poem, a fluid form that blurs and combines genres. The writer gives a stiff, starched-collar nod to poetic tradition and then playfully sticks his tongue out at it.

Lehman seems to have a similarly complicated relationship with religion. In “Days of Penitence and Awe” he writes:

In temple I prayed
and chanted Holy! Holy!
Holy! And was scared.
Father forgive me.
For what? For things done, not done.
The time I wasted.
For ‘scared,’ read ‘sacred,’
its anagram. I am, said
the Lord. The terror!

Though Lehman questions Judaism at times, he always returns to it.

The title poem, “Yeshiva Boys,” is a 12-part meditation that seamlessly blends Judaism, Kafka, Israel-Diaspora tensions, Cold War politics and intelligence moves worthy of a spy novel. And the relationship of today’s Jews with the collective memory of the Holocaust is a fascinating thread throughout the series.

Lehman writes:

In the yeshiva playground they were marching
chanting marching around in circles bearing pickets
bearing scrolls saying ‘No poems after Auschwitz! No poems...

Does that mean that poetry is indeed dead? Yeshiva Boys – one of the most exciting books I’ve picked up in a long time – offers convincing proof that it’s not.

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