Pondering poetry

Adam Kirsch explores the unanswerable: Is there such a thing as Jewish literature?

‘AS LITERATURE became freer, it became less dangerous – and less powerful.’ (photo credit: WES BAUSMITH/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT)
‘AS LITERATURE became freer, it became less dangerous – and less powerful.’
Adam Kirsch, born in 1976 in Los Angeles, the son of a lawyer and biblical scholar, is a prolific poet and literary critic. Kirsch’s reviews and feature articles have appeared in The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement; his poems in The Paris Review, The Partisan Review and The New Criterion. He has published two books of poems and eight volumes of nonfiction, including biographies of Benjamin Disraeli and Lionel Trilling.
Kirsch’s new book contains 13 essays, most of them previously published, divided almost equally between reflections on the work of contemporary poets for whom religion “is a live issue,” and assessments of the ways in which Jewish writers have dealt with Judaism and Jewish identity. A clear and cogent, if not always original, thinker, and an accomplished stylist, Kirsch is especially adept at giving his writers their innings before asking important questions about the relationship between literature, spirituality, morality and politics.
Kirsch provides close readings of the poetry of the Book of Psalms, Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan and Christian Wiman. Psalms, he points out, removes the Christian drama from sin and redemption and places it in the here and now. The vengefulness and violence, self-righteousness and reassurance of Psalms’ poems, he argues, help explain their appeal to a wide array of believers.
To a “resisting reader,” Kirsch writes, Heaney’s use of the word “equal” can seem like an equivocation. Heaney’s greatest power, he maintains, is not to strengthen and console, “but to celebrate,” by giving “rapt attention to things and creatures,” making “the world spell itself, and turning locale into utterance.”
Kay Ryan’s poems remind Kirsch that “abrasiveness used to be a prized characteristic of American literature, a reflection of the democratic orneriness of the homesteader and frontiersman.”
Wiman’s work, Kirsch writes, dwells on the artist’s tendency to draw on and produce alienation, hovering above life, “spying on it through a hole, afraid of falling calamitously in it.”
To Kirsch the alienation feels like a sin, akin to pride, in the sense that it is self-inflicted, turning a strength of will “into a deadly weakness.” However, in Wiman’s most recent poems, Kirsch finds “a determination to find the truth of the world in grace’s arrival, rather than its departure.”
In two fine essays, “The Poetry of World and the Poetry of Earth,” and “Poetry and the Problem of Politics,” Kirsch provides a provocative interpretation of the genre’s evolving cultural orientation.
In the ancient world, he indicates, epic poets sided with power rather than justice, and glorified war. The Romantics made repression the enemy, deeming release (and the justice accompanying it) the solution.
The modernist generation of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound looked to poetry to help rescue a shattered world; failing to do so, they lapsed into nostalgia for a time in which poets had power, and gained substantial cultural authority, which they lent to reactionary, fascistic, and antisemitic ideas.
In the second half of the 20th century, Kirsch writes, poets saw themselves as witnesses, not creators, albeit with a strong sense of obligation. Ironically, as literature became freer, it became less dangerous – and less powerful.
In his essays on Jewish literature, Kirsch asks why many American Jewish writers, including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, have resisted inclusion in that category. The explanation he endorses involves the assimilation of Jews in the United States, many of whom do not speak Yiddish or Hebrew, live in Jewish communities or observe Jewish laws. For political radicals, resistance stemmed from a conviction that class, not nation or religion, was the enduring reality. Subsuming her Jewishness to a universal humanism, Kirsch notes, Rosa Luxemberg proclaimed that she was as concerned with workers on rubber plantations in Putumayo as she was with “the special suffering of the Jews.” Isaac Deutscher, who coined the phrase “the non-Jewish Jew,” believed gentiles could not help noticing that Jews in the Soviet Union did not serve in the Red Army and continued to practice “the art and the tricks of petty commerce.”
For Luxemberg and Deutscher, Kirsch writes, “true Judaism is the faith that rejects Judaism.” Contemporary critics like Alain Badiou and Christian Zizek, Kirsch adds, “have embraced the idea of the non-Jewish Jew because it gives anti-Judaism an impeccably Jewish pedigree” and shields them from charges of antisemitism.
Kirsch claims that individuals who shun the label “Jewish writer” are relying on a false dichotomy. The category, he insists, does not imply that one loves, hates, fears and desires “in a different way from people who are not Jewish.” Indeed, as James Joyce demonstrated, a “local” identity is not in conflict with a universal identity, “but is precisely the way to reach the universal.”
Bellow and Roth, I suspect, might agree with this view. They might point out that Joyce is rarely identified as an “Irish” writer.” They might suggest that their preferred label, “American writer,” is not meant to be a repudiation of their Jewishness.
Kirsch flirts with the idea that “what makes literature Jewish is its decision to engage with Jewish texts and vocabularies, even in a negative way” (as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger argued in Jews and Words), but acknowledges that “this does not require an extensive knowledge of Jewish tradition.” And that the notion that literature can be Jewish in form but not content and subject matter is “problematic.”
And so, alas, we are left without a satisfactory answer to the questions posed at the beginning and end of Kirsch’s book Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?: “Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Literature?”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.