Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

Just published by the University of Alabama Press: Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris.

Both Miller and Morris edited earlier volumes for the NPF. Miller — with Terence Diggory — prepared The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets (2001). Morris assembled a special issue of Sagetrieb dedicated to the work of Allen Grossman (link here), which is also available as a freestanding book: Poetry’s Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedgagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman (2004).

Here’s what the back cover says about the new book:

“What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!”
— Franz Kafka

Kafka’s quip — paradoxical, self-questioning, ironic — highlights vividly some of the key issues of identity and self-representation for Jewish writers in the 20th century. No group of writers better represents the problems of Jewish identity than Jewish poets writing in the American modernist tradition — specifically secular Jews: those disdainful or suspicious of organized religion, yet forever shaped by those traditions.

This collection of essays is the first to address this often obscured dimension of modern and contemporary poetry: the secular Jewish dimension. Editors Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller asked their contributors to address what constitutes radical poetry written by Jews defined as “secular,” and whether or not there is a Jewish component or dimension to radical and modernist poetic practice in general. These poets and critics address these questions by exploring the legacy of those poets who preceded and influenced them — Stein, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen, and Ginsberg, among others.

While there is no easy answer for these writers about what it means to be a Jew, in their responses there is a rich sense of how being Jewish reflects on their aesthetics and practices as poets, and how the tradition of the avant-garde informs their identities as Jews. Fragmented identities, irony, skepticism, a sense of self as “other” or “outsider,” distrust of the literal, and belief in a tradition that questions rather than answers — these are some of the qualities these poets see as common to themselves, the poetry they make, and the tradition they work within.

The book’s contributors include many “NPF Alumni” — and one contributor who is also a member of the NPF Editorial Collective. Here’s the complete table of contents, with NPF-related folk in boldface:

Stephen Paul Miller, “Meet the Preface”

Daniel Morris, “Introduction”

Charles Bernstein, “Radical Jewish Culture / Secular Jewish Practice”

Hank Lazer, “Who or What Is a Jewish American Poet, with Specifi c Reference to David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Jerome Rothenberg”

Jerome Rothenberg, “The House of Jews: Experimental Modernism and Traditional Jewish Practice”

Bob Perelman, “Zukofsky at 100: Zukofsky as a Body of Work”

Bob Perelman, “Addendum: On “The Jewish Question”: Three Perspectives”

Norman Fischer, “Light(silence)word”

Kathryn Hellerstein, “On Yiddish Poetry and Translation of Yiddish Poetry”

Merle Bachman, “An “Exotic” on East Broadway: Mikhl Likht and the Paradoxes of Yiddish Modernist Poetry”

Ranen Omer-Sherman, “Revisiting Charles Reznikoff ’s Urban Poetics of Diaspora and Contingency”

Joshua Schuster, “Looking at Louis Zukofsky’s Poetics through Spinozist Glasses”

Amy Feinstein, ““Can a Jew be wild”: The Radical Jewish Grammar of Gertrude Stein’s Voices Poems”

Michael Heller, “Remains of the Diaspora: A Personal Meditation”

Alicia Ostriker, “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed”

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A personal essay in several chapters)”

Norman Finkelstein, “Secular Jewish Culture and Its Radical Poetic Discontents”

Meg Schoerke, “Radical Relation: Jewish Identity and the Power of Contradictions in the Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen”

Daniel Morris, ““Yes and No, Not Either/Or”: Aesthetics, Identity, and Marjorie Perloff ’s Vienna Paradox

Marjorie Perloff, ““Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps”: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice”

Charlie Bertsch, “Language in the Dark: The Legacy of Walter Benjamin in the Opera Shadowtime

Thomas Fink, “Danger, Skepticism, and Democratic Longing: Five Contemporary Secular Jewish American Poets”

Stephen Paul Miller, “Relentlessly Going On and On: How Jews Remade Modern Poetry without Even Trying”

Eric Murphy Selinger, “Azoy Toot a Yid: Secular Poetics and “The Jewish Way””

Bob Holman, “A Jew in New York”

Maria Damon, “Imp/penetrable Archive: Adeena Karasick’s Wall of Sound”

Adeena Karasick, “In the Shadow of Desire: Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime and Its Kabbalistic Trajectories”

Adeena Karasick, “Hijacking Language: Kabbalistic Trajectories”

Benjamin Friedlander, “Letter to the Romans”

Paul Auster, “White”

Paideuma Sighting

Nice to see an old issue of Paideuma cited by John Latta, one of our favorite bloggers — and a true library cormorant. The citation comes in a post titled “Pound au fond,” a meditation on Alice Steiner Amdur’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1936), a Radcliffe honors thesis published by Harvard when Amdur was 21 years old. Pound roasted the book in a letter to William Carlos Williams. Latta quotes that letter in full; he also digs out Pound’s scalding letter to Amdur, which was published in Paideuma 21.1-2 (1992).

The Paideuma text comes in two forms: a reproduction of the original typescript, and a transcript. There is also an introduction by Sebastian D. G. Knowles. To entice other library cormorants, here is an excerpt from that introduction:

In 1936, Alice Steiner Amdur completed her undergraduate thesis at Radcliffe College on The Poetry of Ezra Pound. Harvard University Press published the thesis as number 5 in a series of Radcliffe Honors Theses in English. This was of course a great honor, and the 21 year-old student sent a copy to William Carlos Williams, who liked it very much, and to Ezra Pound, who did not. …

The thesis begins as a measured appraisal of Pound’s early poetry. Short biographical chapters take the reader through the early influences of America, Provençe, and London, followed by a long and well-considered chapter on Imagism. … It is at the end of this chapter that Amdur begins to take issue with the poetry of Ezra Pound. The Cantos, she says, are “largely obscure or obscene,” the work of a “roaring madman.” The Hell Cantos, numbers 14 and 15, are neither “good poetry nor even — alas — good propaganda.” Cantos 8 through 11 are “just more talk,” “at once bewildering and disappointing.” Cantos 31 to 41 are ‘very poor.”

Reading the second half of Amdur’s thesis, one wonders what could have possibly possessed her to send Ezra Pound a copy. There is worse: Amdur compares Pound unfavorably with Eliot. … “Pound is vivid enough, but when we compare his laboriously accumulated filth with Eliot’s stark ‘That corpse you planted last year in the garden,’ we see the difference between a mind that hates and abuses and a mind that is horrified and can symbolize its horror in one unforegettable image.” Amdur’s point is well-taken by anyone who isn’t Pound.

The thesis ends, “Pound entered the service of English letters when the grate was cold. He stirred up the embers of poetry and kindled a flame that has lasted twenty years. If he seems outmoded now it is because the fire no longer needs his care, and he has run off to into the night after will-o’-the wisps.” … Ezra Pound hated that last sentence, and hated the whole thesis. It is as if Little red Riding Hood had thrown an incendiary bomb into grandmother’s house.

Pound takes six pages to lose his temper. On page 1 Amdur’s preface is “rather silly,” by page 4 she is a “Poor damn bleating little AMERICAN she sheep,” by the end Pound explodes with “IDIOT IDIOT” and “can you read?” Understanding its author to be a prisoner of the “Haaaavud” system, pound attacks the thesis as a by-product of the work of “Mathewson, “the bleating Untermud,” and the rest of the “beanery.” (Actually, only Matthiessen was at Harvard; R. P. Blackmur, though living in Boston, was a free-lance critic at the time, as was Louis Untermeyer. …) Pound reads Amdur’s thesis as he writes; his letter becomes an index, annotation by vitriolic annotation, to his disgust with university scholarship.

Does that whet your interest? The issue is still available for sale ($x.xx plus shipping; ordering info here).

Knowles, by the way, also prepared (with Scott A. Leonard) the T. S. Eliot bibliography published by the NPF as volume 2 of T. S. Eliot: Man and Poet (1992).

Aimless Reading

Michael Kelleher

A few days ago, Michael Kelleher celebrated the one-year anniversary of his “Aimless Reading” project, which he’s been writing in daily increments and posting on his blog, Pearlblossom Highway. The idea is brilliant: an A to Z working through of his library, by way of brief notes that are as much autobiography as commentary (and the commentaries are nearly always based on memory; Kelleher’s rereading is minimal). I love the literalness with which Kelleher enacts a basic principle of autobiography — looking outward to see inward, inward to see outward — and I also love the charming way he equates autobiography with a display of possessions. These two qualities place “Aimless Reading” in the tradition of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, which was also written in small increments. The smallness, I think, is essential to the charm, partly because the equation of a life with its possessions would become unbearable if the text belabored their weight with its own weight, partly because it makes you want to write a book like that yourself — it makes autobiography seem like child’s play, like a version of show and tell.

One year in, Kelleher has written some 400 entries, and gotten as far as William Faulkner, about 20% of his library. He expects to be working on the project until 2013.

Several of his entries touch on authors dear to the NPF (Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, H.D.), and a few reference the NPF directly, most recently “The E’s, Part 11 (Theodore Enslin),” which is keyed to Theodore Enslin‘s Nine and refers to our 2004 conference on Poetries of the 1940s, where Enslin was one of the featured poets. Here’s an excerpt:

On the second to last day of the conference, Jonathan Skinner suggested that Matthew Cooperman and I skip out of the conference to go visit Ted at his farm in rural Maine, a suggestion to which we happily agreed. We drove up the coast about an hour and then inland slightly to arrive a ways down a very secluded roaded at his house, which is about 250 years old, if not older.

Ted came downstairs and welcomed us and we all sat in his living room talking about poetry and so forth. He then took us out for a walk and showed us his property. As we walked toward the woods he pointed to a small house, which he said was his wife’s potting shed. Further on into the woods we came upon a clearing, in which were planted, quite a ways apart from one another, 8-10 different varieties of young trees. He explained that this was a kind of literary arbor he had been cultivating, meaning that each variety of tree was chosen because it had made an appearance in some literary work that was important to him — for example, he had planted a lotus blossom in honor of William Carlos Williams.

As befits an autobiography written in catalog form, this anecdote is continued in another entry that the alphabet placed first. In “The C’s, Part 34 (Matthew Cooperman),” Kelleher had this:

One afternoon, Matthew, Jonathan Skinner and myself skipped out of the conference for an afternoon to visit Ted Enslin’s farm deep in the Maine Woods. Enslin entertained us in the living room of his 200-year old farmhouse and then took us on a walk through a clearing in the woods to his writing cabin, a little A-frame filled with books and cd’s and trunks full of manuscripts. (I’ll write more about this visit when I get to Enslin’s books).

After visiting Ted, the three of us drove back toward Orono. I recall we stopped at a lobster shack by the side of the road and ate a very messy dinner while talking about Enslin, Creeley, Mac Low and many of the other old poets that had made their way to the conference — Creeley and Mac Low for the last time. In fact, I am pretty sure Mac Low’s reading at the conference was his final reading, period.

The 1940s Conference took place in the summer of 2004, when Mac Low was just short of his 82nd birthday. He passed away in December of that year.

The Borderline Pamphlet

Recently, the Beinecke Library at Yale purchased a copy of the short film Monkeys’ Moon (1929), making it available for viewing on their website (link here). Richard Deming — who read in the UMaine New Writing Series Fall 2008 — has written a brief article about the film for Artforum (.pdf here).

Monkeys’ Moon was produced by the circle around H.D., a group associated with the cinema journal Close Up and film company POOL Productions. The key personnel were H.D., Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), and Kenneth Macpherson, but other creative participants included Oswell Blakeston, René Crevel, Dorothy Richardson, Paul Robeson, Hanns Sachs, and Gertrude Stein.

In 1930, POOL released the silent feature Borderline (65 minutes), directed by Macpherson and starring Robeson. The other actors included Robeson’s wife, Eslanda; H.D. (credited as Helga Doorn); and Gavin Arthur, a gay rights pioneer and grandson of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. In conjunction with the film’s release H.D. wrote an essay on the production, published by Mercury Press in London. The pamphlet was reprinted by the NPF in 1987 as part of the first of several issues of Sagetrieb dedicated to H.D.  The issue — guest-edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis — is still available for sale ($8.95 plus shipping; ordering info here).The issue includes contributions by Anne Waldman, Beverly Dahlen, Robert Creeley, Bruce Boone, Fielding Dawson, Susan Stanford Friedman, Cassandra Laity, Eileen Gregory, Michael Boughn, S. Travis, and Burton Hatlen.

Monkeys’ Moon sent us back to the Borderline pamphlet, prompting the following thoughts from NPF editorial assistant Alison Fraser.

◊  ◊  ◊

The Borderline Pamphlet is an exploration of the artistic and intellectual possibilities of experimental cinema. The film’s title signifies the tension in polarity and the space that develops between polarized energies: the literal borderline location of the film’s town; visual polarity of black and white film; the borderline social status of its main characters, who are “not out of life, not in life.” But, most significantly to the Pamphlet, the director “Mr. Kenneth Macpherson is ‘borderline.’” It is only in this in-between position that he can create this art:

There is beauty, there has always been beauty. The problem in every art period is to present that beauty in a form allied to its environment and its time. …

Light flows over a face. That means nothing or little to you. There is a bronze forehead and the eye sockets are gouged out just this way; there is a concentration of shadow here, a plane of light there. You see a face, perhaps at most you see a pleasing portrait. You may even murmur “Gauguin.” You think, no doubt, that this is clever posing or perhaps delightful portraiture. You do not realize that that face has been moulded, modelled by an artist, that those lights have been arranged, re-arranged deliberately focussed. … Macpherson sculpts literally with light. He gouges, he reveals, he conceals.

In her 1931 poem “Red Roses for Bronze,” H.D. casts her speaker as a sculptor fashioning an image of her lover from “dark bronze.” Fantasizing on the completed project, the lover captured in bronze, H.D. writes that she might then

stroke at — something (stone, marble, intent, stable, materialized)
even magic sleep
might come again.

The same desire to approach the tangible is manifest in The Borderline Pamphlet even as the film itself defies capture by way of summary. The Borderline Pamphlet, written contemporaneously with “Red Roses for Bronze,” demonstrates H.D.’s struggle to establish a working context for film criticism, something she does primarily through the re-appropriation of visual art and musical terminology. She is self-aware of her approach, and its inherent difficulties:

It is unusual to weld the idea of bronze with movement, but a head is sculptured, gouged out in planes and focus of light and shadow and inset with eyes like those Mena period Egyptian heads with amber glass, yet that head moves.

Despite connecting Borderline to music and various facets of visual art, H.D. makes no outright attempt to connect it with poetry or her own poetics, although the latter is implied. The contrast between her poem and her pamphlet — even while both operate with the same material of bronze — is clear: in the poem, bronze is static, and all the better for the speaker who wishes encase her lover within it. In her analysis of the film, H.D. invokes bronze not simply as a remolding of its possibilities but as a complete revisualization of the abilities and laws of the medium.

Borderline is a dream and perhaps when we say that we have said everything.

In “Red Roses for Bronze,” the speaker hopes that with the completion of her art object, “magic sleep / might come again.” The ability of both art forms to initiate mental transmutation between life and art is one understood through the experience of sleep and dreams. This is illuminating for H.D.:

The film is the art of dream portrayal and perhaps when we say that we have achieved the definition, the synthesis toward which we have been striving. Film is art of another dimension, including not only all art but including all life. Art and life walk hand in hand, drama and music, epic song and lyric rhythm, dance and the matter of science here again, as in some elaborate “allegory” of the Florentines, take hands, twine in sisterly embrace before their one God, here electrically incarnated, LIGHT.

A conclusion, found near the beginning of The Borderline Pamphlet, argues for the subjectivity of beauty and the possibilities inherent in any art form. Though the specific example of H.D.’s pamphlet — that film should be considered a valuable art — is no longer necessary, the general thrust of her sentiments is:

There is no such thing as any fixed art standard. This is beautiful, this was beautiful, this may be beautiful. There is one beauty, it is the beauty of belief, of faith, of hope. And if that beauty is allied to sheer grit and technical efficiency, you get a new sort of art creation.

Paideuma 35.3


Poetics Forum

Barrett Watten, “Faultlines in Poetics: Culture / Politics / Economics / Generation”

Maria Damon, “Two Modernist Precursors in Cultural Studies and Poetics: (How) Can They Help Us Now?”

George Hartley, “Under the Sign of Paideuma: Scary Ideograms & The New Fascisms”

Joel Nickels, “The Art of Interruption: William Carlos Williams and New Materialist Poetics”

Sarah Ruddy, “‘Bad Timing’ and Language Poetry in Benjamin Friedlander’s Simulcast


Morgan Myers, “Ezra Pound Me Fecit: Memorial Object and Autonomous Poem in The Cantos

Steve Pinkerton, “Profaning the Communion Table: Mina Loy and the Modernist Poetics of Blasphemy”

Bruce Holsapple, “On Whalen’s Use of Voice”


Jane Augustine (Analyzing Freud: The Letters of H.D., Bryher and Their Circle, ed. Susan Stanford Friedman; and Rachel Connor, H.D. and the Image)

Richard L. Blevins (Michael Heller, Uncertain Poetries)

Patricia Cockram (Ira B. Nadel, Ezra Pound: A Literary Life; and Ezra Pound, Early Writings: Poems and Prose, ed. Ira B. Nadel)

Leon Surette (Mary de Rachewiltz, Ezra Pound, Father and Teacher: Discretions; and Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance)

The cover features a handwritten page from The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan UP, 2007).

With the conclusion of volume 35 Paideuma moves to a biannual format, though our plan for the foreseeable future is to publish double issues only. The once-a-year format is better suited to our present staffing situation and should help us maintain a regular production schedule. Stay tuned for news about volumes 36 and 37.