What every master of ceremonies should say as she introduces a poet: “Prepare to meet your maker.”
Is what most people call mysticism an escape from reality or a means of entry into it with greater intensity? Or maybe that should just be — my standard for mysticism is the same as for poetry: does it make life more interesting or less?
I’ve spent a good deal of time in and thinking about the park across the street from our apartment here in New Haven’s Wooster Square, a magical confluence of paths and patches of grass under an urban forest canopy — plane trees and oaks of various sorts, Norwegian maples, sugar maples, basswood and elm, tulip and even something called Kentucky coffee tree. There’s a flow and vitality, a roughness and variety running through this place that is what every city planner worth his sketches dreams of, and I see it in at once the most concrete and deliciously Kabbalistic terms — an elaborate dance of couples and groups, loners, birds and squirrels, dogs on parade, the sefirot-like network of interlocking paths. “When will the performance begin?” a woman asked me one Sunday, as I sat there taking it in.
Then... as the New England spring reaches the height of its lusciousness, David Shulman writes from Jerusalem, among other things alerting us to his new piece in the New York Review of Books, which I read last night (in part by way of preparation for our reentry into that psychic maelstrom next month). On the face of it a review of Peter Beinart’s new book about the crisis of Zionism — which he praises but finds far too mild. In fact, Shulman’s essay is a lucid and devastating depiction of the suicidal, moral collapse at the heart of that place that has been at the heart of my writing life for so long (and at Shulman’s for longer still). Not exactly news, of course, but he makes it matter anew.
That’s what we’ll be returning to.
“Life is nothing if not sacrificial” — Lionel Trilling, quoted in Edward Mendelson’s NYRB article in the same issue. One doesn’t always know where the sacrifice is, what one is sacrificing, or why (and is it sacrifice if one isn’t conscious of it being so — and does that matter?). But Trilling is right. Subtle or substantial, joyous or tragic, it’s the locus of meaning in just about everything.
Bad poetry, mediocre poetry — poetry that lacks a sacrificial dimension?
And this is Novalis: “One submits to true translation out of a kind of poetic morality, out of the sacrifice of one’s own desires.” The same applies to the soft-core political activity of demonstration and the hard-core work of non-violent activism, and also the writing of articles and poems exposing what’s going on under so many civilized noses, whether it’s overtly political or not. It’s all translation — of moral, linguistic, and psychic material — and Freud’s observation about the agon of treatment applies: what sort of “displeasure” (discomfort) is one willing to undergo in the “labor of translation” that brings these materials to the surface of one’s work — the work of analysis, or poesis?
I used to want to make poems as though poetry or even speech hadn’t existed before me. Now I work at the other end of the spectrum, making poems mostly out of what already exists, and somehow finding that fresher. More mysterious.
This is part of the classical notion of the first, preparatory phase of rhetoric — inventio, discovery, the identification of topoi, or the conceptual places in which one’s deep subject and style will emerge. Which is what got me to Jerusalem in the first place some thirty years ago. Why Jerusalem? Everyone asks, and then has a hard time with the inevitable answer: to re-find and refine my English through Hebrew. To reconfigure it through the possibilities that lie on the Hebraic side of the hyphen of the Judeo-Christian legacy that English poetry is, and — with a combination of luck and learning — to send it toward what Hugh Kenner calls the secret places of one’s imagination. As a retired six-foot-four wood-chopping shop teacher friend of my family asked at the time: “You’re going to Jerusalem to study English?”
In a sense, I was. And being there, absorbing Hebrew and later Arabic, rewired my notion of what it is that poems might do. What it means to be original; what ornament is and does; and how a line might unfold and be heard. In its various forms — including its Arabized medieval mode — Hebrew became for me what Arabic was for the Jewish poets of Spain: the way out that led, curiously, in.
Something useful I stumbled on this morning while looking for music that might help me work: Bach’s miraculously microcosmic Inventions, which he titled “honest instruction,” were written for children to teach them how to “discover” the little ideas and starting points that unfold into a piece, and then to move, within exercises in counterpoint, from givenness to song.
“The seriously disturbed patient is the one who can be most profoundly influenced, his need being the greatest.” That’s Lou Andreas-Salomé in her Freud journal, which I’m reading now and which said to me: “The seriously disturbed artist is the one who can be most profoundly influenced, his need being the greatest.” Disturbed, that is, as in susceptible, receptive, disrupted in the matrix of her life.
An interviewer asks if my work on the Poetry of Kabbalah has made my faith in, and understanding of, God more real. My eyes cross at questions like that. Absolutely, all that work, all those years, deepened my understanding of the world of Kabbalah, and it strengthened my faith in the work that words do; but, no, it did nothing for my faith in the word “God,” which remains almost wholly opaque to me outside the poems.
And yet, and here’s the mystery, inside the poems and their translations, within their rhetorical space — it is utterly real to me.
This anthology of mystical poetry has me in a whole new conversation, and not one I’ve wanted to be part of before. The public discussion of what I’ve always thought should be as private as sex. My sex, for certain, but also everyone else’s. My spirituality? The word itself gives me the willies. And yet here I am having spent a good deal of the past fifteen or twenty years working out ways to bring across into a viable, believable contemporary English the most intimate religious verse of the Jewish Middle Ages. I suppose it’s that I’ve always believed that the answers or, better, the responses to questions of this sort need to be embodied in action, and that the action of poems is that embodiment.
Yesterday, for instance, an irreligious filmmaker friend was over for dinner and mentioned that she found herself both drawn into and wondering what to make of the notion that the medieval Kabbalists of Palestine and Babylonia and later Spain would invest inordinate amounts of time in reciting novel combinations of letters and words, or deploying them in eccentric arrangements on the page, believing that doing so would open up channels to “higher” worlds and, as it were, more powerful powers. I’ve wondered too. Though, when push comes to shove, isn’t that what I do, or think I do, when I’m reading and writing?
One of those things I hope I’ll never get over — the combination of tenderness and penetration in the pleasure I get from our roof-deck garden facing I-95’s Anthony Caro-like access ramps and the Sound beyond them. Blending the textures and shapes of grasses and leaves, stalks and flowers, their hues, and, especially, their names — alyssum, arabis, bacopa; brunnera, coreopsis, cress; chrysanthemum, clematis, convolvulus; delphinium, euphorbia, fescue; flax, guara, lobelia; mallow, nasturtium, phlox; rubrum, salvia, and saxifrage; sisyrinchium, viola, and yarrow — takes me, inexplicably, behind the language lobes of my brain.
The space between certain Hebrew poems (medieval and modern) and English-as-it-was the moment I read them — that’s what I’m often writing into, and where I’ve felt most alive as a poet.
Readers are suspicious of wisdom poetry and of its new-age incarnation in particular. And it’s hard not to participate in that suspicion, as verse that bears the trappings of “wisdom” often lacks organic, formal, and thematic counterpoint, a believable undertow that acknowledges how things are, or feel, over time.
But it ain’t necessarily so.
Bring life to the composition (and translation) of poetry and poetry will find its way toward life.
What I crave, what moves me most now, is when poetry spills over the banks of Art and into the Life of Anyone. On a train ride, a death bed, at a wedding or a breakfast table. The true test of poetry.
Why did I have such a hard time coming up with an “antagonism” to write about for Poetry? Do the dead bite back? Or is it that I’m by temperament and training now so fastidiously turned against myself that I lean into my antagonisms until they give way at a certain point like a secret door-in-the-wall to enthusiasm? James Merrill, for instance. Or Pope.
It’s a translator’s gift, and curse. A strategy of masking and, I suppose, also of evasion. Not only an ability to inhabit difference, but a desire and need to. As a source of pleasure, and nourishment — even wisdom. What others find in fiction?
Hence, too, the obsession of late with couplets, which I once despised. The desire to compose in rhymed couplets in such a way as to highlight the openness lurking in a certain closure. As organic as a pulse, or respiration.
So much of the discussion around Middle Eastern literature is infected and inflected with political posturing, which comes across as unearned emotion on the literary plane (or sentimentality, as D.H. Lawrence defines it). This applies to the reading of both Hebrew and Arabic in translation. At the same time, the actual political situation is so dire that it becomes almost absurd or decadent to have a serious public conversation about that literary dimension, and so, very little of what’s written about this literature holds any water. And what water it does hold comes from a well that’s been poisoned.
And I’m going to contribute to that now by not talking about Middle Eastern writers that I can’t, at some level, bear.
Enthusiasms are easier: I wanted to write in praise of Charles Reznikoff, or Ivor Gurney — two poets who strayed for a long while under the radar. That’s what started these notes.
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows.
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.
— Song by Ivor Gurney
That’s as beautiful, syllable for syllable (even without the gorgeous melody he put to it), as beautiful needs to be for me. As is his
Songs come to the mind —
Other men’s songs
Or one’s own ...
Songs come and are taken, written,
Snatched from the momentary
Accidents of light, shape, spirit meeting
For one light second spirit, unbelievably.
— From Songs Come to the Mind
Reznikoff’s wandering goes off in another direction, musically, though he too knows the very different graces of his place (New York City). In fact, his entire body of work is in its way a plea equal to that of Gurney’s lines calling out to the Spirit of Place.
One of the things I love about Reznikoff’s poetry is that it’s so radically concrete it becomes conceptual. The literal dimension of his poems is, in other words, so extreme that it forces us to ask — Is this poetry? But that’s a large part of Reznikoff’s gift — raising that basal sort of question and then showing us the poetry that’s there all along in the prosaic, the ordinary. Arguably a worthier thing than the more explosive figurative or demonstrative verse of an Attitude, because the poetry of it is more readily available to people. If, that is, it is in fact poetry (which, let’s face it, most people think it isn’t).
Reznikoff’s work displays few of the trappings of verse, little in the way of comparison and likeness (metaphor and rhyme), or even rhythmic diapason. Instead, his poetry develops through a capillary-like network of sympathies, metonymies of attention.
This mild-mannered law-school trained writer for a legal encyclopedia might be best thought of as, at heart, a Mishnaic poet — and his English resembles the simple, clear, precise, and patterned Hebrew of that code of Jewish law, assembled in third-century ce Palestine to order and structure and, in the end, give meaning to its readers’ lives. The laconic legal register and registration of both Reznikoff’s and the Mishnaic text give rise to poetries of their own, as their taxonomies branch off into every facet of ordinary life, arranged in such a way as to make them matter through relation: to name and to name and to name and to name, in a rhythm that becomes a celebration of givenness, of gentleness rather than gentility. A dignity.
Reznikoff’s detractors say he’s a pedestrian poet. And he is, in a marvelous manner, just that — a poet whose work emerges from the cadences and views and patience and news of his walking up and down and across Manhattan, and often into Brooklyn. Its obstinacy. Its ethos. Hence the metabolism and modesty of his poems.
Here too the understanding seems in uncanny fashion to descend from something like a Mishnaic wisdom — as halakhah, the Hebrew word for Jewish law derives from the verb meaning “to walk” (halakh — he went, he walked). Halakhah is the observance of the Commandments through recalibrated attachment to or involvement with the world. Not wild association, or liberatory transgression, or jarring dislocation, or transcendence, but at its best quiet observation and the embrace of creation as we find it. What one scholar has called “normal mysticism.” “The ceaseless weaving of the uneven water” as one 1927 Reznikoff poem in its entirety has it; or,
I am alone —
and glad to be alone;
I do not like people who walk about
so late; who walk slowly after midnight
through the leaves fallen on the sidewalks.
I do not like
my own face
in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
before the closed stores.
— From Autobiography: New York
The refrain of a Leonard Cohen song on his freakishly good new album, Old Ideas — the man is seventy-eight — has a quarreling couple saying (singing!) to each other, at once, “Frankly, I don’t like your tone.”
That’s usually the case with work that puts me off. Something tonal. If I like your tone, sooner or later I’ll probably like your tenor too, or at least begin to live with it.
People are always saying — I heard someone yesterday say, at a gathering of writers — that among the things human beings can’t live without are stories. Is that true?
I’ve never felt that. But song — now that’s ... another story?
We like to say that poetry takes time. But where does it take it? How?
Beyond the real time poetry takes to read and to write, there’s the deep historical time that has gone into the making of the tradition out of which it emerges. And then there’s the time it took us to prepare ourselves for the reading or writing in question. Or the way in which time made us ready as readers and as writers — through study and trial, hesitation or maybe precipitous or precious action, through exposure to musics and voices and registers of various sorts, to sensual and not-quite-sensical experience, to distinctions made between cups of tea and the tiniest waver in a friend’s mood in a room or a letter, or on the phone, to weather and hunger, the timbre of one’s recovery from pain.
All that goes into the surface tension of a poem — becomes it.
So, working now toward what I think may be a longish poem about conduction and sonship, paranoia, tradition, and the dynamic of inhabitation. One waits, or tries to wait, as with every poem, every piece of writing, until the right moment. Not sufficient knowledge (Frost — “The poet must always begin with insufficient knowledge”), but sufficient pressure. One broods and jots things down as they come. But at what point do they form themselves into figures that might become poems? Often (ideally) it just happens, but as often (realistically) there’s a delicate preliminary dance and courtship, much scribbling, thinking, attraction, repulsion, and noting the irritation of obscure intuition — when to push, if ever? How hard? Where? The nudge toward form isn’t the only sort of direction involved; curiosity has its own engine, and that requires fuel and maintenance as well. Now it’s pleasure. Now torture. There are, to be sure, many poems that emerge in-full and of-a-sudden, and then there are those that I’ve lost, in part or altogether because I started shaping them before they were primed. But there are more, and maybe the most charmed of them, that wouldn’t exist without that delicate or not-so-delicate agon. The push doesn’t bring one to the magic — but it might bring one to the place where the wall or floor of false or encrusted feeling gives way. And that drops one into the magic. Then it seems to happen at once.
To be a son in psychological and literary terms is a put-down: one is overly reliant on others’ authority, hasn’t matured, isn’t a father, or at best embodies a vital rebelliousness. But in the religious context it’s almost always a form of high praise — a door to the father: sons of God (angels); the son of God (Christ). On the Hebrew side of the ledger, it’s the sons (the people of Israel) who are closest to the Fathers, the carriers. Hence the opening of the rabbinic Sayings of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot):
Moses received the Instruction (Torah) from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it on to the men of the Great Assembly.
The chain of tradition as the rabbinic list of Homer’s ships: a test of one’s investment. Does that imply a diminishment of intensity? An enfeebling and passive derivative nature? “They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a hedge for the Teaching.” The ethos that in-forms (gives shape to) the practice. The invention of influence. Fire that’s passed from torch to torch. Lampada tradam — Lucretian runners passing on the torch of life (and learning). And iktibaas — the Arabic for embedded (Quranic) quotation, literally, the lighting of one torch from another.
Does one invent fire? One finds new sources of fire and puts them to use.
On the plane from Newark to Tel Aviv: the cultural equivalent of increased g-force during reentry. The disheartening coarseness of the Hebrew produced by the middle-aged Israelis in the seats behind us, as one jabs and jabs at the touch screen in front of her until Adina has to scold her. Later the other stretches out and sticks her foot into my elbow on its armrest until I return it to its borders.
“The descent beckons” ... back to the land where everything’s allegory.
Jerusalem, our first morning headline: “[Government] Panel: Israel Is Not an Occupier, Outposts Are Legal.” Thank you for sharing?
Chronic defenders of Israeli policy accuse the country’s critics of hyperbole. Like nearly everyone in this Orwellian dance toward the suffocation of two cultures, they do exaggerate — sometimes. On the whole, their case is understated.
Surface feeling-with (that reveals depths) = sympathy
Emotional feeling-with (that rises toward the surface) = empathy
We like to say that the latter is deeper, more meaningful; but it’s the former that matters for the writer, the poet, the translator. As in von Hofmannsthal’s aphorism: “Depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.”
The Möbius strip of that aesthetic — with the surface turning out to become what’s within, and what’s within evolving into what we face.
As always when we shift sides of the globe, the systole and diastole of belonging and dispersion leave me a little dizzy, and melancholy. For some three decades now I’ve felt at home in exile and exiled at home. And as in homes, so in poems. It twists the heart back and forth, like some sort of rinse cycle, and maybe that’s how it should be. This isn’t just a greased metaphysics to keep one from being pinned down. It gets at something essential, perhaps what the philo-Semitic French Catholic poet Charles Péguy understood when he called “being elsewhere, the great vice of this race, the great secret virtue, the great vocation of [the Jewish] people.” Far from sanctioning lack of presence, though, it calls one to be where one is and then some.
Modern Hebrew’s first major poet, the Ukrainian-village-born and eventually Odessa-bred Haim Nahman Bialik, grasped this like few others: in a little-read essay called “Jewish Dualism,” he writes of the way in which Judaism as a civilization or culture has survived precisely because of this alternating current, this binary beating of its heart: now the farmer, now the hunter; now the legend, now the law; now the rhythms of Nature, now of Scripture; now the concrete particulars of the (home)land, now the abstract, universal (diasporic) idea. Remove one of these poles, he says, and catastrophe ensues.
After a few days of the dust and patchwork construction, the exposed plastic pipes, raised tones, and weary hostility of our once Palestinian, now North African Jewish and increasingly ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and of the grime of the rundown, battered, and tchotchke-crammed center of the city — a call from a friend and we walk up several hills to a think tank in a tidier and more genteel part of town: rose-filled gardens and geranium-studded municipal squares, sculptures, tree-lined streets, an early evening breeze. As though we’d crossed into Europe.
It’s an evening honoring two of the foremost scholars in the field of Jewish mysticism on the occasion of their university retirement — one a classically trained, troll-like, sandal-clad, crusty, native-Israeli intellectual godson of the great Gershom Scholem, who, Jerusalem legend has it, was present at the tiny professor-to-be’s circumcision and announced that the infant would become his student; and the other a phenomenally learned, intricately wired, respectably attired peripatetic polyglot Romanian who came to Israel as a teenager and now bears a disconcerting resemblance to a solemn Central European Gene Wilder.
The auditorium’s aswarm with sons, and sons of sons, and some daughters. All bearers of one torch or another. The work of both men is formidable in the extreme, and I’ve made extensive use of it for years. Both have managed to deconstruct the picture of Kabbalah that the pioneering Scholem composed and both have introduced new, vital perspectives to the field. And yet, as in literature, and von Hofmannsthal, it all comes down to the depth of surface, and Scholem — the magisterial, quasi-clairvoyant stylist — not only remains intact, he’s made even larger by the entire revisionist enterprise.
An afterthought about the aesthetic of conduction: Pleasure, certain psychoanalysts have noted, is experienced with the greatest intensity in the momentary dissolution of the ego, physically through orgasm and socially and emotionally through a lower-intensity (sublime and sublimated) love — which is to say, not in isolation from the ego, but in its giving way to something larger, which might also be smaller.
That’s not a bad place to start when it comes to what one needs to know as a writer, or even as a reader or scholar or serious seeker, though of course one comes to such things only long after the start.
Then again, one is always starting.