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Is there a distinctive Jewish poetics? Several? Many? Is there any question?

  This essay, initially presented as the Duffy Lecture (2007) at the
  University of Notre Dame, explores the applicability of Talmudic and
  Rabbinic interpretive traditions for a contemporary American
  experimental poetics. Drawing heavily on the writings of Marc-Alain
  Ouaknin and Susan Handelman, I argue for the ongoing conversational
  relationship of text and commentary. The Jewish poetics that I
  describe in this essay is insistently open-ended and generative,
  relying upon a strategic undermining of mastery. The essay also
  discusses an ongoing compositional practice of mine (for poetry)
  which I call serial heuristics.

Let me begin by answering my own questions. And please forgive me. I needed to come up with a title for the talk, and this is what happened.

Is there a distinctive Jewish poetics? Probably not. At least not one that resides exclusively with Jews or Jewish poets, even if we knew for sure what that was or is. (1)

Several? Yes. Many? Yes.

Is there any question? Nothing but questions, right?

So please allow me to proceed to speak in the direction of a Jewish poetics, perhaps of my Jewish poetics, and to do so by means of an avowedly Talmudic process, meaning that I will engage a particular text, Marc-Alain Ouaknin's The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud, (2) in a kind of idiosyncratic process of commentary and adaptation, gradually making use of his writing to create another kind of implied poetics.


The author of The Burnt Book suggests that "the only criterion for judging an interpretation is its richness, its fruitfulness. Anything that gives matter for thought honors the person who proffers it ..." (p. xv). I suggest that the same holds true for a poem or for a poetics; what's at issue, the heart of the matter, is generativity. Also, what rewards recurring attention over time (as the reader too changes and is an other upon another reading). Such a view--an intimate interaction of text and commentary--amounts to a proclivity toward the attractively and provocatively inconclusive.

Or, to put it another way, "The written text must remain a matrix for future decisions; the dynamic aspect of belief must not be interrupted" (p. 30). Dogma, doctrine, language (as in journalism, as in the five paragraph essay) in the service of a kind of transparent transmission of facts, all of these uses of language interrupt the dynamism of possible relationships between text and reader (by hypnotizing the reader into a non-critical acquiescence). And often it, the poem-reader relationship, is principally an invisible relationship: when and how do poem and reader see or hear one another?


Or, "And so one can state that the meaning of a text--if it is a great text--not just occasionally but always escapes its author; that is why understanding is not simply a reproductive attitude but is always a productive one" (p. 59). And, "the reader is actually a creator. Reading becomes an activity, a production. And so an infinity of books are constantly present in the Book" (p. 75).

That is why the Talmud is such a perfect source for thinking about and toward a Jewish poetics.

Thus, "The Talmudic page, since the first edition of 1523, takes the form of three columns" (p. 34), with the central text in one Hebrew character (or font), a column of commentary by Rashi and another column of other commentators (both of these in another font), with additional commentaries and references appearing as marginalia (in a smaller font). One might quite rightly talk about such textuality as an ongoing accretion, the page as a kind of palimpsest, or a perpetual additive thinking or conversing or interpreting. So that we might say that "the creation of meaning is a creation-production of time" (p. 171). Or we might acknowledge the pre-digital yet proleptic nature of that 1523 page and say it is an early example of Facebook or MySpace or an early blog or a Wikipedia entry.


Years ago, in fact a little over twenty years ago, oddly, about the time that Ouaknin's The Burnt Book was being published, I began to write in my poetry about text and commentary as a kind of primal performative pair, apposing text and commentary to Fred (Astaire) and Ginger (Rogers), thinking of the two as equal partners in an ongoing dance. As I continue to test out that metaphor, I see now more of its virtues and its limitations. Text and commentary are, I think, interlocked in a dance of equals, each crucial to the dance, each requiring the other for there to be a certain kind of intricacy and beauty of the dance. The Talmudic page offers a dance floor where the two are body to body. The fundamental limitation that I now think about is that neither text nor commentary is singular. The text is often polyvocalic, of many voices. And commentary most definitely is a series of responses and writings, often responsive to one another over time.

So, perhaps the initial dance gives way to a larger company able to improvise and interact with one another in ways that exceed the possible operations of the initial dance team? And text and commentary, the Fred and Ginger of poem and commentary (either as critical prose or as another poem) have less of an eye to grace, intricately coordinated and mirroring moves, less of a need to please than their metaphorical actor-performers.

Perhaps then a more apt metaphor is the one that Kenneth Burke applies to philosophy: an ongoing conversation.
  Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive,
  others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated
  discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you
  exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun
  long before any of them got there, so that no one present is
  qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You
  listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor
  of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you
  answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself
  against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your
  opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. The
  hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the
  discussion still vigorously in progress. (3)

Burke's metaphor is an apt one for disciplinary conversation. We teach to enable students to become part of an already ongoing conversation, a conversation that requires a certain preparation in order to understand what has already occurred. And perhaps even in a fundamentally human sense, we might think that conversation--over foundational questions such as the nature of being, who or what we are--is a way of describing human habitation within language and the contribution made by an individual life.

To place such value on conversation, on interpretation itself, on an ongoing and never-to-be-concluded process of engagement with the poem or the text or the book, what we are affirming is the value of that process itself. As Susan Handelman concludes, "Hence the paradox that while the Torah represents absolute and ultimate truth, this truth is never simple and single, but is always subject to interpretation; and the interpretation, while also divine, is to a certain degree a provisional and relative process. ... Rabbinic thinking presents us with a process, not a product." (4) To re-consider, then, that primal couple, text and commentary: "Thus interpretation is not essentially separate from the text itself--an external act intruded upon it--but rather the extension of the text, the uncovering of the connective network of relations, a part of the continuous revelation of the text itself; at bottom, another aspect of the text.'" (5) As universities have, over the past forty years, created hundreds of separate programs in creative writing, we may forget the principle that Elliot Wolfson reminds us of: "To polarize revelation and interpretation casts a false impression, for that which is revealed is revealed in the act of interpretation. ..." (6)


The Jewish poetics that I am trying to describe, though, places greater emphasis on a sense of transmission, of that inaugurating instance that brings one into participation. Ouaknin, again with the assistance of Levinas, describes it this way:
  There is no such thing as passive receiving of Tradition. He who
  receives, the disciple, is always--must always be--the scene of
  creation. To receive is to create, to innovate! "The petrification of
  acquired knowledge--the freezing of spiritual things--allowing itself
  to be placed like an inert content in the mind and to be handed on,
  frozen, from one generation to another, is not real transmission.
  ..." (p. 15)

In reference to the transmission that Moses received, and his subsequent transmission to his people, Levinas and Ouaknin conclude, "'Speak to the children of Israel in order that they might speak; teach them profoundly enough so that they begin to speak, so that they hear to the point where they start speaking.' So, teaching is Speech that creates speech" (p. 16).

By analogy, the kind of poetics that I am describing is one in which the poem is a stimulus for further creation and innovation. In Charles Olson's terms, the poem is a site for energy transfer.


A Jewish poetics is to think about a Jewish poetics.


At the heart of this ongoing never-conclusive many-voiced conversation is a resounding sense of the value and importance of the book itself and of the book as a manifestation of the capacities of language. As Elliot Wolfson summarizes in Pathwings:
  The Hasidic tradition articulated by R. Zadoq is rooted deeply in the
  Jewish idea that God's creative act is essentially linguistic, in
  fact that divine creativity is an act of written composition. The
  first book that God writes is the world and the second the Torah.
  This statement implies, in a quintessentially Jewish manner, that
  God's first book, the text of the cosmos, requires a commentary,
  Scripture, and that commentary, we can well imagine, engenders other
  commentaries that not God but human beings create in a seemingly
  endless effort to reveal the hidden depths concealed in the original
  traces of God's writing that makes up the universe. ... The necessity
  of commentary thus constitutes the very texture of existence from the
  vantage point of the Jew. ... Basic to classical Jewish belief is the
  view that the fabric of the world and human existence is textual. ...
  The Jews are a people born of the book and so too is their God. ...
  God is not only the one who writes but the one who is written.

And so one question that is put to us, perhaps an essential feature of being alive, is what do you have to say about the book that is before you? In my own delineation of a Jewish poetics, part of why I am so determined to fail at this task of definition is that if there is such a thing it is antithetical to any encompassing and fixed singularity. As Susan Handelman tells us, "The tendency to gather various meanings into a one is, as we have seen, characteristic of Greek thought in general: its movement toward the universal, the general, the univocal. The Rabbinic tendency, by contrast, is toward differentiation, metaphorical multiplicity, multiple meaning." (8) Nonetheless, we are compelled to take part in the conversation: "For the Rabbis, however, the primary reality was linguistic; true being was a God who speaks and creates texts, and imitatio deus was not silent suffering, but speaking and interpreting." (9)


What might be our individual role in such an ongoing process of reading, writing, and interpretive conversation? In a classically Talmudic process of accretion, Ouaknin cites Martin Buber's remarks,
  It is the duty of every person ... to know how to appreciate that he
  is unique in the world because of his particular character and there
  has never been someone like him in the world, because if there had
  been someone like him, there would have been no reason for him to be
  in the world. Each man taken individually is a new creature in the
  world, and is called to fulfill his particularity in the world. (p.

But as we will see, such a vision, particularly as it relates to reading and writing, is not at all the American bourgeois notion of heroic individualism, of my "right" to do what I want. It is definitely not the romantic crooning of Frank Sinatra singing "I did it my way." Ouaknin produces Emmanuel Levinas' reading of Buber's remarks:
  This suggests that the totality of truth is made up of the
  contributions of multiple persons: the uniqueness of each reaction
  bearing the secret of the text[.] (p-60)

Poetry/poetics, or text/commentary, grow as collective entities through individually actualized readings and writings. Ouaknin adds to the Talmudic chain of modulated thinking:
  The same idea is expressed in the texts of Hasidism in the following
  manner: each man is a letter or a part of a letter. The Book has been
  completely written where there is no longer any letter missing. Each
  man must write his letter, must write himself, that is to say, create
  himself by renewing a meaning: his meaning, (p. 60)

The perspective and the written expression that a woman or man achieves, as she or he learns and makes manifest her or his precise particularity, become part of a larger Book. Such a poetics is akin to set theory--the individual contribution being an element within the encompassing set--and to Heidegger's thinking through of being, the individual existence being an instance of Being. It means that this lecture/essay is simply my Jewish poetics, as Susan Howe's interpretive reading was aptly titled My Emily Dickinson, but not in a heroic or proprietary sense, but as an inevitability that offers perspective on how one participates in an ongoing (and equal) chain of conversation.

Or, to return to the primal encounter of text and reader, with Ouaknin quoting and commenting upon remarks by Gershon Scholem, "'The Cabala has given us this judgment that has been widely accepted: "The Torah has a special face for each Jew." The Torah bears a particular meaning that can be grasped only by him; and consequently, each Jew can only fulfill his own vocation once he has met this face and is able to contribute it to tradition'" (p. 172). In a pun that I find both juvenile and resonant, we can then consider the Torah to be a kind of primary Facebook: a richly interactive site for individual hits, comments, and connections; a desirable site for you to post essential information. But I would also note that the Talmudic facebook is a facebook with a difference: it is not about finding or advertising yourself. It is not a shrine complicit in the bourgeois worship of the heraldry of individual identity. In fact, the face seen within the book is not your own face but a kind of thinking or a vision that is only accessible through the idiosyncratic and particular engagement possible to you as an individual. What you see is not yourself but what you in particular might see and know and contribute to an ongoing human project of reading and thinking.

Such a poetics--that is, a theory of interaction with a text--also offers a most encouraging perspective for those of you who are just beginning to think about becoming a poet. There is always something for you to do, and it can be done only by you. Or, as poet Tom Mandel puts it in a recent book, "I am open to the sages' teachings, yes; I feel their words emerge from the world and return to it through me. I am what they speak." (10)

Or, to take the scene of textual reflection to a more contemporary location as influenced by the human genome project, I offer my own poem, "Script," from the series of poems called Portions:

  there is a
  script hidden away
  a micro scopic

  script of utter
  simplicity & end
  less variety we

  are the book
  for carrying the
  script & we

  are its telling
  we make manifest
  its recipes its

  pro scriptions its
  errors & minute
  differences we now

  extract & map
  this projective script
  text & commentary

Here, we are both bearer of the book and its reader, text and its projection. We contain a script of a very limited number of letters and of perhaps infinite variety. What is of greatest interest though is the enigmatic nature of that text--a quality absolutely at the heart of the Jewish poetics I am pursuing.


Ouaknin/Levinas think of the book as it tends toward the Book as something that exceeds itself:
  We could say that a Book is worthy of this name, worthy of the
  capital letter that can be ascribed to it if its "power of saying
  goes beyond its intention of saying," if it "contains more than it
  contains," if "a surplus of meaning, perhaps inexhaustible, remains
  enclosed in the syntactical structures of its sentences, in its word
  groups, in its terms, phonemes, and letters, in all this materiality
  of the book, potentially forever meaning." In the Book," the meaning
  immobilized in the characters already starts tearing open the texture
  that holds it in." (p. 156)

The explanation, interaction, and conversation with the text that we engage in--what Ouaknin calls Talmudic discussion, and it is in that spirit that I submit this talk--is deliberately fashioned as "a way of thinking the refusal of synthesis and system; it represents an antidogmatism" (p. 159).

In my own poetry of the last twenty-five years, I have increasingly come to rely on a writing that does not resolve itself at the level of the sentence. While the sentence and its resources are not banished from the poem, more frequently than not the poem avails itself of the more multiplicative possibilities of the phrase, of the group of words, of the unpunctuated series of words. As Ouaknin says of the Cabala, such writing "is not a semantic content, but an attitude to meaning, an attitude of creativity" (p. 177).

Ouaknin suggests that "the Talmudic world is bidimensional, and that is why it is profoundly anti-ideological" (p. 84). Decidedly not a Hegelian process where thesis and anti-thesis lead to synthesis, the dialogic nature of the Talmud shakes the thinker from "his positivity: it is an incessant destabilization, an athetical thinking that resists synchronization" (p. 85).

For me, the kind of poetry that I have in mind as part of my Jewish poetics is one that not only resists thematization but one that would make a reader aware of the falsification and "strip-mining" inherent in the primary critical act of "capturing the meaning" of a poem through the statement of its theme. (And I hope that it goes without saying that a resistance to the reduction of theme does not equate to a denial of meaning.)


I think of such anti-thematic or athetic writing as part of an ongoing Jewish resistance to idolatry. Indeed, for that anti-idolatrous attitude to be carried through, text, book, and poem must also not turn into idols. In a brief section of The Burnt Book called "Refusing the Idol-Text; or, The Necessity of Atheism," Ouaknin cites Henri Atlan's discussion of the "atheism of writing":
  The primary preoccupation of biblical reaching is not the existence
  of God, theism as contrasted with atheism, but the fight against
  idolatry. In all theism is the danger of idolatry. All theism is
  idolatry, since expression signifies it, thereby freezing it; except
  if, somehow, its discourse refutes itself and so becomes atheistic.
  In other words, the paradoxes of language and its meanings are such
  that the only discourse possible about God which is not idolatrous is
  an atheistic discourse. Or: in any discourse the only God that is not
  an idol is a God who is not God. (p. 65)

I am struck by Atlan's "atheism of writing" and its applicability to some of the most important Jewish writing of the past century. I am thinking specifically of the work of George Oppen, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Bernstein, as well as the writing of Jacques Derrida and Edmond Jabes. I view their writing as an indirect, anti-idolatrous, anti-thematic Jewish writing, where the location of its Jewishness, particularly in the cases of Oppen, Stein, and Bernstein, is almost totally effaced.


What complicates my own statement of a Jewish poetics is this commitment to and an experience of the unrepresentable. Elisabeth Weber, in her Introduction to a series of interviews with leading twentieth-century French-Jewish writers and philosophers, refers to a definition "expressed in Jean-Francois Lyotard's formulation that to be Jewish means to be hostage to the unrepresentable: hostage or witness. To be hostage or witness to this unrepresentable is to have been exposed to an appeal which the understanding that is given over to the present cannot reclaim for itself" (11) While Weber's remark focuses on the complex question of Jewish identity, it takes only a small step to apply such thinking to the equally complex question of a Jewish poetics. My only suggestion would be to revise Lyotard's formulation from hostage or witness to hostage and witness, for the Jewish poetics, my Jewish poetics, which is admittedly that of a Jewish-Buddhist-agnostic, is one that dwells decisively within and about an inexplicable and unrepresentable set of spiritual experiences, including the kinds of experiences possible in reading and writing. One is both contained as hostage within such strictures (of the unrepresentable), but one also has moments of profound experience-as-witness. My own commitment in an often oblique spiritual writing is to honor and report the oscillating quality of that experience, a movement from hostage to witness and back again. In fact, it is the very inconstancy of spiritual experience--the desire to write a poetry that is a phenomenology of that inconstancy--that engages me most fully.

Susan Handelman, in an absolutely brilliant book, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (1982), offers a superbly detailed reading of the differences in thinking and representation among Jews, Greeks, and Christians. She suggests:
  Perhaps one can also understand the Biblical ban on images in this
  light. The Jewish idea of the invisible God culminates in the
  confession of faith: "Hear O Israel." In the account of the
  revelation at Sinai, the Biblical text relates, "And all the people
  saw the thunderings and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn,
  and the mountain smoking" (Exod. 20:15). Comments Rashi, the famous
  Jewish medieval commentator, "They saw that which should be heard
  which is impossible to see in another place." The revelation was to
  see what is heard, a voice, not an image. The invisible is manifested
  through sound and the divine word does not become "fulfilled" or
  hypostatized into a present being. Revelation is not appearance.

By analogy, as the divine is something heard--something perhaps manifest in language, rather than an image or an object or something seen, the Jewish poetics I am pointing toward is characterized by its not being a thing, by its not taking on fixed characteristics, by its resistance to unification or thematization. It is, as I've argued elsewhere (cf. "Thinking / Singing"), to be sounded out. (13)

As Handelman suggests in her analysis of contrasting relationships to God's image, the Jewish poetics that I am reaching towards is anti-allegorical in its nature:
  Paul and the New Testament writers make predominant use of allegory
  as a mode of interpretation because it posits a one-to-one
  relationship between the manifest and latent meanings. The latent
  meaning is Jesus, who is a determined fixed center, a mediator and
  resolver of oppositions, the ultimate sign, the referent for every
  other signifier. In Rabbinic interpretation, however, the central
  word, the name of God, is not pronounceable. This unpronounceable
  name translates as "I am what I am," a power that cannot be
  incarnated as a man. The relation between man and God in Judaism is
  contiguous, not substitutive--man is in God's image, but God is not
  of man's substance. Rabbinic interpretation, therefore, predicates
  statements about the subject but never collapses the sentence, the
  linear collective historical experience, into the subject, the word,
  the timeless son. (14)

While such a mode of thinking and of textuality or of representation is intensely anti-substitutive and extremely resistant to the creation of an "idol" or any other transcendental object, one significant danger does remain, and that is the tendency of a Jewish poetics, my Jewish poetics, unwittingly to make of language itself a kind of idol (through the investment of so much engagement and perhaps even faith in language's capacity to be revelatory). Such a danger, I think, is also at the heart of what is most valued in experimental poetry, particularly of the last thirty years. A danger exists that language itself becomes the new idol.


The Jewish poetics that I am pointing toward relies on two key elements: questions and blanks. Ouaknin claims that "Talmudic thought is the thinking of the question, and it is no mere chance that the very first word of the Talmud is a question: Meematai (From what time?)" (p. 87). As my own talk-title attempts to suggest, questioning itself goes to the heart of the matter. Is there any question? Is there anything but questions? The poem ought to be an occasion and a site for calling into question, to raise questions by its own un-restateable enigmatic nature. The poem proceeds by means of a questionable residence in language--not a theme, not a logical proposition, not the mastery of the late twentieth-century anecdote ending in wonder--but a manifestation of untapped linguistic resources that become a kind of metonym for the enigmatic and unknowable nature of human being. Ouaknin concludes: "Questioning brings man and the world into existence; the thinking of the Cabala goes even further in this assertion: the Adam-being is the question itself (the Mah of Adam and the Mah of the question are identical)" (p. 205).

One might argue that the work of philosophy revolves around the philosopher's ability to ask and pursue a fundamental question or two, as in Heidegger's tracking of what is meant by being? and what is called thinking? Though it is more common to assert today that a poet's work revolves around a central story or image or the creation of a distinctive voice, I would instead suggest that a poet's work might be thought of as an interrogation of what might be done in, with, and through language freed of its obligation to transmit a preconception. Hence the term "experimental" poetry: a process of writing that calls into question how the genre has already proceeded and asks, instead, what if. ... Or, as Ouaknin, with the assistance of Levinas, notes:
  The Zohar says: "When a man by means of inquiry and reflection has
  reached the utmost limit of knowledge, he stops at Mah (the what?),
  as if to say, what have you understood?". .. The "What have you
  understood?" is not a negative result of the cognitive procedure: the
  "what?" adorned with its question mark is the positive result that
  should be achieved. We can say that "the essence of reason consists
  not in securing for man (Mah) a foundation and powers, but in calling
  him into question (Mah?)"(p. 236)

Of course, the most profound poet of the question was Edmond Jabes, whose late twentieth-century seven-volume The Book of Questions is a personal favorite of mine and informs Ouaknin's thinking as well:
  As Jabes remarks very well: "The Jew not only asks questions: he has
  himself become a question." He is a question without an answer: "To
  be is to interrogate in the labyrinth of the question that is asked
  of others and God and does not include an answer." (p. 281)

An interesting offshoot of this insistence on human being and a poetics as dwelling within the precinct of the question can be found in the recent writings of Madeline Gins and Arakawa, beginning with Architectural Body, where the authors ask,
  Who or what are we as this species? Puzzle creatures to ourselves, we
  are visitations of inexplicability. What is in fact the case? We must
  surely go to all possible lengths to find out what we exist in regard
  to. (15)

For Arakawa and Gins, this fundamental questioning leads them to question one of the most foundational premises about our existence:
  Three decades ago by wedding the word reversible with the term
  destiny, a supposedly set-in-stone sequence of events, we announced a
  war on mortality. Reversible destiny was our first step into crisis
  ethics. What if it turned out that to be mortal was not an essential
  condition of our species? (16)

As for the importance of blanks in my Jewish poetics, let me begin by suggesting that the Bible may be other than you think it is. Highly dynamic and generative, the very nature of its inscription ensures a perpetual flexibility:
  The text of the Bible has no vowels in its consonantal liturgical
  writing. Moreover, punctuation does not exist: nothing indicates the
  rhythm or the transition from one sentence to another; periods and
  commas are completely absent. Nothing interrupts the flow of words,
  except, from time to time, blank spaces, empty gaps in the writing,
  which appear, to the inexperienced eye, to be holes within the
  writing. The text between two blank spaces is called a Parashah,
  which means "transition." (p. 133)

For those who wish to say "it says in the Bible," consider the first word, barey sheet. This first word, written with no vowels, can mean, equally, "in the beginning" or "in a beginning," this small difference indicating two radically different views of human existence. I would suggest that from this initial point of departure, the opportunities for difference and dynamism only multiply. Ouaknin suggests that "instead of punctuation, all these blanks provide a sort of ventilation" (p. 133).

The portions (plural: parashiyot) between the blank spaces are what are known as the Torah portions. There are 54 such portions, and a portion is read on each Sabbath throughout the year (sometimes two are combined). (17) Each portion is named for its opening word or for its first distinguishing word. I learned this information after I had already embarked on a writing project of my own called Portions. For five years, I wrote exclusively within an invented fifty-four word form: 3 words per line, 3 lines per stanza, six stanzas = 54 words (or, 3 x chai, the Jewish mystical number 18). Here is one example, written toward the end of my five-year exploration of this invented form:

every day when
i arise i

carry the torah
bear it aloft
for the torch
that it is

carry it burning
& unconsumed into
the darkness of

the day unable
to find a
temple i keep

alive the memory
of the Temple
destroyed the torch

becomes the ash
the blossom of
my father's bones

Now is not the time, but it would be interesting to discuss in some detail the fundamental importance of the absence of punctuation and capitalization in poetry of the last one hundred years. Or to consider the blanks and the openings (as in Oppen's last poetry) as allied to the Buddhist concept of sunyata as well as being an aspect of the question.


The ongoing Talmudic conversation and argumentation (i.e., Mahloket) constitutes a strategic undermining of mastery. Ouaknin claims that "the term 'Master' to refer to a Talmudic sage does not imply any notion of mastery or violence, quite the contrary: the Master of the Talmud seeks to undo any mastery he may have over his speech, and even more so over that of others" (p. 282).

In my own poetic practice, certainly for the better part of the past twenty-five years, I have engaged in what I think of as a form of serial heuristics, choosing to inhabit an invented form, typically for either a fixed period of time or for a certain number of writings within the invented form. The most important feature, I think, of such a writing practice is a conscious resistance to the inherently repetitive mode of craft and mastery that typifies most workshop concepts of craft, or, for that matter the development of a recognizable signature style in the visual arts. I am not under the illusion that such a determination to overturn each particular version of poem-making that I inhabit will eliminate (or would even desire to eliminate) traces of the personal or even of the personal voice. But it is one strategy for avoiding a kind of mastery (within a narrow field of repetition) by insisting upon the periodic development of another perspective on the act of writing. This practice of serial heuristics--of shifting perspectives as a means toward different modes of thinking--does indeed fly in the face of the prescription to "find one's own voice" and the assumption that the primary purpose of poetry is "self-expression." In Ouaknin's terms, "Man has to withdraw from 'himself in order to attain himself. The first 'self' is not the real one; it is constructed, prefabricated by institutions. The subject is always, first of all, the product of an institutional prefabrication: 'prefabricated subjectivity'" (p. 285).

Such writing, such poetry, moves toward the kind of contestation of many voices present in Mahloket, which Ouaknin suggests "introduces, into the field of relations, a distortion hindering all direct communication and all relations of unity." It is writing and speaking that abandons "pontifying speech" and affirms "nonunifying speech" (p. 283).


For approximately a dozen years, in my poetry and in my essays, I have been re-thinking the possibilities of a renewed spiritual writing, what I refer to in The New Spirit as a return (to use Theodore Roethke's phrase) to "a journey to the interior," though this return carries with it an awareness of the tainting or corruption of the language of spiritual experience (through its repeated and increasingly habitual set of forms and terms, most particularly the plain-spoken, anecdotal, epiphanic mode). But this return to an investigation of new possibilities for such writing for me has been part of a broader set of returns. I have never been particularly good at being a member of a group. As a Jew, I have never been able, for example, to sustain a productive institutional or congregational relationship. So, too, with my belonging within the strictures of contemporary experimental poetry. I became convinced that a persistent danger of experimentalism was its own habits of purity and avoidance, its own critique of what is outmoded. To put it colloquially, the danger is that of throwing out the baby with the bath water. So, among my personal returns, a kind of participation in experimentalism's forms of traif, with the writing of Days. (18) I deliberately sought new resources for the lyric, lyricism, musicality, and the beauty of sound. With Deathwatch for My Father, (19) I returned to one of the most inherently sentimental and personal topics: the death of a loved one. And with The New Spirit, (20) I returned to issues of spirit and inwardness.

I have come to believe that at the heart of spiritual experience is gratitude for consciousness, and some means of reflecting upon both that gratitude and the nature and possibilities of consciousness. It is by means of that consciousness, for example, that some relationship to a divine begins to be possible, though I also believe it is perfectly fine to consider and discuss spiritual experience without ever resorting to the term "divine." Regardless, if spiritual experience is in some way centered in the fact and experiencing of consciousness, no wonder then the intimacy of spiritual experience and language. And thus no wonder the intimacy and inter-dependency of spiritual experience and poetry.


The Burnt Book, first published in French in 1986, is very much a product of its time, displaying an astonishing fusion of Talmudic scholarship with a passionate, resourceful immersion in the French critical theory of the late 1970s and 1980s, most especially the writing of Emmanuel Levinas. Ouaknin suggests that "in the face of the totalitarian thought of texts that are already established in a system, the first task of questioning speech (of the Mah), which is the essence of man, will be designifying" (p. 286). This notion of designification bears a remarkable kinship to the assumptions central to the emergence of Language poetry in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ouaknin's description of designifying is one that would have been completely at home within the covers of any of the early issues of L = A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the U.S: "By 'designifying,' ideas oppose all semantic actualization and resist becoming object-concepts of a discourse" (p. 287). For Ouaknin, such a withdrawal parallels the Cabalistic theory of the withdrawal of the divine (tsimtsum) as necessary for creating the space wherein the world can be created. Ouaknin concludes,
  The Tsimtsum of meaning, its withdrawal, "gives speech back to
  language; that is to say, it gives it the power of its freedom to
  create language, to seek within itself its infinite resources, to set
  about the hearing within itself of the signifying of things." Speech
  recovers its laughter and its play. (p. 287)

One is tempted to say, "and then what?" In fact, I believe that American poetry today is precisely in such a situation: a period in which a necessary time of radical designification is giving way to something else. Hence, the murkiness of the present. What might that something else be? Not merely a reassertion of conventional modes of meaning-making, but perhaps a fusion of new media with poetry, thus providing a new location and increasingly polyvalent possibilities for poetic activity?

Where does this leave us? I believe we are left with a poetics of onwardness, a poetics in keeping with the ongoing nature of Talmudic conversation and argumentation. As Ouaknin suggests,
  Talmudic reading is not a linguistic operation that tries to reduce
  the saying to an intention of saying, bringing it back to the topic
  of discourses. Talmudic reading is an operation of dissemination that
  restores life, movement, and time to the very heart of words. (p.

What strikes me as a bit odd as I bring this talk to a conclusion is how little poetry I have involved in my exploration of a Jewish poetics. I think that may be because this poetics focuses more intensively on the activity of reading itself (as the occasion, time, and location of the experience of a poetics). It is the valuing of a reading that gravitates toward the question rather than the conclusion as the heart of an energy transfer that may continue without end:
  The act of reading is never in a return (teshuvah), never a
  retotalization after alteration, in a resurrection of identity; on
  the contrary, it always consists in the extermination of the
  conclusion, in a dispersion with no return. It is a question without
  an answer. Let us remember that the divine Name means question. We
  say Shem Mah, the "Name-what?" (p. 294)

Ouaknin hopes that"[a]n ability to invent is passed on but not a meaning" (p. 295) (italics mine).


The son of a colleague of mine, a young man twenty years old, had a third bout of leukemia, and the only plausible treatment, the only one with any possibility of success, was a radical stem cell transplant (in fact, of two stem cell lines simultaneously). The success rate for this new treatment is relatively high. After the initial transplant, the patient's life is maintained for nearly a month in a near death state. Each day, as we read the progress reports, the writer ended each entry by asking us all to pray that the newly transplanted cells would grow, that they would successfully become incorporated into the renewed life of the new host body.


I have reached the end of my allotted time. Do you have any questions? I have plenty. ... I would like to hear your questions.

Hank Lazer

University of Alabama

(1) This essay was initially presented as the Joseph P. Duffy Lecture, the University of Notre Dame, November 14, 2007. Related talks and writings include my Lyric & Spirit: Selected Essays 1996-2008 (Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2008), especially pages 209-264; "Who or What Is a Jewish-American Poet," forthcoming in Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris's Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice (University of Alabama Press, 2009); and "Religious vs. Religion: Innovative Poetry and Spiritual Experience" (talk--Gorgas Library, the University of Alabama, November 9, 2005, available from PennSound--

(2) Trans. Llewellyn Brown (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

(3) Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 110-111.

(4) Susan Handelman, The Slayers of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. 56.

(5) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 39.

(6) Elliot R. Wolfson, Pathwings: Philosophic and Poetic Reflections on the Hermeneutics of Time and Language (Barrytown, NY: Barrytown/Station Hill Press, 2004), p. 13.

(7) Wolfson, Pathwings, pp. 187-188.

(8) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 33.

(9) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 4.

(10) Tom Mandel, To the Cognoscenti (Berkeley: Atelos, 2007), p. 104.

(11) Elisabeth Weber, Questioning Judaism: Interviews, translated by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), p. 18.

(12) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, p. 34.

(13) See "Thinking / Singing and the Metaphysics of Sound," in my Lyric & Spirit, pp. 185-204.

(14) Handelman, The Slayers of Moses, pp. 156-157.

(15) Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), p. xii.

(16) Gins and Arakawa, Architectural Body, p. xviii.

(17) See also Rodger Kamenetz, Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters (New York: HarperOne, 1998), p. 353.

(18) Written in the mid-1990s, but published in 2002 (New Orleans: Lavender Ink Press).

(19) Written in 1995-96, published as chapbook in 2003, and included in Elegies & Vacations (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2004).

(20) Written in 1999 and published in 2005 (San Diego: Singing Horse Press).
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Author:Lazer, Hank
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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