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Jerome Rothenberg–Secular Jewish Culture / Radical Poetic Practice

Notes for a conference with that title, organized by Charles Bernstein in  2004


Every time I appear in a Jewish anthology – except those of my own devising – something goes wrong.  Lines are omitted or placed out of sequence, prose is set as verse or verse as prose, and footnotes are used that represent an editor’s imagining of what a word might mean or a place-name represent.  I believe that the God of the Jews has something to do with this – a punishment for my deliberate withdrawal from Him or Her or It.  Or else, to be more Jewish about it in the manner of a writer whom I admire and have sometimes drawn from, it is as if one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s imps or demons had been there to gum up my works – not when I’m being a Jew on my own terms but when I give in to temptation and let myself be part of somebody else’s order or communion.[1]

I will speak, then, in my own terms (on my own grounds), though with continuing doubts as to whether there is any particular “radical poetic practice” that can be viewed as distinctively Jewish.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of Jews (however defined) who have been active in avant-garde (or twentieth- and twenty-first-century) poetics, still less to deny that by this time many  – perhaps too many – Jewish poets have actively engaged in a Jewish version of identity writing, though I don’t think that that’s what “radical practice” is intended to mean in the present context.  I would also say, in my own case at least, that I would be willing to construct a connection between aspects of traditional Jewish linguistic practice (much of it religious or mystical rather than secular) and current forms of poetic (i.e. language) experimentation.  I have in fact done this at some length, along with a proposition that Jewish history has been marked as well by an ongoing and more obvious resistance, by the Great Refusal, as I once put it, to the lie of church and state.  (I would include here synagogue as well – at least for some of us.)  That resistance may not have been secular in the first instance, but it carried the mark of outsider or outrider traditions (to use Anne Waldman’s word); or that was how it felt to me when I first turned to it.

It was in the sense of such an outsiderness – and placing it clearly in “this most Christian of worlds” – that Marina Tsvetayeva spoke of all poets as Jews – much like Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” of the 1950s.  That was in her poem “Poem of the End,” later quoted by Paul Celan in the cyrillic epigraph to his own poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa” and by me in A Big Jewish Book, where it became a central proposition of the stand I was then taking.[2] My argument here wasn’t for some kind of Jewish exclusiveness but toward a recognition that such resistances existed both there and elsewhere and that my address, in Tsvetayeva’s sense, was to “all poets” or to all poets who share the outrider stance or to all, poets and others, who resist the rule of totalizing states and constrictive religions.  I saw myself – then as now – not writing in a specifically Jewish context for a Jewish audience as such, but opening the Jewish mysteries to all who wanted them.  And I dramatized some of that in the dream that opens A Big Jewish Book, that ends with Kafka’s remarkable question & answer: “What have I in common with Jews?  I have hardly anything in common with myself …”

That last, of course, is an extraordinarily Jewish statement.[3]



Having gotten this far by way of introduction, I want to say something of how I came to be here, and to launch a few other comments, in no particular order but as they came to me while writing.

Like Louis Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, among other children of Jewish immigrants, my first language (to the age of three or four) was Yiddish.  (I learned later from reading T.S. Eliot, who I know had me in mind, that this disqualified me as a poet within the English mainstream [& probably out of it as well], and I came to take that as a challenge and an opportunity.)  My parents (unlike Zukofsky’s) were avowedly secular, from late adolescence on, but my mother’s mother, who lived with us from a month or two before my birth, was an orthodox Jew, though the relations between her and them were never less than cordial.  The outside world – in street and school – was emphatically secular, extending even to the Jewish school where I would go most afternoons for Yiddish lessons.  I had no problem with my grandmother’s love of God, though as the terror of the Holocaust came back to her – two of her sons and their families having vanished by then – I heard it rather as an argument – an interrogation & rebuke – that came into her nightly prayers.  For myself the experience of the war – viewed fitfully but at an easy childhood distance – brought out, with regard to that, my first poetic stirrings and what Tristan Tzara, in an earlier war, had spoken of “not [as] the beginnings of an art, but of a disgust.”  Such in a nutshell was the story of my early turn to poetry.

I grew up knowing a little about Jewish religion and lore but almost nothing about Jewish mysticism (the richest source for a poetics, as I later found).  What came to me at some time in my teens was what I felt to be a need for poetry and for the intensities & disgust that brought the poetry I knew to life.  At a still later point – I don’t know just when – I was surprised to find something like that intensity in the language of religion – more likely in pagan and Christian sources, I then thought, than in Jewish ones.  It soon seemed to me that I wanted to steal that language and to make it my own.[4] In doing so I meant to shift the field from religion to poetry, while not denying but even emphasizing the origins of what I took as poetry in areas of religious languaging and ritual.  The transfer here, as the Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck once pointed out for his own borrowings and deformations, was from the misbelievers to the disbelievers of religion.  I wanted to stand here firmly with the disbelievers.

The involvement with Jewish materials as such came about when it had to, coterminous with Technicians of the Sacred (in 1968) and with a need I felt then “to explore ancestral sources of my own,” most specifically and deliberately (I wrote & would write again) “in the world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen.”  That project – experimental through & through – began for me with Poland/1931, continued with a Big Jewish Book (as Jewish anthology or assemblage), and returned in Khurbn, Gematria, and 14 Stations (holocaust poems using modified aleatoric procedures).  (Even so, I would remind you, I was producing a still larger body of poetry and poetry gatherings that wasn’t part of my Jewish experiment as such.)  The intention throughout was not so much to discover or exploit identity (in the ethnic/tribal sense) but to put identity into doubt or question.

For this I applied or meant to apply the full range of modernist techniques and procedures to identity thematics, taking the resultant work, if it’s right to say so, as itself  a form of romantic/modernist irony.[5] In that sense too I saw what I was doing as the continuation of an aborted Jewish/Yiddish poetry in another language (American or English rather than Yiddish) and by every means at my disposal.  Once into it I also found that I could draw from procedures and imageries imbedded in traditional Jewish sources.  This was true in particular with gematria (mystical Jewish numerology), which I adapted and secularized as a processual form of composition, culminating in the book-length poem Gematria (from Sun & Moon Press[6]) and 14 Stations (gematria turned to memorialization of the Holocaust).  But Poland/1931, my first experiment with a constructed Jewish poetry, is also full of fragments (verbal and visual) appropriated from traditional sources.[7]

I’ve been involved, then, with a secularization of the mystical and supernatural, a project which I share with others going back to at least the eighteenth century, but with twists & turns of my own & reflective also of the time in which we’ve lived.  What this involves is the transfer of a body of work and language from religion to poetry & from poetry to the domain of Huelsenbeck’s disbelievers.  My effort – but hardly mine alone – has been to open the field of poetry into areas of poesis (oral and written, sacred and secular) that have not had an adequate accounting.  In so doing it was our intention to hold onto the energy & ferocity/intensity that we found there but without the “mind-forg’d manacles” of orthodox religious thought.

For me the process went beyond my engagement with Jewish sources, and before I assembled A Big Jewish Book I had already assembled “a big Indian book” (Shaking the Pumpkin) and before that “a big human book” (Technicians of the Sacred).  [I would, still later, do the same with Christian & Buddhist imageries.]  In those non-Jewish gatherings, the act of assemblage or construction was similar but my position was different in that I couldn’t be thought of as writing from within the subject or with myself identified as subject.  A Big Jewish Book, then, was an experiment along the lines of the other anthologies but with myself as a participatory subject in a shared subjectivity.  With an awareness of all of that, I set out to explore what was possible at extremis & with no holds barred.  I thought of myself as operating through a secular/poetic consciousness that set the content & form of the sacred against that of the not-so-sacred, the heretical, the heterodox, the blasphemous, & certainly the secular as such.

But even in A Big Jewish Book or Poland/1931 – a plunge into a constructed world based on real witnessings & documents as “data-clusters” (Ed Sanders’ term in his argument for an “investigative poetry”) – if I were to play it from within, I had to perform some part of it in costume, which I did in fact with the additional aid of photographs & films, something I would never have done in the Indian instance.  Similarly, when I was writing, or rather performing, That Dada Strain, I costumed myself again – in imitation this time of Hugo Ball & Tristan Tzara (a.k.a. Sammy Rosenstock) – but that was still another kind of identity poetics that would get us too far afield if I stopped to speak about it here.

There was a time, then, when I became concerned with “the jewish poem” as such and even wondered – in light of Tsvetayeva – where I might, if I continued, place its final boundaries.  (“Jewish-American” was of far less concern to me than “Jewish,” which in itself was international in scope.)  In the Pre-Face to A Big Jewish Book, I even made a list of  Jewish “topics & conflicts/tensions,” with the caveat that many of these were not unique to Jews although the history of the Jews might – up to a point – offer an exemplary instance.  I presented these as characteristics that still held me to the Jewish work, as follows:   .


a sense of exile both as cosmic principle (exile of God from God, etc.) & as the Jewish fate, experienced as the alienation of group & individual, so that the myth (gnostic or orthodox) is never only symbol but history, experience, as well;


from which there comes a distancing from nature & from God (infinite, ineffable), but countered in turn by a poesis older than the Jews, still based on namings, on an imaging of faces, bodies, powers, a working out of possibilities (but principally, the female side of God – Shekinah/Shekhina – as herself in exile) evaded by orthodoxy, now returning to astound us;


or, projected into language, a sense (in Edmond Jabès’s phrase) of being “exiled in the word” – a conflict, as I read it, with a text, a web of letters, which can capture, captivate, can force the mind toward abstract pattern or, conversely, toward the framing, raising, of an endless, truly Jewish “book of questions”;


&, finally, the Jews identified as mental rebels, who refuse consensus, thus become – even when bound to their own Law, or in the face of “holocaust,” etc. – the model for the Great Refusal to the lie of Church & State.


[And I concluded]:  . . .  it’s from such a model – however obscured by intervening degradations from poesis, impulse to conform, etc. – that I would understand the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s dictum that “all poets are Jews.”


Two points to end it, and then, if I may, a poem.


There is also a curious way in which Jewish writers – contrary to Harold Bloom, say – have had an advantage, a leg up, as poets and as long as they maintained their sense of otherness, even as a counterpoint to the hominess they may have sought in the language that surrounds them & is nevertheless, for all of us, a place of exile.  As my brother-in-arms Pierre Joris has written, in defense of a “nomadic poetics”: “It is only when constantly aware that the writer is not ‘at home’ in language (or anywhere else, for that matter) that any real and critical engagement with the enemy forces is possible.”  It is then too that the strongest engagements with language qua poetry take place.

The context for such remarks is of course diasporic/dispersed, and it’s in the condition of diaspora – not exclusively but largely – that our poetics (Jewish & not so Jewish) has been constructed.  That has led me, in the course of preparing this talk, to wonder about the state of Israel and the emergence of a Jewish homeland – whether the connection between Jews & an exilic/nomadic/diasporic poetics isn’t by now distressingly anachronistic.  To say “all poets are Jews” in an Israeli-Palestinian context in which Jews are the privileged insiders, is something quite different from Tsvetayeva’s 1926 context “in this most Christian of worlds” and gives me the acute sense that history has somehow overwhelmed us.

I think that I may pursue this at a later point but for now it seems to me enough simply to have said it.




To conclude, then, I’ll read a poem from Poland/1931, that speaks both to the persistence of Jews in history & to my bewilderment at being called on as an expert in this kind of forum.  (The irony is even more obvious today than when I wrote it.)




The Connoisseur of Jews

if there were locomotives to ride home on

& no jews

there would still be jews & locomotives

just as there are jews & oranges

& jews & jars

there would still be someone to write the jewish poem

others to write their mothers’ names in light­ –

just as others, born angry

have the moon’s face burnt onto their arms

& don’t complain

my love, my lady, be a connoisseur of jews

the fur across your lap

was shedding

on the sheet were hairs

the first jew to come to you is mad

the train pulls into lodz

he calls you

by your polish name

then he tells the other passengers a story

there are jews & there are alphabets

he tells them

but there are also jewish alphabets

just as there are jewish locomotives

& jewish hair

& just as there are some with jewish fingers

such men are jews

just as other men are not jews

not mad

don’t call you by your polish name

or ride the train to lodz

if there are men who ride the train to lodz

there are still jews

just as there are still oranges

& jars

there is still someone to write the jewish poem

others to write their mothers’ names in light

[1]  Made-up footnotes in Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature; prose changed to verse in Princeton University Library Chronicle (Jewish-American issue, gathered by C.K. Williams); poem truncated & missing part added to another poem, in Steven J. Rubin, Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry.


[2] Right here, in an aside, I pointed out: “Of course – conversely – all Jews aren’t poets.”

[3] For the full text, see above, page 000.

[4] Thus William Carlos Williams, when I met him as a student at City College: Seize the language! Smash it to hell! You have a right to it!

[5] My first deliberate attempt at writing “the Jewish poem” was a mix I created by bringing together structures from Gertrude Stein’s serial poem “Dates” with mystically-loaded and sexually-charged vocabulary from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Satan in Goray.

[6] The final version, Gematria Complete, was published years later (in 2009) by Marick Press.

[7] And even here, let me add, I was not alone, but entered a discourse with poets I had known or was soon to meet, like David Meltzer, Nathaniel Tarn, Jack Hirschman, Edmond Jabès, and even (from our one meeting) Paul Celan; or others, important to me at different times, like Robert Kelly and Robert Duncan.   In addition the totalizing impulse of Technicians of the Sacred and, later, Poems for the Millennium, may itself have been part of a secular Jewish thrust, something, as Charles Bernstein has suggested, that could even have influenced a similar tendency in Ezra Pound and others still more obviously outside the Jewish context.


from Jerome Rothenberg, Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005. University of Alabama Press, 2008, contributed by the author to The Poetries & Communities Project


Jerome Rothenberg is an internationally known poet, translator, performance artist, and anthologist with over eighty books of poetry and essays.  His anthologies include Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, and the three-volume Poems for the Millennium.  He has been the recipient of many honors, including an American Book Award, two PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Awards, and two PEN Center USA West Translation Awards.

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