Being a beginner at a language (and, luckily, learning a language is hard enough that you can be a beginner for a long time) makes you aware again of the wonder of individual letters becoming sounds or syllables, of syllables becoming words, of each word, written, deciphered or said aloud, becoming an image in your mind.
In the Jewish tradition, because the universe was created through speech (‘Let there be light’), language itself is holy. Naming things is an act of power, as shown in many places in the Torah, from the creation itself, to the episode where the animals were brought before Adam in order for him to name them, to the prohibition against pronouncing God’s name, and on and on.
There are also many traditions, beliefs, folklore stories, and practices that testify to the mystery and power of the written word. This power extends to the individual letters that make up the words. Mystics use the letters in numerology, and letters are also used as elemental symbols in descriptions of God’s creation of the world, and of the power of prayer. Yesterday evening a non-Jewish poet friend of mine who visited my apartment remarked that, though they meant nothing to him, he was still struck by the beauty of the characters on the pages strewn about my apartment.
When I was in college, already interested in Judaism, in poetry, and in calligraphy, my dear friend Rachel gave me a copy of the book Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer (Edited and translated by Arthur Green and Barry W. Holtz). Here are two quotes from that book:
“See your prayer as arousing the letters through which heaven and earth and all living things were created. The letters are the life of all; when you pray through them, all Creation joins with you in prayer. All that is around you can be uplifted; even the song of a passing bird may enter into such a prayer.”
“The purpose of all prayer is to uplift the words, to return them to their source above. The world was created by the downward flow of letters: Our task is to form those letters into words and take them back to God.”
Poetry and prayer obviously have a great deal in common. Those two quotes, and the book they come from, present an ideal of prayer as speech uttered with intense concentration, or abandon, or both. I started this post with the idea that being a language learner slows you down so that you experience this ideal, even in ‘ordinary’ reading. You do not take the movement from letter to sound, sound to word, and word to meaning for granted. I had worried that poetry would be too hard for our reading group, but in practice it suits us well, because poetry inherently dwells in the sounds of individual syllables and of words. It’s ok for the relation between sound and meaning to be momentarily suspended, ok to have to read it again and again. There is almost no speed too slow to read a poem, as long as you put it back together afterward, so that you can also experience the rhythm.
This week’s poet is A. Leyeles (a pen name of Aaron Glanz, sometimes spelled ‘Leyeless’, sometimes Glanz-Leyeless). Before reading his poems, we talked briefly about the In-Zikh movement. Less than a generation after Di Yunge, they were New York Yiddish poetry’s first true modernists. They believed the world can be known only as it impinges on an individual’s experience. They also held that truth was not likely very often to be found in refined, distilled, pretty poems, with concentrated language in fixed meters and rhymes, but felt that each experience should dictate its own form of expression. They were inventive, producing sound poems, neologisms, and poems that took advantage of rhythms inherent in Yiddish speech, in both free verse and form poems with new and complex structures. They were for poems that read like labyrinths and kaleidoscopes, because they felt that true human experience was not distilled or linear, but associative, complex, and shifting.
This, of course, made it a challenge to decide which of Leyeles’ poems to read. I chose the two poems I did, among other reasons, because they were tractable, because they so emphasized the sounding of words, and because I had access to a particular recording (more about that in a moment). They both address in one way or another this subject of the individual letters, sounds and words, in poetry/prayer as a re-creative act.
Here’s A. Leyeless’ poem, Dos Lid. The Yiddish is followed by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s translation of the second stanza (click to enlarge):
In the beginning awakens the tune—
Stammering, sifting, assembling,
Sifting, searching, assembling syllables and words,
Silvery brightness of syllables and words—
For themselves, just for themselves—
For the clarity and the truth and the fullness of tune,
For the faith and the freedom and the newness of tune.
The translation cannot possibly convey the sonics of the original:
shtamlendik, zipndik, zamlendik,
zipndik, zukhndik, zamlendik zilbn un verter…
Leyeles does not describe the creation spiraling open through sound, he enacts it. But though he says that the sounds of words are ‘only for themselves’, and though, for example, the line far der getrayshaft un frayshaft un nayshaft fun nigun [for the fidelity and liberty and novelty of melody] is crazy with rhyming, it is not sound only for the sake of sound. It neatly encapsulates the goals of the in-zikh movement: Fidelity to the truth of experience, freedom to experience fully and individually, and innovation.
In the interest of space, I will skip to the second poem Der Got fun Yisroyl. Two sources were essential in my preparing our hour. The first was the book American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, which discusses Leyeless’ work and aims at length and includes a large number of his poems in both Yiddish and English. The second was the amazing Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library.
This is an online collection of recordings from the Jewish Public Library in Montreal. Over a period of a half-century, many prominent writers came to the library in Montreal to participate in discussions, give talks, or read their work out loud. These events were recorded on reel-to-reel tapes many of which, thanks to the amazing work of the Yiddish Book Center, have now been digitized and put online for free.
In short, we were able to hear Leyeles reading these poems in his own voice.
Here is the audio clip of him reading Der Got fun Yisroyl, followed by the text in Yiddish, and then by the Harshavs’ translation in English:
The God of Israel is not rich.
I saw the Sistine Chapel,
Notre-Dame, the Cathedral of Cologne—
You can feast your eyes on them, you can enjoy.
The God of Israel is stingy.
He won’t fill his museum with statues,
Paintings, alters, thrones,
Purple gowns, three-tiered crowns,
He does not wish to live in a Palais.
The Jewish museum has a modest display.
A Chanukah-lamp, a curtain, a scroll,
A spice-box, tefillin, a pointing Hand,
A menorah, a Torah Crown, tools for circumcision,
And an old, ancient manuscript.
And another manuscript and another manuscript,
Entangled, bound, locked together.
Letters in love with letters.
What does the God of Israel ask?
What does the God of Israel demand?
The God of Israel is a just demander.
The God of Israel is a strict demander.
The God of Israel is a stingy demander:
Search by yourself, research by yourself, suffer yourself—
For your own and for my honor.
In a gray-gray once-upon-a-time,
From a mountain-top into a valley,
He dropped two handfuls of letters,
Scattered them over the roads of the earth.
They sparkled with speech blazed with sayings,
And since then—
For thousands of years we seek them,
For thousands of years we save them,
For thousands of years we explain them,
And there is no solution on earth
For the letters, the sayings, the words.
Another manuscript, and another manuscript,
Entangled, bound, locked together—
Letters in love with letters.
Hearing this poem in the author’s own voice, matched with the text, can bring the poem to life in a way nothing else can. In his voice, the rhythm and melody of speech lift up the words. The letters catch fire.