Some Say the World Will End in Water

Casting about for a poet to bring to our reading group this week, I began with the book Proletpen. This book is about Communist Yiddish poets in New York in the interwar period. I had some technical difficulties. I was on the road, and had to make do with an e-book. I was reading on a screen, with a proprietary program designed to guard copyright by sucking all pleasure from the reading experience.

First, though, I got to experience the much easier delivery of Ira Glass giving a talk at the State Theater in Ithaca. He talked about the art of storytelling, about himself, and about his program, This American Life. He kept a full house interested and entertained for over an hour and a half of talking, interrupted only by sound clips from his show. My daughter, who tells stories through her work in theater, my sweetheart, who writes and delivers college lectures, and I all found it both delightful and useful.

But that had been Saturday, and on Sunday, for whatever reason, the Proletpen poets were not doing it for me. I did like one particular poem, though, by Yosl Grinshpan:

Grinsphan fun tsu mayn sthetldike yorn

Here’s the translation, by Amelia Glaser:

Shtetl years,
quit wandering around my memory,
I want to be someone else completely!
Let my heart beat
the time with electric motors.
Let the rhythm of my blood race
the rhythm of the trains
in New York’s underground arteries.
Let the pull
of factory wheel and belt
grow in me.
Let the song
of the worker by the excavator and crane
roar in me.
I must
submerge into dark holes,
and emerge to a thousand scaffolds.
The highest tower-tops
can fling down
bits of sun and wrath.

But after finding that poem, I kept getting distracted. News came over the computer of Philip Levine’s death. He was a poet that I knew I ‘should’ know well, but hadn’t read enough of. I did love his poem, SmokeBut one or two others of his poems had left me flat. So he sat perpetually on my “to read” list. It seems I always come to literature sideways, not having studied English or writing in school. Now, when I was supposed to be picking Yiddish poems to read, Levine poems were flooding my facebook feed.

I avidly read the poems, obituaries, and appreciations. His work was both praised and criticized for going against the grain of contemporary poetry. It was narrative, it used simple language, and did not trade in ambiguity or multiple layers of meaning. Some found the spare language beautiful. Others called it prosy.

In a Tablet interview, Levine was asked about his Jewish identity. He said: “Detroit was a viciously anti-Semitic city. It was the home of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, that’s all you need to know. A Jew in Detroit felt he or she was immersed in a non-friendly milieu. I have this poem called “Zeide”—do you know it?” It turns out the interviewer did not know the poem, and Levine changed the subject (I suppose when you’re Poet Laureate, you’ve a right to journalists who do their homework). The poem Zeide isn’t online anywhere. But whatever is in it, it is clear enough that Levine was comfortable with his Jewish identity, and also clear that he did not make an effort to build his life and work around it.

What he did build his life and work around was his identity as a poet of working people. “I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way,” his bio at the Poetry Foundation quotes him in an interview with Detroit Magazine. “In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that’s what my life would be. And sure enough I’ve gone and done it. Or I’ve tried anyway.”
We have, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, been reading the story Chava, by Sholem Aleichem. Tevye is struggling with his religious duty to cut his daughter off, after she marries a non-Jew. Our teacher emphasized the threat to Jewish continuity, presciently described in 1906. Sholem Aleichem, she says, is being descriptive, not proscriptive, but separation, including the strict prohibition against and shunning response to intermarriage, maintained the existence of the Jewish people for millennia. The students balk. My fellow poet, L, brought up Philip Levine as a counter-argument against viewing assimilation and contact with the larger world as a loss.

In fact, as I had tried to find the right Yiddish poet for us to read this week, I had also kept thinking about Philip Levine, and about this list: Joseph Brodsky, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Anthony Hecht, Kenneth Koch, Maxine Kumin, Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Howard Nemerov, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, Gertrude Stein, Gerald Stern.

Along with Levine, they make an even chai (18) of great twentieth century Jewish American poets who wrote, or still write, in English. Rather an astonishing contribution for less than 2 percent of the population. Of course the list is somewhat arbitrary, and there are scores more at the next level of prominence and accomplishment, and uncounted thousands more teachers, amateurs, students, and journeymen behind them.

“The question is,” asks B, “are they regarded as Jews; are their contributions seen by the larger world as Jewish?” “That’s not the question, said L, the one who first brought up Levine as an example of the benefits of assimilation. “The question is, what impact have they had on the world?” “The question is,” rejoins yet another student, “for how many generations?” Clearly my classmates have different takes on this. To our teacher, for whom the issue of continuity often comes to the fore, the question is, “How do you maintain an ice cube in a glass of water?” For her, and for Tevye, she says, struggling to bring us back on track, separatism has enabled our continuity, while assimilation means, “they assimilate you.” But for L, it is a two-way process. Jewish poets, and intellectuals more generally, have exerted a tremendous influence on American culture and society.

For me, genuine identity must be found at least partly where you are. I am an American, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. I am a child of the suburbs, and of the 1970s, a landscape rich in privileges and promises, and poor in connection to any larger system of meaning. Absent God, the available Jewish identities when I came of age were about nostalgia, the holocaust, and Zionism— all of which were centered somewhere else.

The ground level fact is that I come from where I come from. Secular, assimilated American Jews are my tribe. I can easily relate to the Ira Glasses of the world. I also eagerly make friends with people from neighboring tribes, whose ways of life have a lot of overlap with mine. But whomever I consider ‘my people’ to be, the tension between universalism and particularism is, if you’ll pardon me, universal. You feel at home in one group, and have a set of values you share and would love to promote even beyond that group. If I am not for the people like me, who will be for us? If I am only for people like me, what am I?

Here’s Marilyn Hacker on Philip Levine’s work: “It is a poetry in which the indissoluble connection between individual narrative—autobiographical, familial, or fictional— and the larger construct we call “history” is made manifest.” For Hacker, then, personal storytelling, and authenticity are not incompatible with broader social, international, and historical concerns. She goes on…

“Though Levine’s work most consistently recreates for readers the working-class environment that was quotidian reality for most immigrant and first-generation Eastern European Jews, Levine is not a “proletarian poet,” if such a figure exists in an American context. “I’m an American / even before I was fourteen I knew I would have / to create myself,” he wrote in a poem called “The Escape,” which begins “To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured / without the power of speech” and ends “Oh Lord of Life / how much you made them pay so I could love.” [italics mine].

And here Levine (in his book The Mercy, 1999)j writes about his experience of the ‘worker’s movement’ as a young man, right after World War II:


The speaker of Levine’s poem says he is looking for girls, because he doesn’t have the vocabulary or insight to say he’s looking for meaning beyond himself. But whatever meaning he finds would have to feel right. It would have to be embodied by a group of kindred spirits, and expressed in a language that rings authentic to him.

There is also something characteristically post-war American in the endeavor to choose an identity in the first place. I think I relate to that awkwardly self-conscious search most of all. To live in perhaps the world’s most hyperindividualist culture, “is to have to create yourself.” Still, the material for that creation can only be who you already are. And that’s also the place from which you get good work done. On Levine, Hacker concludes “…it is the specifics of American working-class and immigrant life as depicted in his poems that make them accessible and of vivid interest to readers anywhere for whom neither poetry nor the human condition are abstractions.”

As for the ice cube and the glass of water, yes we have lost some of our distinctness through assimilation, and we have also made America a much cooler place. To use a different water metaphor, imagine instead a cultural water cycle. Rain falls clear and pure, then flows downward to the ocean, picking up all kinds of junk along the way, or maybe getting trapped in an organism for a lifetime. Perhaps this is optimistic of me, but I hope that the Orthodox and the Chasidm and the Israelis continue to produce Jews who are close to that source. Then, as some of their children fall away and mix with secular American culture, they produce hybrids, who have the productive confusion and vigor of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. And their children will be like me, whatever that is.

Meanwhile, when I explore and learn Yiddish, I do get refreshed by the clearer tasting water of my grandfather’s world. He drank from the springs of Talmud in his youth, and bathed in a Jewish daily existence that was integrated and intense. That world was guided by a meaning system that was deeper than anything I can know, but also narrow. But even in Europe, he already found it constricting, at a time when new ideas and new ways were mixing with the old. He came here and struggled with what to send along downstream, and how in such a changed landscape to send anything at all.

I was not born and raised at the source. But water at any stage of the cycle participates. Sometimes it seems you can only see decline– water is more visible flowing downward– but what seems to evaporate into thin air is not lost.

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