Jewish American Poetry

Is there something uniquely Jewish about the poetry of Jewish Americans?

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postwar America. “Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose feet and antennae crown the cities!” His other lasting classic, “Kaddish,” is a moving tribute to his mother, rendered as a lament and inspired by the Jewish prayer for the dead. “I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud….” Ginsberg says in the poem, “And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing/ how we suffer--/And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember,/prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem.”

The latter half of the 20th century saw a new strain of Jewish poet, one less inclined to outward exploration of Jewish identity or faith. Former Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) looked to John Donne and 19th century British Romanticism for inspiration. Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) turned to writers and thinkers strongly influenced by Christianity, such as Dante and St. Augustine. Louise Gluck's (1943- ) poetry tends toward classical resonances, with titles like “The Triumph of Achilles” and “Odysseus’ Decision.” Robert Pinsky (1940- ) translated Dante and Czeslaw Milosz, and penned tributes to television and baseball (while, admittedly, singling out Sandy Koufax in “The Night Game” for not pitching on Yom Kippur).

For the most part, these poets were not inclined to pay explicit tribute to their religious background. And yet, something lingered in their work, often in conjunction with a pan-religious, secular humanism that used Judaism as a stepping-stone to other cultures. “Writers are all secret Jews,” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin (1925- ) declared in a 1975 interview, and while the levels of secrecy wavered, the Jewish content was still there. Offering a “Tattered Kaddish” after Ginsberg’s, Adrienne Rich’s (1929- ) burstingly lyrical, politically charged feminist poems were also often Jewish in nature, combining her own heritage with a wide variety of American experience. “Living Memory,” from 1988, took a Jewish prayer, conflated it with a Catholic ceremony, and made it an overpowering ode to life: “A yahrzeit candle belongs/to life. The sugar skulls/eaten on graves for the Day of the Dead/belong to life. To the living. The Kaddish is to the living,/the Day of the Dead, for the living.”

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.