PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Kei Millerthe Fat Black Woman
In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume

(PN Review 241)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Next Issue Sasha Dugdale, Intimacy and other poems Eugene Ostashevsky, The Feeling Sonnets Nyla Matuk, The Resistance Alex Wylie, Democratic Rags Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Two poems from the archive
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to

This item is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Letters to the Editor

David Hayden writes: I suppose it could be said that the virtues of David Herman’s piece on Lionel Trilling are that he illuminates the man he wasn’t and the authors and topics he didn’t write about. It’s headed up like a review (of Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters and of a Kirsch-edited collection of Trilling’s letters), though I note that it is not placed in your main ‘Reviews’ section at the end of the magazine. It fails completely to say anything about Kirsch’s argument in the first book, much to my disappointment, as the title is intriguing. Herman’s smart-clever title for his own piece (‘My tennis improves’, unfairly excerpted from a private letter) tells you what he is about.

Lionel Trilling remains a fine critic, author of classic articles on Dickens’s Little Dorrit, on Mansfield Park, on Kipling, and on Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode, to go no further. They have that centrality, broad scope, that humaneness, because Trilling, like Edmund Wilson and Yvor Winters, had wide interests, and a prose style, that enabled him to assume and reach an audience that was not narrowly academic. Anyone who picks them up will soon find they are alive, and are not in any ‘museum of literary criticism’. The fact that he took such scant interest in his Jewish background is a choice, isn’t it? Should it be held against him?

I for one am glad to know he was a tennis player, and would have liked to take him on!


Martin Dodsworth writes: David Herman’s account of Lionel Trilling in PN Review 247 makes a convincing case for a Trilling ill at ease with his own Jewish inheritance. This must have had a profound influence on his personal life. But surely Herman is wrong to feel that Trilling reneged on some obligation imposed on him by his birth to be concerned with Jewish authors, Jewish thought and Jewish culture. Surely no such obligation existed. One can only do what one is called to do, and Trilling, it seems, perhaps as a result of the psychic wound to which Herman points, did not feel called to devote himself to American Jewish culture. Indeed, Herman quotes passages from the letters that show he felt unqualified by his upbringing to do so. Perhaps it was so. In any case, it does not amount to ‘hostility towards Jews and Judaism’. When Trilling wrote that his ‘alienation from Judaism’ was ‘in large part an irritable response to the unsatisfactoriness – the dimness – of its theological utterances’, the choice of the word ‘irritation’ recognises personal inadequacy at least as much as any presumed ‘hostility’ to Judaism. It did not, however, prevent him from discussing Pirke Aboth to some effect in the provocatively named essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Rabbis’ in The Opposing Self. Herman implies a lack of proper feeling in Trilling’s just writing just once about the death camps in his letters and deplores a later lack of interest in the Holocaust. This is to overlook a crucial passage in ‘Art and Fortune’ (in The Liberal Imagination):
The world and the soul have split open of themselves and are all agape for our revolted inspection. The simple eye of the camera shows us, at Belsen and Buchenwald, horrors that quite surpass Swift’s powers, a vision of life turned back to its corrupted elements which is more disgusting than any that Shakespeare could contrive, a cannibalism more literal and fantastic than that which Montaigne ascribed to organised society… before what we now know the mind stops; the great psychological fact of our time which we all observe with baffled wonder and shame is that there is no possible way of responding to Belsen and Buchenwald. The activity of mind fails before the incommunicability of man’s suffering.

The passage is open to objection, of course – that, on the contrary, we must wring from ourselves an adequate response to the depravity it evokes, and that response must depend in some way on going deeper, intellectually and emotionally, into the ways and means and profoundly distressing effects of that depravity. Trilling’s ‘incommunicability’, however, does point in an entirely proper way to the difficulty of achieving such a response, a difficulty to which the actual state of large parts of the world today bears testimony.

Herman holds it against Trilling that, for him, ‘it was English and American non-Jews writing between the early nineteenth century and the Second World War that counted: Wordsworth and Keats, Lawrence, Joyce and Yeats. T.S. Eliot and Dickens’: but by the fact of being a Professor of English Literature in America in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Trilling was pretty well obliged to have views on these writers, who, though ‘non-Jews’ (and non-Muslims and non-blacks), do have a certain interest of their own. This is not the only instance of Herman’s failure to realise the historical context. That Trilling ‘didn’t make his first visit to Europe until 1956’ is hardly surprising for a New York intellectual in the post-war period. Likewise that he didn’t ‘know Brecht’ in 1946; Brecht was hardly available in English at all at the time, certainly not the poems or the plays, apart from The Trial of Lucullus. This also applies to Walter Benjamin before 1960. Nietszche was only just coming into vogue when Trilling was writing, but, as my friend Jason Harding points out, he figures importantly in two of the essays in Beyond Culture. Herman notes negatively that there are only a couple of references to Sartre in the letters, but Trilling did discuss Sartre’s notion of ‘dogmatic realism’ in ‘Art and Fortune’. He kept up with what there was to be kept up with in the 1940s and ’50s. I can’t find it disgraceful that he was not interested in Georg Lukács, though translations did become available to him in the 1960s. He was getting to the end of his career then (he died in 1975): as you get older, keeping up gets less attractive. That he was not excited by Lowell or Berryman or Plath is perfectly understandable historically, especially since his real interest was in the novel.

Herman has an odd paragraph explaining Trilling’s ‘popularity’ in his prime: ‘the writing is so accessible… a world away from today’s literary critics with their ferocious jargon. This was criticism that ordinary audiences could read. More a higher kind of journalism.’ I think this odd because it is so delicately poised between neutrality and negative judgment. It’s as though Herman, a journalist himself, wants to denigrate Trilling as ‘journalistic’ but doesn’t quite feel he can. Others might feel that Trilling was fortunate to have the opportunities that journals like Partisan Review, with their coherent and intellectually alert readership, offered at that time. Where are they now? Trilling’s ‘accessibility’ implied something more than ‘popularity’ – it implied an informed audience.

Herman calls him a Paleface, recalling Philip Rahv’s famous essay on Palefaces and Redskins, as though this disqualified him from serious consideration. Palefaces were (and are) people too and what they write doesn’t qualify automatically for dismissal. Trilling, it is true, is out of date in the sense that Arnold, Leavis, Empson, Edmund Wilson and T.S. Eliot are also out of date. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have something to teach us. Trilling’s forte was not close reading but, as Herman suggests, writing on a large scale ‘about politics, culture and morality and popular mainstream authors’. He was very good at it. Herman doesn’t like his politics – he has him down as a Cold War writer, and The Liberal Imagination as ‘a Cold War book’. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but is it true? Trilling opposed Stalin, but this was not an exclusively Cold War position. People were leaving the Party in the 1930s already, when the show trials began. In opposing Stalin, Trilling was opposing an instigator of ‘depravity’ comparable to that of Hitler and the Nazis. He was right to do so. As for The Liberal Imagination, it is still worth reading if you are interested in Dickens or James or Freud or twentieth-century America culture or literature and ideas. Of course these are not the only authors or topics one should be interested in. It is perfectly true that Trilling has his blind spots. In particular, he has little to say about the culture of black America, which he barely acknowledges – in my view a more serious failure than the one alleged by Herman. But still, he is worth reading and learning from. To explain why would take up at least as much space as Herman’s lengthy account of his relations with Jewish culture. But a fragment from Trilling’s essay on Scott Fitzgerald may serve to remind what the ‘ferocious’ critics of a later generation have deprived us of:
We feel of him, as we cannot feel of all moralists, that he did not attach himself to the good because this attachment would sanction his fierceness toward the bad – his first impulse was to love the good, and we know this the more surely because we perceive that he loved the good not only with his mind but with his quick senses and his youthful pride and desire.


David Herman replies: Professor Dodsworth and I obviously don’t see eye to eye even on the way we read specific passages. ‘An irritable response to the unsatisfactoriness – the dimness – of its theological utterances’ still seems to me an unpleasant way to write about Judaism. In what way unsatisfactory? Why dim? Which literary critic today would dismiss a major religion in these terms? How this choice of words is justified or excused by the fact that he wrote an essay on ‘Wordsworth and the Rabbis’ escapes me. My point is precisely how rarely he wrote about Jewish subjects in his critical writing so to use one of the very few such pieces to defend such shocking words by Trilling about Judaism seems curious. But the crucial point is that this is not an isolated example. I tried to show in my review that Trilling was often extremely negative about Judaism. He also wrote just once about the death camps in his letters during the war. That isn’t to ‘overlook’ his strikingly uninteresting passage in ‘Art and Fortune’ in 1948. It’s simply stating a fact about a glaring absence in his Letters over four years during the Holocaust. Perhaps I should have said more about the many other Jewish American writers who didn’t engage more with the Holocaust. In a famous letter Cynthia Ozick took Saul Bellow to task for just this and he pleaded guilty as charged. I wonder how Trilling would have responded?

This is part of a larger disagreement about Trilling’s ‘historical context’. Trilling was not ‘pretty well obliged to have views’ on non-Jewish writers and critics and not to write, by and large, about Jewish writers. He made this choice. And because critics as influential as Trilling chose to ignore Jewish-American writers it contributed to the way in which they were marginalised for years. Trilling didn’t want to rock the boat. He was, in Professor Dodsworth’s excellent phrase, ‘ill at ease with his own Jewish inheritance’. I wrote how it must have been particularly difficult for him in the anti-Semitic world of the Ivy League universities during the 1930s and, later, during the Cold War. I tried to explain this in terms of Trilling’s context. What is less clear to me is why Trilling continued to be so uninterested in Jewish and European writers when he was so well-established in the twenty years after McCarthyism. This did not go unnoticed, especially among Jewish-American writers and critics. As I pointed out, many resented the way Trilling refused to engage with Jewish issues and with their work.

It’s one thing to observe this about Trilling in the 1930s, ’40s and even ’50s. But Trilling continued to write until the 1970s. He published three books of criticism in the last ten years of his life, between 1965–75, two of these in the 1970s, after Steiner’s Language and Silence, after Arendt edited Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968, after Hartman had written The Unmediated Vision: An Interpretation of Wordsworth, Hopkins, Rilke and Valery (note the last two authors) (1954) and a book on Malraux (1960), after Josipovici was writing about Proust and countless other European writers in The World and the Book in 1971 and, of course, after Miller, Bellow, Roth and many more had established themselves as leading Jewish-American writers. In other words, other leading critics were writing about European writers during the 1960s and ’70s, and in the case of Steiner and Arendt were writing about the Holocaust as one of the central issues of their time, not just one rather uninteresting passage in a single essay or one passing reference in four years of letters. Of course, the 1960s and ’70s were when things changed and even more so in the years after Trilling died in 1975. Hartman, Bloom, Josipovici and Robert Alter, among many others, changed the way critics think about the Jewish Bible. Steiner and later Hartman began to write about the Holocaust with an urgency and moral seriousness which Trilling never once matched. These were among the critics who changed the way English-speaking readers thought about European literature which really didn’t engage Trilling in the same way. Trilling was part of the way mid-twentieth-century criticism in Britain and America marginalised Jewish and European writing and that’s why, as I write early on in my piece, he seemed so old-fashioned, even at Columbia, within a few years of his death.

Going back to Professor Dodsworth’s specific charges about how I misrepresented Trilling’s historical context in the 1940s and ’50s. Yes, I do think it’s surprising that Trilling didn’t make his first visit to Europe until 1956. Take Paris. Saul Bellow went there in 1948. Harold Kaplan helped find him an apartment. In the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Bellow he points out that, ‘Among the guests Kaplan entertained at 132 Boulevard du Montparnasse’ were Norman Mailer, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Saul Steinberg, Truman Capote, James T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, Lionel Abel, Herbert Gold, as well, of course, as Bellow. Kaplan called his apartment ‘an unofficial American cultural center’. This was all before Trilling went to Paris. And London. Oxford and Cambridge? Trilling had written his first two books on Arnold and E.M. Forster in 1939 and 1943 and yet didn’t visit England for years after the war and when he did he had nothing interesting to say about his visits. That’s the real point. Not when he went, but how little he had to say of any real interest about the places he visited or the people he met.

As for whether Trilling should have been aware of Brecht in 1946, Brecht spent the years 1941–47 in America. The second (or ‘American’) version of Galileo was written in English between 1945–47 in collaboration with Charles Laughton, and opened in LA in July 1947. More importantly, though, he was one of the most famous figures in Weimar Germany. The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Germany in 1928. He had written over forty plays by 1946, including all his most famous works. One of Trilling’s main correspondents in 1946 was Eric Bentley, a preeminent expert on Brecht, whom he had met at UCLA as a young man and who he later translated extensively. It is to Bentley that Trilling writes in 1946, ‘I do not know Brecht.’ Six months later he writes to Bentley, ‘Brecht I am sure will never be my dish: if he was not after your exposition, he never will be.’ How could he know if he didn’t know his work? He certainly didn’t revise his estimation. Brecht never figures in Trilling’s Letters again.

Professor Dodsworth is surely right to say it is hardly surprising that Trilling didn’t know of Walter Benjamin before 1960. The famous translation of Illuminations did not appear until 1968. There are only two references to Benjamin in Trilling’s Letters. In the first, he grumbles in 1969 that Robert Alter (who had just published an essay ‘On Walter Benjamin’ in Commentary in September 1969) ‘institutes an extended comparison between Benjamin and me – very respectful to me but giving B. the better of it, on the grounds of B’s being more overtly Jewish than I am [sic]...’ Trilling goes on: ‘he [WB] doesn’t really reach me as he seems to have reached his friends and associates.’ ‘Doesn’t really reach me’? Is this the critical language we expect from America’s most famous literary critic in the thirty years after the war? The only other reference to Benjamin in the letters is in a spat between Trilling and Bellow in 1974 about Benjamin’s writing on the storyteller (the subject of the two references to Benjamin in Trilling’s ‘Sincerity and Authenticity’, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1969–70. Compare these cursory references with the serious engagement with Benjamin of critics and intellectuals like Arendt, Steiner and Josipovici. This is the problem with Trilling’s Letters: these trivial references, the lack of engagement, the lack of curiosity. He is just not interested in these European cultural figures even after they have been translated. And here’s another point: Trilling didn’t read German, all these other leading critics and thinkers did. That’s why they knew that Brecht and Benjamin mattered.

Professor Dodsworth writes, ‘Nietzsche was only just coming into vogue when Trilling was writing.’ Really? A girlfriend of Mussolini said that Nietzsche was a transforming factor in his ‘conversion’ from socialism to fascism. In 1919, G.K. Chesterton expressed contempt for Nietzsche’s ideas. In 1925, in Carry on, Jeeves, Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, ‘You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.’ There are countless other examples of writers and thinkers engaging with Nietzsche years before the four passing references in Trilling’s letters. As with Benjamin, the crucial point, again, is the lack of engagement.

I did not intend any ‘negative judgment’ towards Trilling when I said how accessibly he wrote. I was trying to explain his enormous impact in the 1940s and ’50s, perhaps especially when compared to today’s literary critics. One obvious explanation is that he was so readable. Another, is that he wrote about mainstream writers and works. A third point is that ‘Trilling’s forte’ (Dodsworth’s choice of word not mine) was writing on ‘a large scale’ ‘about politics, culture and morality and popular mainstream authors.’ [my words] ‘He was very good at it.’ None of these points is in any way a criticism of Trilling and I fail to see how they can be taken as such.

I am, of course, sorry that Professor Dodsworth found so little to enjoy in my piece. I am grateful that he took so much time to engage with my argument but even when it comes to close readings of particular passages, we can’t seem to agree. Neither of us think is a trivial disagreement. He thinks I have unfairly dismissed a great critic. I think these are not the letters of a great critic or intellectual. His nasty remarks about Judaism, his refusal to engage with Jewish writers, except on a very few occasions, his lack of interest in European writers or thinkers, all raise worrying questions about his standing and help explain, I think, why Empson and Eliot, still endure and why Trilling doesn’t.


David Rosenberg writes: I thought for a moment to make this letter into an essay in the ‘Report from’ genre, under the title ‘Report from Mt Sinai: Do Not Lose My Poetry in Translation’. A title perhaps as clever as ‘The Ten Commandments of Translation’ by Robert Alter, a ‘news note’ in PN Review after appearing in a recent issue of The American Scholar. The underside to its cuteness, however, is an ongoing dismissal of poets, like myself, who have translated The Ten Cs. Addressing an aspect of translating it in the twentieth century, I wrote: ‘There’s no putting the Holocaust behind us if we’re going to face the murder in our hearts, the way The Ten Commandments did (I will elucidate it as a poem for its sublime concision). It will always be yesterday’s history, like the slavery in Egypt might have been for Moses, who himself didn’t experience it...’

Alas, for all the current advertisement of his Bible translation, Robert Alter has long been the poster-boy for a subliminal aversion to poetry. Yet his translation seems quite poetic, one may counter. Precisely so – poetic in place of poetry, a magic carpet of academic scholarship flying over the text in place of any grounding in a writer’s or poet’s vocation behind the text. True, you may have to imagine the lost biblical poets. And that necessity of imagining, inimical to Alter’s project, is embedded in his proscriptions, for example in: ‘Thou shalt not make the Bible sound as though it were written just yesterday, for this, too, is an abomination.’ Any translator of poetry knows that no single translation obliterates all others, but if the translation was made yesterday, as was Alter’s, you can’t hide behind a bush of timelessness at the same time, as Alter claims for his translation. The self­righteousness here is especially harmful to poets who would be intimidated by the mound of conventional scholarship that Alter represents.

And for all the reception-historical info (how the text was presumably meant to be read) there is a purposeful obscuring of the nimbus of context. For instance, Alter refers to the ‘literary artists’ who wrote the Hebrew Bible but fails to imagine their education or practice as poets and prose artists. It is precisely because he lacks an imaginative practice of his own that he privileges a ‘redactor’ in his own professorial image over the hundreds of poets and prose artists behind the Bible’s several centuries of writing. The crucial mistake in erasing these historical writers is that the wider artistic culture of which they are a part also goes missing. It is as if today’s culture of Hebrew poets and writers had no artistic context that includes visual artists, sculptors, filmmakers, performance artists, musicians, composers, et al – as well as Western, Asian, African and ancient canons for sources. The biblical writers also had a wealth of sources, much of it lost but certainly imaginable, and they also had a contemporaneous culture of artists, sculptors, composers, scholars, translators, mythographers et al, as well as neighboring and classical cultures to draw upon. Without the wider Hebraic artistic culture for context, we lose the depth and texture of the work.

Imagine that we had only their texts and knew nothing about the ancient Greek dramatists, poets and philosophers. Would we assume they were not immersed in a nimbus of cultural context? No we wouldn’t. We would use the arts and sciences available to us, from a(rchaeology) to z(oology) and relevant cultures from Egypt to Rome, to reimagine ancient Greek culture. But most importantly, our poets and prose artists would lead the charge – and yet, in the field of biblical culture, poets are largely intimidated by Alter, who has placed obstacle after faux-authoritative linguistic obstacle in the path of a contemporary poet. That I could, in fact, see through the blockade of imaginative interpretation took years of commitment to independent R&D and intrepidity.

Here’s one of the crucial questions we need to ask: Do we become writers – now or in ancient times – in schools or do we instead learn in schools what the constraints are on original work? (Of course, we also learn, then and now, of traditions, canons and rebels, all toward enriching our creative reach.) This question, among other contextual ones, indicates what a creative stance requires of a biblical poet – and what a translator needs to consider, even if the original poet’s bones are unaccounted for. Imagine translating Pindar without knowing of a Pindar or his/her literary culture. Yes, imagine it – that is of the essence, grounded in whatever historical background we can muster for a pedestal.

Permit me to enlarge the argument for a poet’s insight into relatively anonymous biblical text with a brief quotation from my ‘A Life in a Poem: Memoir of a Rebellious Bible Translator’ (A Life in a Poem, Shearsman Books, 2019):
Even the simplest reading of the Torah, as in the Book of Exodus, shows how quickly the light of Mt Sinai devolved into the golden calf (or more likely ‘Heavenly Cow’, as a deep reading of ancient Egyptian poetry suggests). It’s a struggle to keep the path back to the Ten Commandments clear... Ultimately, the poem of Moses, The Ten Cs, although possibly drafted on Mt Sinai, has required fertile interpretation ever since: eg. not kill = not murder, but then there is self-defense, there are accidents, there is ‘temporarily insane’, and there are endless wars and conquests, etc. What animals can you or can you not kill, etc. What constitutes suicide, etc. I said ‘fertile interpretation’ because all the questions raised by The Ten Cs are existential, concerning life and death – setting the bar for all poems to come. It’s the poem of Moses and God, who eclipse the Muses, putative and otherwise. There are historical sources in Mesopotamia and probably earlier, but it becomes a Jewish poem in its fraught relation to authorship, to Moses’ need – or God’s mutual need – for an understanding, a covenant, between ‘writer’ and ‘reader’, between cosmos and creature. An understanding about what death or life can mean, and where the boundary between them lies.

And The Ten Cs is a cosmic poem, a confrontation with the cosmos and its origins or originator – a lyric that opens into an epic, a journey through the wasteland of Sinai to ‘a new/old land’, and it exfoliates down the centuries of ancient Israel, becoming the Hebrew Bible. During the centuries that follow, it continues as intertextual commentary and poetry, through to a leading exemplar of the Jewish writer in the Middle Ages, Moses de Leon and his Zohar as well as to the Platonic/Aristotelian reversible jackets of Maimonides’ and Karo’s codes, to the ambivalent intertextuality of Spinoza and, lately, Amichai. It’s a nugget unfurled into an epic that suggests more than a human reader of Homer’s cosmic poems, more than an aesthetic of journey and home; it suggests a cosmic reader, one who is continually testing the cosmos and his or her relation to it, as a creature.

So the original nut of The Ten Cs is, in a sense, a terribly modern poem. In Leopardi’s critical terms, it’s mystically vague and childishly oracular. Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s flaneur looks in the shop window of the universe and is transfixed – if only for a moment, the fundamental moment of the poem. And then they pass by, to recollect the experience as a species of loss. As in losing one’s place in the text of the cosmos, and filling the missing place with poems lamenting it, or praising it for the freedom it allows – that loss allows – to fill its emptiness, again and again. But that’s not the poem of the Jewish writer, who must always search out a way back to that original place that is not missing. It’s there, encoded in the Covenant and a promised place that has to be struggled for and with, that is existential, and that sits over a meaning in the form of a dream: a cosmic garden for the poet and his or her failing muse, his or her ‘partner’ in Eden, fellow creature, and collaborating adversary God.

Yet it all comes down to the value of interpretation. The Ten Cs are at the heart of a culture and religion that privileges interpretation, because all that comes after, starting with the Hebrew Bible, has been provoked in some way to interpret that short visionary poem. I’m provoked even at this minute, after a colleague, also a poet and critic, who’s read an early draft of this and other chapters, asks how The Ten Cs could square with what I described as ‘edenic’ (or as the ‘Gan Eden’ my grandfather believed might await us after death) as if it were ‘a paradisiacal Earth to which we could return – I don’t see that at all – is paradise a materialistic selfishly patriarchal society? One in which women are listed as parallel to other property, children shamed into agreeing with and supporting their father for all his life, in which propertied males build metaphoric gated communities around their accumulations of cattle & other “stuff” by prohibiting coveting and stealing? This is a society that hasn’t yet considered the equitable distribution of its resources or realised that women are “persons”.’

Here’s why it’s edenic, I tried to answer: If there’s no killing, no coveting (implied on all levels), no idolatry including mental, and if you’re reading this sui generis poem as cosmic, i.e. the words of the Creator, then it leads toward Isaiah’s visionary wolf lying down with the lamb. It’s post-historical, as any great poem is – we don’t want to limit the classics because Greco-Roman slavery was normative, do we? It’s no different in our own timebound context, when our various ignorances about what constitutes a just world are invisible to us. We don’t know all the physical laws that underlie the universe but we continue to act as if they exist and may be knowable, so it’s the same for the moral laws: we don’t yet know what an ideal society that internalised The Ten Cs would do to our human psychology, as if we’d become post-human like Isaiah’s wolf and lamb become post-wolf and post-lamb – or, that such knowledge would make us fully human, like Moses may have been on top of Sinai, or Adam and Eve in the Garden. Or let’s just say they were poetically represented so, as The Ten Cs are later elaborated into messianism, the end of history. For the Jewish poet, however, it’s not a messiah that’s necessary but rather the awareness of its absence – especially acute if the threads back to Sinai and Eden are grasped. For other poets, the concept of absence reduces such a cosmic stretch to the pastoral, in consequence raising absence to something like a god, a truth-telling trickster, ironic as hell, unless one’s conceptual intensity can reanimate Shakespeare’s cosmic ‘heaven’s gate’ in his ‘Sonnet 29’:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate.

But change ‘state’ to ‘soul’ and capitalise ‘Thee’ – and you have a Hebrew psalm for your hymn.

Meanwhile, back home in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the conceptual poet Laynie Browne of Philadelphia follows the Jewish poet’s path, however reductive. Her project ‘To find and underline alms in psalms: To write one’s own psalms’, entails a poetic process that typically suppresses meaning in avant-garde manner. We get the linguistic how – about doing, moving on – but not so much the why and its questioning as to why the Hebrew psalms must engage us. That ‘why’ is not hard to discern: we’ve lost the original, even in the de-historicised Hebrew, so that the best translations and interpretations reflect that loss of the original. It’s a matter of both Jewish history and personal history to the Jewish writer whose task is loss and restoration, a blues.

This item is taken from PN Review 249, Volume 46 Number 1, September - October 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image