Jerome Rothenberg – 2

Our celebration of Jerome Rothenberg continues today with transcription of a Naropa lecture he gave on September 13, 1992, on the parameters of his own poetics. The talk took place at the end of the 1992 Summer session which had been focusing loosely on the implications of Ed Sanders‘ conception of Investigative PoetryJerry discusses Rimbaud, Whitman, Blake, Stein, and others in the context of his own work and gives a candid and thoughtful survey of his writing career up to that moment (1992), with particular attention to the need for a less ego-based writing and comprehension, an open-ness to other “voices” (an attention which becomes manifest in his subsequent “ethnopoetics” and ground-breaking anthologies)   

JR: Thank you. I don’t usually perform sitting down. This is an experiment – in sitting – no, no, no, I want to try sitting, I’m getting older. At some point, I may have to sit. Not sit in that sense of….  No, no, no, that feels alright.
I also, it occurs to me, don’t normally speak about..myself, I don’t, in talking about poetry,  to and yet in relation to this question of investigative poetry, I did supply a topic (which was not included with the program) – and the topic was “Poland 1931 – “I” as an an “Other”” (going back to that famous quote of Arthur Rimbaud to the effect that “I’, pronoun “I”, is “an other” (je est un autre)). And I wanted to do that in relation to a particular work of mine, Poland 1931, which I began to write in the late 1960’s, and a work that marked for me a point in which something happened to the poetry, to my sense of poetry that, you know.. maybe in the course of talking I’ll be able to come towards some sort of definition for myself. I mean, certainly one thing that happened is that I began to explore ancestral sources, (that was fairly obvious) and to do it with methods that in part involve a kind of research. (I think I also focused on that because Ed Sanders in his great essay, “Investigative Poetry” (I’ve referred previously to on a number of occasions) mentioned Poland 1931 as an example of what he was calling investigative poetries – so it seemed to me that, if Ed mentions it as an example, then, surely, you know, this is an instance of investigative poetry and I am therefore an investigative poet. But investigating what?  And it seems to me that the term “investigative”, you know, even, could be applied to my work, as to the work of others, in a number of different ways.

Looking back to the earliest serious poetry that I wrote, it involved for me what I took to be a search for voices that… (and these are things that I would very much hesitate to say, but there was a view (inherited from other poets as much as anything else) of the poet as seer, the poet as voyant, the poet as clair-voyant in some ways, the poet as open to voices other than his or her own voice, or even raising the question, “What is my own voice?”, in the course of making the poem. I think I was also… (Gee, there can be so many reactions to the particular, you know, great and horrifying events in the world), I think I was one of those reacting in the manner of (Theodor) Adorno who, after the Second World War comes up with a statement that many, including myself, have paraphrased as, “After Auschwitz there can be no poetry” (tho’ to remember that what Adorno said was “After Auschwitz there can be no lyrik (there can be no.. what was called lyric). And, you know, not too different from (Charles) Olson speaking about the lyrical interference of the ego. So, one should not take Adorno as the bad guy in relation to that, but more, you know, what that statement has been reduced to – “After Auschwitz, there can be no poetry”. So, indeed, I think what I, and others, had in mind, but.. there’s a constant tension in all of this, was a poetry of voices, of other voices, to allow other voices (other) than one’s own to exist in a poem. But again, what did that mean, since I am the author of the poem? how do I bring the other voices in?

A key passage for me in Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (which is already raising the question of the self that is mine in a very ambiguous way, because .. “Whatever I say (is good) belongs to me belongs to you” (“Whoever degrades another degrades me/And whatever is done or said returns at last to me”) – My self being my voice, but all voices. And then the section in “Song of Myself”  (24) where he says – (and notice the beautiful way this moves) – “Through me many long dumb voices/ Voices of the interminable generation of prisoners and slaves….”…..”..Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung” – It’s just a wonderful passage.  Some of it..  I always think of when, as earlier today, we get into those discussions about, you know, letting anthologies, letting the poetry, letting the voices, speak about the voices of the unrepresented.  And Whitman is the first..  you know, he doesn’t get there but he begins to sense the possibility of a representation, of the unrepresented, the many long-dumb, long-mute voices,  “generations of prisoners and slaves” – “Arise ye prisoners of starvation”, you know, the slaves, the wretched of the (earth)” . It’s part of that move in the nineteenth-century that’s going to define the twentieth-century for so many of us. The disease, the despairing of them, you know. And then it just opens up into the… through sexuality, ”the  father-stuff”, “the womb”, (“the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff”) “the rights of them the others are down upon” – but including.. obviously, you know, it’s talking about sexual rights, and the rights of the “deformed, trivial, flat, foolish despised”,  and then ending with,  “Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung”, which reminds one, you know, of the present time, of all of those ecological arguments about,  defending owls, and beetles and insects, and water-striders, and everything that needs defense in the world, and it’s there with Whitman.

Or what I came to, maybe a little later, in Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” – the notion that the most sublime act is to set another before you – the most sublime act is to set another before you. So for me, what can I say?, there was, for me, an early desire to write poems without an over-reliance on  the “I” as (it’s Latin, of course)  as “Ego” as “I”, myself (and yet there was no way of losing that one speaks that way customarily).

To go into a performative mode.. I’ll  read some poetry (and the music will be very good to have when that happens), but all of that where poetry was assumed to be the art of the first person, (the lyrik, the lyric taken as art of the first person). Or so, looking back, as I’ve had to do now, to that early poetry, it seems to me when I say “I” (because, you know, what else am I to say in those poems?). who is.. who is speaking?

And.. I’ll read a poem from… this is around 1958.. with a title that, should not be unfamiliar to you readers of Blake, “A Little Boy Lost”, although when I first wrote and published the poem Bob Creeley told me that the title hearkened almost to sentimentality, (I think that was his word  -and, it is, of course, a sentimental title, you know, Blake was a sentimental guy, after all).. And the poem runs like this – “They took me from the white sun and they/ left me in the black sun, left/me to sleep among long rows of overcoats…”….”They took me from the white sun, and they/left me in the black sun, and I/have no way of turning now, no door”  – I had here …well I had a copy here of  Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience  (turns to Allen)- Allen?  do you know “Little Boy Lost” by heart ? – I don’t.. (Allen tries singing acapella –  “Father father where are you going/ O do not walk so fast /Speak father, speak, da-da da da-da, or else I shall be lost..the way was dark, da-da da-da-da…”) – oh well, the priests go after that kid in the poem and he goes to ‘the secret place where many have been burnt before”.  (“And burn’d him in a holy place/ Where many had been burn’d before‘ – the reference here, of course, is to the second “Little Boy Lost” in “..Experience” – AG – “And he goes through the mist and the mist lifts up finally and his mother and father are there”.)

Yeah, what I would intend to say by that is that Blake is in that poem.  (to call it “A Little Boy Lost” is after the writing of the poem… is to invoke a sense of Blake being present in the poem, that the voice in my own act of writing is not only my own voice but that other voices are feeding the poetry). This was also about the ..written about… no, at the time, that I was first meeting Robert Duncan and from Duncan got great encouragement directly (but one could have picked it up from the writing also) to not hesitate to be derivative as a poet, to     let the derivation, the derivativeness come into the work, that  there was no problem with that, (in fact it was all to the good).  So, in “the “black Sun, white Sun (poem)”, (Little Boy Lost poem), which repeats some of the imagery in other Blake poems that are really more like this, (and probably more sentimental than his “Little Boy Lost”).  You get the contrasting black/white world, images of the clothing (as in “The Chimney Sweeper” poem), images of abandonment, of loss, which, it seems to me, speak to a whole human condition. But in writing the poem, I feel.. I felt, Blake’s voice there, you know (much as Allen sees the image, the vision of Blake in a Harlem tenement in a poem that I have at least twice anthologized of yours, Allen)
So the question for me. – What is Blake, what is not Blake?  What part of it is the “I”? What is “I”, what is not “I’ in the poem?.  And the other message taken from Blake – that the authors are in fact in eternity. (“The Authors are in eternity“)

Sometime for me…about this time, late “Fifties/early “Sixties, death began to come into my life and experience, and people who had been near to me, who had been part of a “little boy” world died.  (My parents within a year of each other died, in 1958 and ’59,  and there was the impact of that, and,  in a sense, there was an attempt in certain poems not to write about them but to try to let the voices come through into the poetry.
And here still, working with the sense of a poem arising from my own body, my own mind, and no extraordinary means, it seems to me, besides that one was doing poetry, to get it said.

So I want to read at least a couple of poems from a work of 1962 called “The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, which I should read here because it’s my Buddhist poem (being no Buddhist, but my Buddhist poem, referring to the oft-repeated scroll of Hells in Japanese painting. And I pick up here from English translations of titles of seven of the Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi scroll.  And the first Hell – of measures, where swindlers measure fire in iron boxes. (And the whole notion of buying and selling comes into this and the reference behind is to my parents who in the Bronx had a dry goods store and were trapped in the Hell of that  place from which they could never extricate themselves, up to the point of death. So even when illness overtook them into the dying, well, you know, there was always this, the prison of the store, the prison of the merchandise, that they had to suffer).
And so the poem says,  “How can any of you know/ what it feels like/ to count coins in Hell…”…’The white eye watches/through the window /Where we lived/is where we always lived/The sea of death”
There’s one voice that comes in as direct quotation,  that “Smash it to hell/you have a right to it” – William Carlos Williams talking to City College students in… – oh when was I at City College?  1949 1950 ? –  with a sense that he’s addressing immigrant children, children of immigrants, and it’s a question of the language and he’s saying, “go after the language, smash it to hell, you have a right to it.”. “Don’t”, you know, “don’t let them control the language. You’re going to make the new language”. That’s his voice, (but I don’t think (it’s) in any of the published writings.  It sounds like something Williams would say).

So what continues there for me is a concern to, still, I suppose, write a kind of  lyric poetry, but moving towards something historic, something historic which I didn’t think I had the capacity for. I thought myself under… very much incapable of that kind of thing but it drew me, and there were a lot of things that I wanted to deal with that I didn’t feel ready to deal with, at a certain point. Clayton (Eshelman) reminded me once of a certain.. of an early poem, when I was still in the mode of “White Sun, Black Sun”, called “The Climate in Poland is twice as cold as Elsewhere”, an attempt to deal with Poland (and by “Poland”, for me, that’s just a code-name for “Jewish” – it’s not, Poland is quite different, as we know it, and Jewish Poland is not Poland, but it’s…well, that’s the history ) and it was maybe through help from friends like Jackson MacLow, others, in the early 1960’s, that I began to see the possibilities of collage and appropriation for my own work and with a memory too. That Duncan – that was his favorite term – Duncan gives “permission”, right?  – to give up on the question of originality, not to be undone by that. And I’ll focus on this matter of collage and appropriation.

Another way of seeking an ‘”other” that can break into, and break through, the lyric and the “I” mode in the poetry was through translation. So you know, translation for me (as for others here, (Nathaniel) Tarn, (Clayton) Eshelman), was a significant enterprise and project for our own work in one way or another – (to Clayton Eshelman) (and I assume you’ve been talking about that, Clayton) – The ethnopoetics of our enterprise came up in the 1960s, where I found myself able to lead an exploration of poetry in a whole range of other places and cultures. And that involved also, at points, a kind of translation, or pseudo-translation, assemblage, moving things around, manipulating materials that were not strictly speaking my own, and, you know, also, again through influence of MacLow and (John) Cage and others, some exploration of objective and chance methods of composition, but I don’t want to exaggerate the amount of that that enters into it.

I want to read a poem that I very rarely read  – but.. it seems to me that this was the first collage piece that I ever wrote, and it is here under the title “Nero” (that is the Emperor Nero, from The Lives of The..Caesars , and I think I’m using Robert Graves’ translation of Suetonius for this. (I think there were two or three poems that I did in this mode and it’s really a fairly freewheeling cut-up of material in the section on Nero) – “When he staged a fire also a ballet performance by certain young Greeks…”….’..fell beside Nero’s couch and splattered him with blood” –

Student: Jerry?
JR: Yes
Student: Is that all from another text?
JR: Yeah, right, it’s from Suetonius translated by Robert Graves, and more than slightly rearranged (although, in a way, it tells the same story).  That was one of the problems when I finished with it that I don’t know if I told a more horrible story about Nero than what was told in.. you know, by Suetonius,. But I could get into the rhythm of the rearranging mode, of the collaging mode. I mean, as I said, that was the first time I had experienced that

I was also at the time , and this brings me closer to what became, really the…oh gee, the.. the major part of my work in the second half of my life as a poet  – a series of poems beginning with Poland 1931.  And the possibility of that started with appropriations that I was…. Well, it started with imitations that I was doing of Gertrude Stein (who was also an important influence and a poet who began to appear early in the anthologies, from the time of Technicians of the Sacred on – I will confirm what Rachel (Blau Du Plessis) was saying about Stein – that, at that point, she was not appearing in anthologies whatsoever). While imitating Stein and simultaneously beginning to read the novels of the Yiddish novelist,Isaac Bashevis Singer, I had a notion of, really,  what could I.. what if.. what would happen if I brought Stein together with Singer? –  (and again, I’ve left something somewhere else, on this day when I have three things I have to do –  I mean.. that is.. a poem by Gertrude Stein called “Dates” , in which.. it’s a poem in twelve sections, and in the eleventh section of the poem Gertrude Stein makes what I took to be a reference to her own Judaism – that is the eleventh section (that) reads simply – “Pass over/ pass over/ pass/ pass/ pass/ pass /pass pass” – know, so there are number of places when you start reading Stein where she’s quite Jewish, but this was, you know, a kind of casual passing reference to the Passover). So I wrote a poem for Stein called “Variations on a Theme by Gertrude Stein”  “Pass over/ pass over/ pass/ pass/ pass/ pass/ pass pass/  pass water”. And then I went to Gertrude Stein’s poem’s dates and with Singer’s novel, Satan In Goray  (in a signed edition) began to pick out words of Singer’s to substitute for Stein’s words.
So, for example, in Stein’s tenth section it’s just the two words “college extension”  and in the poem for Singer it becomes “holy Muhammad” – Why does it become “holy Muhammad”? you would ask, (and in this quest to explore ancestral sources of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, these, and that man).  Why “holy Muhammad”? because the Singer novel (for those of you who are Singer readers) tells of the Jewish mystic heretic Messiah, Shabbetai Ẓevi, (spelt outrageously in the English as Sabbatai Zevi), who, as part of a tradition of Jewish Messiahs, you know, going back to god-knows-who and beyond.. (you know, some day the great anthology of Jewish Messiahs from then till now, will have to be written), causes, as Singer describes it, a kind of premature overturning of the law and sexual revolution, until on his passage from Poland to the Holy Land he’s arrested in Turkey and converts to Islam. As the later great.. the next great Messiah, Jacob Frank would convert to Catholicism. So that’s part of the burden of Messiahs. And so this is now Singer through Stein, or the mix of Stein and Singer – from a poem called “Satan In Goray – An homage to Isaac Bashevis Singer” –  in twelve parts!  – “Sect / Avert sect/ Avert to wash bellies….”Lilith a red head/Jest nudgingly./S & Z & S & Z. S & Z & S & Z. S & Z & S & Z.  Selah” – only the “Selah” breaks the Stein pattern, otherwise I’m sort of following her syllable by syllable and rhyme by rhyme, but using Singer’s vocabulary in this. I’m staying close, but in the end I do… and it’s a cheap shot..  I throw in a “Selah”, you know, like an “Amen” at the end of it – the “S” and “Z” are the initials for Shabbetai Zevi  ( Sabbatai Zevi), which I only discovered in performing it later blurred into, you know, German, more German than Yiddish  – “Essen Sie’. (‘Eat up, Bubi”, you know, eat up, eat up”. Essen Sie).

And that came simultaneously with the work on Technicians of the Sacred which was, in some sense, the exploration of “the other’, “ethno-“, you know, “the other’ in a grand sense. That was also for me, in a way, an exploration of my own “other”,  you know, that thing from which I was alienated in the manner of  (Franz) Kafka writing, “What have I in common with Jews, I hardly have anything in common with myself” – What have I in common with Jews, I hardly have anything in common with myself. And many of us respond with a great sense of recognition to that statement. It’s part of a situation, a particular, whatever – What have I in common with human beings, I hardly have anything in common with myself, What have I in common with  Americans, I hardly have anything in common with myself. .So it’s part of… One is dealing with various forms of distancing, you know, and alienation around that. But it forms around the idea of the Jew and goes back to a denial that I would want to consider.

I began in the late 1960s to write a series of poems called  “Poland 1931”. 1931 was my birthdate, not in Poland but in Brooklyn, the son of parents who had come to the United States a mere eleven years before that. So there were eleven years separating me at birth from another place called Poland  – and yet Poland was a kind of a mystery name of childhood. It was never very clear what that Poland was, that place that they referred to. With the Second Word War, Poland became the place of devastation, the place of extermination (I mean, that was where the horrendous  thing was happening). In no sense was the family Polish.  I mean, it’s something that comes back to me in recent times when I have been asked to and appeared in anthologies of Polish-American writing. And I do that because I think, well, you know, had they not come over in 1920, certain other things might have happened. What would it have been like  to have grown up in that Poland?  Also of a kind of Jewish assimilation that was taking place, you know, would that have happened?
But ….it just leaves openings for the imagination. So, anyway, Poland and 1931 make up the parameters of the book and also indicate a reluctance that I feel, at that point, to write a poetry of holocaust. So that, in the book that would come out of that, there is virtually no direct mention of the holocaust. So, in a way, I’ve backed up, I’ve set it in 1931, but clearly you can’t set it in 1931 without holocaust…knowing that holocaust pervades the entire project. You know, there’s no way of getting around that. So, anyway the deliberate backing off from speaking that. And also a concern to know the limits of biography and autobiography

And this is a poem called “Portrait of A Jew, Old Country Style”..   On the cover of this book, I..  There was a certain amount of costuming that came into this from time to time. I would do mixed media performances (that (Nathaniel) Tarn was witness to on a number of occasions) . Well, using photo-images. like slides of myself in pedlar’s costume, as here, or photographs, as in this book with a cast of characters, led by Kathy Acker, assisting me in a presentation of  images from 1931). – “Visitor to Warsaw, old man with open fly…”…”..the first universal jew the gentiles will tell you had some special deal” –

Clayton Eshelman: When you say “For that reason I deny autobiography”. So I fear I’m mis-hearing. I  feel I’ve been taken in by this autobiographical..

JR: Yes, it’s the most autobiographical, in a way, poem that I’ve ever written, so I have to come up with a denial of that, you know, having gone into that. Why to say I deny autobiography, at that point? You know because one has been taken to that point.. And… there’s a mis-statement here. I’m talking about a grandfather. The grandfather came to the United States in 1913. He was going to raise money for my father’s education, as the story goes, to..  a rabbinical education.  He stayed in the United States, he became sick, things didn’t work out.  Just before the First World war, he returned to Poland. (maybe the First World War had started already). My father was sent off to a yeshiva, where he became secularized, in the context of other young men who were becoming secularized. So, cut his hair, his beard, left all of that and became another person. But it didn’t work out for him. My grandfather, actually, died in 1920, and, so, in a way, what I’m thinking of is the return to Poland and the death that would follow for Jews under those.. One left here, one back to Poland, and there was…death was waiting. And then, at that point, I think I wanted to shuck away the…what’s become a sort of personal plea in the poem, and at that point, for which reason,  “I deny autobiography”. But I don’t know if that makes sense, Clayton, I don’t know if it makes sense at that point, you know, there may not be a reason . I may be just saying it to him.

Clayton Eshelman: Yeah.   I was just struck by the force of the contradiction there , and it seemed to me..

There are other…  To do this kind of writing, then, I found that I had to go into a deliberate study, that I didn’t have the information to write it on my own, that I could not simply sit in a trance in front of a typewriter and Poland was going to come back to me, that there were some stories about Poland, but Poland in a way was a family secret, you know – vague stories about, many stories about, Polish woods, people would go to the woods, lovers would go to the woods. I mean there was a whole mystique of the woods there, you know, but no specifics, they didn’t come up with specifics on that and (so) you’d come to the generalized woods and the things that one would expect, you know. There were still customs that were practiced at home but it didn’t feel like enough..  I wanted more. And I could get that, in part, by asking questions of people who could still remember all of that, in part, by looking into books, like the Singer books, like sociological interviews of. .  serious studies that  Columbia University had made during, or after, the Second World War. (the anthropologist, Stanley Diamond had the full archives and let me use them and I pulled material out of that) – books on Jewish folklore, books on Jewish mysticism (I didn’t know a tremendous amount of this to start with, so, in order to do it, you know, I had to.. I wanted to do it, and to do it I had to give myself up to things that I didn’t know about directly. I mean, there had to be for me an investigation, and in, you know, the ol’ pre-computer way, even of a kind of scholarship (I would write things down, things that I wanted to use, or thought I might use, or things that interested me, on those little file cards, and then, you know, collect big stacks of file cards, and found, at a certain point, because I was doing performance, that I could come to a performance with a stack of these cards and shuffle them and kind of pick them out and the… you know, a dozen, or fifteen, or twenty, of the cards, in some order, and they would make a kind of poetry (similar to things that David Antin was doing at that time in his poems  – It was a very close association then and before and after).  And this came into Poland 1931 as a book of histories and it’s almost that kind of material, almost, you know, the raw material of those readings and talkings reassembled. So, for example – “History -1”  – “His childhood ambition had to become a saint.. Hay covered the synagogue’s floor..”….”Someone told me that if I would light forty candles and recite a secret incantation he would die” – [children’s voices in the audience cause a momentary distraction – “Wow, that looks like fun out there”]. –

Poland 1931, the writing of it ended for me when we went in 1972 to a Seneca Indian reservation in Western New York State and that (which I will not talk with you in any detail about) was also an area of research and investigation for me, if you want to put it in those terms (and I feel a little awkward to say it in that way).  It was a place for us to spend two years of our lives from 1972 to 1974. There’s a book connected with that called Seneca Journal. What I was doing there as a poet, well, maybe something like what Clayton (Eshelman) speaks about for the caves of France , or (Charles Olson) for going into the Campeche in the Yucatan , maybe just a place to be. Actually, the Technicians of the Sacred had been done before and Shaking The Pumpkin was being published at about the time that we went to that reservation and I finished the writing of Poland 1931 there. And then (I) began to go on to.. (because I was writing in series, and I think the series were all part of a larger series)  from Poland 1931 to the Seneca Journal, to books where the earliest poets of experimental Modernism, Dada in Europe, Zurich and France and England and Germany became equivalent figures in the poetry. And I thought that that completed something for me (and again there was an attempt at completion in a book called New & Selected Poems in which I was drawing from those various collections up through That Dada Strain , which was the Dada book. So from Poland 1931 through That Dada Strain.

And then in 1987 I went for the first time to Poland. So, I haven’t said that, right? – in writing Poland 1931 I had never been to Poland. Never closer than Berlin, never closer than my parents having come here in 1920 and waiting eleven years until I would be born in Brooklyn. Going there in 1987, I had again an experience of voices that led me to write the poem that I didn’t think I could write, in Poland 1931, but that now became possible, or necessary, for me to do. Though at the same time what I was feeling was not sufficient, all of what I knew about processes of collage and appropriation were also necessary. I had to keep working as a poet in that sense to bring it out. In particular, I felt the voice of one uncle speaking to me, or through me, who.. (the only one of our – my father’s or mother’s families, my family, about whom there was word after the Second World War and the word was of him having been separated from his wife and children, who were then carried off to Treblinka the extermination camp (which) was situated fifteen miles from the family town. He was hidden out by Jewish partisans, or Jewish resistance fighters, and, when he heard of their death, the story that came back to us was that he went down into a cellar somewhere where he was hiding, drunk himself blind and put a pistol to his head, or to his mouth, or whatever one does under the circumstances.

I just want to read one poem from that (in) which the quotation or misquotation from Adorno comes into the work. This is called “Dibbukim, or Dibbiks”  – I don’t know what time … “Dybbuk was such a common intellectual word now no one remembers. Dybbuk is the idea of the spirit or soul of a person who has died before their time, not being put to rest and entering into the body of another.  And one thinks of it in terms always of an individual entering into the body…One sees it as a kind of individual tragedy, but then what I’m trying to consider is …what happens to… you know, when there are millions of..  those in a war, in a holocaust, you know, who have died before their time. So… And that was the sense that I had in Poland of having walked into this terrible haunted place, this dybbuk-ridden place  (for at least part of the time that we were there)  – Jewish dead and other dead. One writes a poem like this and people immediately come up to me and say,  “But why just the Jews?”, you know, “didn’t other people die?”  – Of course other people died in the war (but my Uncle didn’t speak about them)  – But, of course!  –  So a poem called Dibbiks (the one Hebrew word that turns up in the second line, ruakh (ruach), the breath, the spirit, the spirit of God in the opening of Genesis – “spirits of the dead/  lights flickering (he said) their ruakh/will never leave the earth.… ..” /who holds/ a wreathe of leaves under his nose/ from eden  ‘to drive out/ the stinking odor of this world”.”

So maybe I’ll let it go at that and you know and if there are  any questions, open up questions, the word khurbn by the way is the word I chose to use rather than “holocaust” (Maybe I should have said that at the (beginning). “Holocaust” is a word that came to me very late, (some time in the mid 1950’s I think), but familiarly, in the family, it would be called “khurbn”, or more properly in my family’s dialect “khibn”.  And, unlike “holocaust”,  there”s no Christian overtones to it and it’s..  it’s just the word that was used and has the sense of an overwhelming disaster but not the sense of a sacrifice, no sacrifice, meaningless deaths.

Student:  Not “shoah“?

JR: I don’t know “shoah” came to me even later than “holocaust”.  Shoah is.. I’ve heard it translated that way… yeah, “Shoah” seems to me like a perfectly good word for that. In common conversation I’ll certainly use the term “holocaust”

Audio for this (including an additional, brief, question-and-answer period – Jerry addresses such topics as a “Jewish Heaven” ) can be found here


Student: Have you ever addressed the idea of a Jewish heaven?
JR: A Jewish heaven?
Student: I know Jews don’t..  I mean everyone I know doesn’t believe in heaven if they’re Jewish but..   how have you.. have you thought about that, or…  It seems kind of inside all these poems that you’re reading?
JR: Well, accompanying somewhat later work, I was… one of the anthologies called A Big Jewish Book. I made an attempt to be very revisionist about what could possibly go into such an anthology from tribal times to the present. Yeah and of course notions of heaven and hell come into that and so there were a series of heavens that describe… that I did a kind of translation of from a Hebrew work called the Greater Hekhalot , the Big Book of Palaces, Sepher HekhalotAnd this is a kind of translation description of the seventh heaven and the doorkeepers that stand at the gate there. So it’s a nice piece, it’s a nice piece but, since you ask, I’ll read, it’s not very long  “The 7th Palace”.  “The 7th Palace/standing at the gate/ an angry,/ war-like/ strong/ harsh/ fearful/ furious…”…. “the rain that fell/ down all Jerusalem” – And I thought, Wow, that all the heavens were glorious in their terror, you know – that terrifying heavens with the ferocious gate-keepers there, which threw me back also in making this assemblage to Kafka’s story of the terrible… The gate-keeper coming to the door and there’s the door-keeper standing there, and what’s behind him? -“well there’s a door-keeper more terrible than I am” and another door-keeper behind him that’s still more terrible, so the poor man who’s come to the door stands there, year after year after year, until he grows old and..never gets behind the door, and finally dies, extinguished. And the door-keeper says, “now I am going to close the door, this door which was reserved just for you”. So there’s a tradition there and I wrote a little small poem as commentary. from the notebooks , September 1975 – “Not hell’s brilliance, butterflies that sting stung us into vision…. “…“and I never knew heaven could be as terrible as hell or be as bright” – But the hells are very disappointing in the tradition. You know, a lot of pierced nipples (but that’s fun!) – but heaven, you know, is really …  a little (bit it) reminded me too of Rilke – what does he talk about?  – he says the Muhammed-ean angels angels, not like Christian angels, no-one would..  no heaven with white clothes, harps, and a lack of colors, because these are really colorful heavens.. really, sort of…   That’s all I know about Jewish heaven.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *