By: Mr. Hillel Broder, English Faculty
What makes a poem a poem? Must a poem have a rhyme scheme, follow a poetic tradition, or contain a particular poetic technique? Must it be written by an author whose intention is that it be read as poetry?
Teaching both the writing and reading of poetry is no easy task: too often, students assume that a poem must rhyme, possess a certain form or shape, contain parallelism or metaphor, or present as enigmatic or riddling in its meaning. No wonder that the study and creation of poetry are both perceived from the outside as arcane tasks or obscure pursuits.
In teaching poetry, then, I begin with the opposite assumption: poetry is not a lofty or obscure art form that is only achieved by the most eclectic or romantic. Just the opposite, in fact—poetry is the very music that underlies all language; it is the confluence of cadence, coinage, and sheer surprise that we find in pop songs and sonnets alike.
To start, I ask students to find poetry in everyday, mundane, and “low brow” language. They might find a startling, alliterative phrase in a news report headline, magazine ad, or television show title. They might locate an isolated but embedded rhetorical flourish that moves, entertains, or inspires within a sea of facts, technicalities, or clichés.
None of this is new in the history of poetry, in particular, and in the arts, in general. Building poetry from the language all around us is akin to the work of the museum curator and collage artist. And discovering poetry underlying certain linguistic expression takes a certain confidence—it is to read the world and all of its “Stop!” signs—with a certain poetic lens. The Russian Formalists described this essential literariness underlying poetry as that which defamiliarizes the familiar—that which makes the familiar, new.
In our world of verbal expression, popular songs and avant-garde poetry alike have been crafted out of new constellations of found and collaged language—on a personal note, my grandmother’s cousin, Robert Feldman, jotted down the hit single “My Boyfriend’s Back” on a bar napkin after overhearing that song’s chorus shrieked overhead. And of course, T.S. Eliot’s modernist poetry is built on a tradition of allusion, as much as John Ashberry’s Tennis Court Oath and Hart Seely’s Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld draw on the language of popular media and politicians, respectively, in a tradition of satirical form.
This is not to say that poetry is solely an attempt to build upon a consolidated literary canon, or an ironic political jab. Nor is it solely a recreational form—a leisurely activity of recollecting experience in tranquility as Wordsworth might have it, or an expressive means for the obfuscating riddler and wit.
On the contrary: As engaged Jews, our students appreciate the complex historical engagement with the immediacy of our verse, as a language of the soul at its most immediate and most pressed —in the cries of David in Psalms and the laments of Ecclesiastes, we derive the very prayers that we harness when most fragmented and broken. In more modern terms, the fragmented rhythms of Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue” in Auschwitz, and in contemporary terms, the simply arranged lists of names in Billy Collins’s 9/11 commemoration “Names” speak directly to loss, to the experience of shattered selves and stories. If anything—and against the infamous pronouncement of Theodor Adorno to the contrary—there might only be poetry after Auschwitz, as poetry doesn’t demand that we impose meaning, form, or narrative.
Our challenge, as students and teachers familiar with Jewish texts, might mean making these comfortable works strange to us—so that we might hear their poetry anew. Instead of reading through the usually paragraphed Siddur or abstracting the Bible’s narrative arcs and moral principles, how might our students hear and speak the rhythms, the strikingly spun repetitions, and the shocking language in these traditional texts? How might they hear the song underlying the Bible, and the music in our Siddur? They might start, as I have suggested above, by collaging, translating, and elaborating upon the striking phrases in Psalms in the form of a found poem, thereby generating their own prayerful intentions (kavanot)—and prayers—within the bounds of the tradition. Later, they might find the unfamiliar and strange—or the familiar and moving—poetry in the language of the Siddur itself through a mindfully versified recitation.
These are some of the exercises that I envision in the Jewish humanities and arts: students rendering their own translations of the Siddur and building their own personalization of the siddur through translation work of liturgy into poetry. And in a similar vein, these are some of the questions that I encourage aspiring performance poets to consider in writing religious poetry for a Sermon Slam: How might they discover their tradition’s spoken rhythms and rhetorical forms when crafting their own verses of exaltation and lamentation?
In so doing, we might reorient our relationship with the Bible and Siddur, and thereby reorient our own selves. For our traditional texts stand as a reorienting mirror, reminding us of our sometimes unfamiliar potential within.