Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010

  • Review
By – April 30, 2012

Eleanor Ehrenkranz, pro­fes­sor and fre­quent lec­tur­er, intro­duces her read­ers to a broad col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish poet­ry, here all in Eng­lish but much orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Hebrew and Yid­dish. Group­ing her selec­tions under the head­ings Love, Loss, Fam­i­ly Rela­tion­ships, Death, Alien­ation, War, and Renew­al, Ehrenkranz brings to these sub­jects poems that draw on a shared sen­si­bil­i­ty, strands from the Bible, Jew­ish his­to­ry, and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry — and ulti­mate­ly a rich appre­ci­a­tion of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish poet­ry and experience.

Open­ing the book to almost any poem, read­ers will find them­selves imme­di­ate­ly drawn in. It’s easy to pic­ture that skin­ny, long-beaked boy” in the branch library whom Edward Hirsch catch­es so sharply, fly­ing between the wob­bly stacks,” or to sym­pa­thize with Judith Viorst, who asks, What is read­ing poet­ry at 16/ As opposed to putting on your shoe at 89?” In a deeply Amer­i­can poem Robert Pin­sky med­i­tates on his Jew­ish con­nec­tion to base­ball; Uri Zvi Green­berg, pow­er­ful­ly reflect­ing on the Holo­caust, protests, We were not like dogs among the Gentiles…they pity a dog.” The poems take us to Brownsville and the Israeli war front, from the most ordi­nary dai­ly expe­ri­ences to life-shat­ter­ing events, from the Yid­dish-toned laments of Abra­ham Sutzkev­er to the sure-voiced Israeli state­ments of Yehu­da Amichai. 

High­ly acces­si­ble, this col­lec­tion high­lights major con­tem­po­rary poets — Louise Glück, Stan­ley Kunitz, Antho­ny Hecht, Dahlia Ravikovitch — but, like any thought­ful col­lec­tion, also includes work by less famil­iar but high­ly accom­plished poets. By draw­ing on poet­ry from the three lan­guages spo­ken by most Jews, Explain­ing Life offers a var­ied and valu­able look at the Jew­ish poet­ry of the past half cen­tu­ry. An added fea­ture are com­ments by well-known fig­ures on about a dozen poems. Brief biographies.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions