Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets
Howard Schwartz reflects on Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, published in 1980. Voices in a collection of over 400 modern Jewish poets from over 40 nations.
In 1980 – thirty-six years ago – Anthony Rudolf and I published Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets. It’s a hefty book arranged in four sections – Hebrew, Yiddish, English and Other Language poets, 400 of them, in 1200 pages. It was the first and last book of its kind since the 1920s. Voices demonstrates the rich tradition of Jewish poets writing in the modern era. Our goal was always to be inclusive. (I remember wandering through the streets of Jerusalem, asking if anyone knew of an Ethiopian Jewish poet. Eventually I found him.) We were greatly assisted by the Hebrew poets Shlomo Vinner and Gabriel Preil, who directed us to the most important Hebrew and Yiddish poets, many of whom they knew personally. Shlomo Vinner, a math professor at Hebrew University, is also a deeply committed poet. Estonian-born Preil, one of the most beloved Hebrew poets, wrote in Hebrew but lived in the Bronx. He was largely unknown there, but was treated like a hero when he managed to travel to Israel.
Looking back, we managed to include many poets who have since gained worldwide stature, not only Nobel Prize winning poets such as Nelly Sachs and Joseph Brodsky, but many others such as Yehuda Amichai, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, Allen Ginsberg, Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Delmore Schwartz, Philip Levine, Donald Finkel, David Meltzer, Jerome Rothenberg, Dan Jaffe and David Ignatow. Unfortunately, we inevitably omitted many fine poets who later established themselves, such as Gerald Stern, Alicia Ostriker, Michael Heller, Jane O. Wayne, and Ruth Stone, whose work was only starting to emerge at that time. Many of the young poets we included fulfilled their early promise, such as Linda Zisquit, Rose Drachler, Rodger Kamenetz, Jacqueline Osherow, Philip Schultz, Laya Firestone Seghi, and Michael Castro. There have also been many exceptional younger poets who have published since 1980, such as Jeff Friedman, Richard Chess, Dina Elenbogen and Carol Rose, whose work was unknown to us at that time. Tony Rudolf and I are well aware of poets we wish we had included. We sincerely apologize to the poets we overlooked. Still, the book is bursting with original poets for whom Judaism is an integral part of their vision.
There are an astonishing number of exceptional Hebrew poets. Of the older generation, there are Hayim Nachman Bialik, Nathan Alterman, and Uri Zvi Greenberg. Their work was largely formal, but in the next generation Yehuda Amichai used modern, colloquial Hebrew rather than biblical Hebrew as the language of his poems, and created a revolution in modern Hebrew poetry. Amichai towers above the all other contemporary Hebrew poets, but the tradition is greatly enhanced by poets such as Yona Wallach, Dan Pagis, Dalia Ravikovitch, Haim Guri, Natan Zach, Amir Gilboa, Natan Zach, Leah Goldberg, Rachel and Zelda.
There were also many celebrated Yiddish poets. Some, such as Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Sutskever, Aaron Zeitlin (who wrote the song Dona Dona), and Itzik Manger (who wrote the utterly hilarious midrashic parody, The Book of Paradise) have international reputations. Among other distinguished Yiddish poets are Moishe Leib Halpern, Moishe Kulbak, H. Leivick, Rachel Korn and Melech Ravitz. Remarkably, despite the near-extinction of Yiddish, there are contemporary Yiddish poets such as Malka Heifetz Tussman and Asya.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Voices were the far-flung poets we discovered, such as Nissim Ezekiel of India, the Dutch poet Judith Herzberg, the French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabes, the French poet Claude Vigee, the German poet Else Lasker-Schuler, the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, the Greek poet Joseph Eliyia, the Ethiopian poet Yosef Damana ben Yeshaq, the Italian poet Primo Levi, the British poet Isaac Rosenberg, the Argentine poet Alexandra Pizarnik (often compared to Sylvia Plath), the Peruvian poet Isaac Goldemberg, and the Turkish poet Musa Moris Farhi, demonstrating a world wide community of Jewish poets.
The unsung heroes of Voices are the translators, who managed to represent these poets in the best possible way, in translations that were fine poems in themselves. Linda Zisquit provided wonderful translations of Yona Wallach; Shirley Kaufman, an American poet who lived in Israel for many years, translated the Holocaust survivor Aba Kovner; the poet Marcia Falk brought the Yiddish poems of Malka Heifetz Tussman and Zelda to life; Joachim Neugroschel, (whose father was the Yiddish poet Mendel Neugroschel) did exceptional translations of the cryptic poems of Paul Celan. And, of course, many others.
The most moving story we encountered was that about the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti. He was shot while on a forced march and buried in a mass grave. On exhumation seven poems were found that he had written on picture postcards, the last of them only seconds before he was executed: “I fell beside him. His body turned over,/already taut as a string about to snap.” Another very interesting story is that of Jiri Langer. He was Franz Kafka’s Hebrew teacher in Prague. When he was 18 he decided to become a Hasid, and he took a train to Belz and joined the Belz Hasidim, who were famous for their storytelling. Langer, who loved stories like his friend Kafka, wrote those stories down. After five years in Belz he came back to Prague and published Nine Gates to the Hasidic Mysteries, relating the tales he had heard in Belz. At the time of the Holocaust he took a boat to Israel, escaping the Nazis. However, he had filled his suitcases with books and manuscripts, not clothes, during a harsh winter, and his health never recovered. He died two years after arriving in Israel, having published a slim volume of beautiful Hebrew poems.
We tried our best not to be a Beit Din. If a poet considered himself or herself Jewish, we accepted that. While David Meltzer, one of the leading California poets, had a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, it is perfectly clear from his poetry that he is deeply immersed in Jewish tradition. Naturally we included him. As for Joseph Brodsky, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, we wrote him and asked if he wanted to be included in an anthology of Jewish poets. He replied empathically that he did want to be included, and he is.
A confession – I wanted to include several songs of Bob Dylan, which are in fact beautiful poems. Dylan gave us permission to include masterpieces such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Shelter from the Storm.” But it was exactly at that time that he announced his conversion to Christianity. Overreacting, I dropped all of Dylan’s songs from the book, and I’ve regretted it ever since. We did include Leonard Cohen’s haunting song, “Isaac.”
We also discovered some great scholars and rabbis who wrote poems, such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, and Rav Kook. We would have liked to include the early Yiddish poems of Abraham Joshua Heschel, but were not given permission to do so.
Voices Within the Ark has been out of print a long time, but somehow most Jewish poets seem to have a copy. I know that the poets included were happy to be part of this family of poets. We hope that a younger editor will take up where we left off.
Please read our final poem featured for Jewish Poetry Month, Howard Schwartz’s “Yehuda Amichai in the Heavenly Jerusalem,” from his book of poetry, Breathing in the Dark, 2011.
in his beloved Jerusalem,
he could often be found in that tiny café
on King George,
sipping black coffee.
Everyone knew who he was,
but they all left him alone.
Later, he would shop in the shuk
like everyone else,
take a seat in the back of the bus,
put down his bags of fruits and vegetables,
and dream a little
till the bus reached his stop.
Everyone else was asleep
when he rose at four in the morning
to jot down the poems hidden in the corners
of his city.
This was his secret life.
On his seventieth birthday he whispered,
I’m tired of giving birth,
and it seemed to be true.
His face was tired,
even his eyes,
and yet something continued to burn.
I’ve learned the secret
of fertilizing myself, he told me.
I supply both egg and seed.
But I’m tired of giving birth
he took leave of this world
as one would expect of such a modest man.
Presidents and prime ministers spoke at his funeral;
thousands gathered to pay their respects.
When he reached heaven,
he was greeted by his heroes,
King David and Shmuel ha-Nagid,
along with hundreds of his poems,
their flying letters swirling around him.
The angels, delighted to welcome him,
offered him a pair of wings,
but he declined, saying,
It’s enough if my words have wings.
Tell me, where are the cafés
wander the streets of Paradise like tourists,
staring at the heavenly temple
or taking a seat at the back of Rashi’s class.
He’s still longing for the ruins
of the earthly temple,
for the ancient stones of his earthly city,
for all the sheets hung out to dry,
flapping like sails in the wind.