Commentary Magazine


American-Jewish Poetry

To the Editor:

Harold Bloom’s tin ear [“The Sorrows of American-Jewish Poetry,” March] is as big as a Jewish mother’s heart, and as uncritically partisan. What gets through doesn’t seem to bear much relation to what must have entered, that is if he’s reading the poems he cites. Or the difficulty may be in Mr. Bloom’s transmission. What he says about poems, his judgments, suggest that he’s either listening to another drummer, or that someone’s convinced him the drummer is a string quartet. . . .

I find myself looking at the incisive imagery of Blake and the blurred impressionism of the Isaac Rosenberg shard quoted and wondering whether Mr. Bloom is putting us on. Let us indeed compare the exactness of Blake’s “The invisible worm / that flies in the night, / In the howling storm,” with Rosenberg’s “incestuous worm, / Who lured her vivid beauty / to his amorphous sleep.” What’s an amorphous sleep? A sleep lacking definite shape or form? The term is inapplicable literally. As figure, it is difficult or impossible to interpret. . . . Did Rosenberg mean “uncertain,” or “restless,” or “ambiguous”? Whatever he meant, we’ll never know, barring the discovery of a new version. It’s conceivable he may not have meant anything, may well have been filling the line with a fashionably resonant sound rather than a meaning. Mr. Bloom writes that “The poem turns on the fine play between ‘amorphous’ and ‘amorous,’” but he doesn’t attempt to explain the meaning we should assign those terms, where the play occurs, and how, what the turn is from and to specifically, and how that develops meaning. The impressionistic poem, or fragment, doesn’t scintillate except under the radiant criticism Mr. Bloom lavishes on it.

The author’s remark that “The formal inadequacy [of Samuel Greenberg's verse] is clear enough” seems the most astute judgment of the article. Passages such as “its senses that grasp your heart / That travels through speechless awe” and

The violent colors through the glass
Throw up little swellings that appear
And spatter as soon as another strikes
And is born

blunder into walls, but even so the poet has found it necessary to lace the lines with “and,” “that,” “through,” and “as” to keep the syllable count, whatever the sound. In fact, “formal inadequacy” doesn’t quite get to the awesome ineptitude of the verse. . . .

I think that Robert Mezey’s “On the Equator” comes closest to the dignity and intensity Mr. Bloom wants from his poets. The cadences of “I am your wandering son / Who has cast his lot like a prophet / In the desert of his days” respect the colloquial while ordering the language in terms of sound and syntax so as to reinforce and vivify the meditative poignance. Allen Ginsberg, by the way, doesn’t succeed in recovering his faith, it’s true, but he does succeed in mourning its loss and the loss of innumerable other intangible and tangible values: innocence, family, place, and so on. Ginsberg may be irrelevant to the achievement Mr. Bloom wants to sketch. He may, also, however, be central to far more relevant concerns. He doesn’t back away from the present, a procedure Mr. Bloom seems to advise, though he does look back, fearfully, and almost helplessly, at the inferno which spat him out. . . .

Stuart Silverman
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle
Chicago, Illinois

_____________

 

To the Editor:

I was distressed to see that Harold Bloom overlooked the poet Samuel Menashe in his article on Jewish poets. Certainly if his article intended to be a survey, untouched by the taint of fashion, Mr. Menashe’s work deserves not merely mention but extended examination. After all, how many American-Jewish poets have elicited the sort of praise which Stephen Spender felt moved to express when reviewing Menashe’s book, No Jerusalem But This, in the New York Review of Books on July 22, 1971?

But let me quote Spender: “Samuel Menashe is a poet of entirely Jewish consciousness. . . . He is not of the prophets, concerned with exodus, exile, and lamentation: but he is certainly a witness to the sacredness of the nation in all circumstances—in life or in death. His poetry constantly reminds me of some kind of biblical instrument—tabor or jubal—and the note it strikes is always positive and ever joyous.” I hate to think that a mere literary magazine could beat COMMENTARY on its supposedly home ground, that is, hearing the deepest notes of Jewish culture in its existing expression and telling others about that experience. But it seems it has. Ah well.

Raymond Rosenthal
New York City

_____________

 

To the Editor:

How did Harold Bloom achieve the reverse miracle of not mentioning the work of David Ignatow and Philip Levine in his essay on “The Sorrows of American-Jewish Poetry”?

Stephen Berg
The American Poetry Review
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Harold Bloom inexplicably neglects to mention the very fine Canadian-Jewish poet, A. M. Klein. Unlike the overrated Isaac Rosenberg, Abraham Klein has produced much more than “a handful of quasi-biblical fragments”; unlike Charles Reznikoff, Delmore Schwartz, and others, he has fashioned a language superbly “appropriate to [his] desired stance.” Were it not for the fact that A. M. Klein comes from supposedly provincial Canada, he would long ago have received the recognition he deserves, as “the most distinguished Jewish poet writing in English in this century.” It is distressing to find him omitted from Mr. Bloom’s survey.

Leon Slonim
Toronto, Canada

_____________

 

Harold Bloom writes:

I can’t reply to any of these letters, as none of them raises a substantive argument, and no one engages my article’s two points—that American-Jewish poetry just isn’t very good, and that this may be because of a certain problem caused by the very process of poetic influence.

_____________

 

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