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Easy Reading

Straightforward or elliptical, poetry needn’t be hard

David Kaufmann
October 28, 2009

We’re taught that poetry is supposed to be hard, but it really isn’t. High school teachers and college professors and lots of other people still talk about poems as if they were full of “symbols,” arcane “references,” and “hidden meanings.” Thick with metaphor and lousy with similes, poetry is presented as buried treasure without a map. But most of the valuable stuff is scattered around the surface and not concealed in the depths.

I want to take the opportunity of my first monthly column on Jewish poetry to talk about two very different recent volumes by two very different, well-established, and frequently published poets: Philip Levine and Hank Lazer. Levine, at 81, has published 19 books and has won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. His newest volume, News of the World, appeared this fall. Prolific, but less well known, is Lazer, whose most recent book, Portions, came out this summer. While both poets take risks in the ways they try to solicit our attention, Levine tells readers real life stories, while for Lazer, the poems are the stories.

Levine makes a point of his clarity and sympathy. Here is the end of “My Fathers, the Baltic”:

Yusel Sprickulnick,
I bless your laughter
thrown in the wind’s face,
your gall, your rages,
your abiding love
for money and all
it never bought,
for your cracked voice
that wakens in dreams
where you rest at last,
for all the sea taught
you and you taught me:
that the waves go out
and nothing comes back.

Levine belongs to that school of writers who tailor the length of their lines to their syntax and their syntax to the length of their lines. This regularity allows him to spring some neat and subtle surprises: Yusel’s abiding love is not for family or country but for money, even though it turns out that either he never got the money in the first place or never had a chance to spend it.

This subject matter is also typical of Levine. He mostly writes about the petty degradations and despairs that the poor have to survive and the quiet dignities that pull them through. Levine, who comes from Detroit, served his time in industrial jobs. He tells stories about workers and their families. He has written that this has everything to do with being Jewish, although he has left behind the Orthodoxy of his youth: “This was my Detroit Jewish heritage…If I betrayed my loyalty to the people I worked with, regardless of their race or position, I would be despised in God’s eyes.”

Some God. “My Fathers, the Baltic” allows no space for providence and no place for redemption. The elemental forces of this world show nothing but indifference. Hence Levine’s yizkor books of the downtrodden and his feeling that if he did not write about them, they would be lost forever. He wants his poems to be acts of solidarity. His is a leftism of the heart.

In the end, Levine’s Yiddishkeit is tied to the relative simplicity of his diction and his fascination with what he calls “the stubbornness of things”:

They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

The common clutter of everyday life has to stand for itself because, like the people who made the table, the salt shaker, the glass, and the picture frames, it stands by itself. The things of this world all display the same mixture of toughness and vulnerability. And justice demands that they not be forgotten.

Levine’s sentiments (and his on-again, off-again sentimentality) have led to a consistent body of work. His poems refer directly to the world outside the text. They retail events and then comment on them. In the end, they are well-constructed reflections of and on experience.

Hank Lazer’s poetry is more elliptical than Levine’s; simplicity and a reliance on anecdote are not for him. Lazer traces his roots to the avant-garde and to the heterodox, to earlier Modernist writers like Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and Paul Celan. Lazer does not write about an experience that has already taken place. He claims that poems are “primary objects,” that they are themselves the experience they seek.

Taking the number of parashot—the cycle of Torah readings over a year—as his guide, Lazer has limited the poems in this book to 54 words each, setting for himself the task of maximizing meaning in minimal spaces. Instead of Levine’s straight-ahead sincerity, Lazer’s Portions depends on enigma, fleeting reference and the sense of many things happening all at once. The breaks within lines as well as between lines attempt to wrest forth as many connections and dislocations as they can.

Like Levine, Lazer—in this book at least—relies on a very short line of no more than three words. But though his syntax can be rather gnarly, it makes an odd and often compelling music. Read the poem “Exiled” out loud:

When exiled from
same when here
evokes difference to

say jew &
to explain miracle
of light wind

horizon tug guiding
container ship to
harbor coral reef

exposed at low
morning tide why
i am not

with them in
temple inventing here
a form of

prayer as others
in morning travel
word for word

We can worry the grammar of the last stanza and ask who those others are who travel “word for word.” Or perhaps it is the poet himself. Or maybe he invents, word by word, as they travel. In the end, readers do not have to choose between these readings. Rather we are supposed to allow the ambiguities pile on each other.

By the same token, the poem stakes its claim as a form of prayer, one that stands in for the morning service. Lazer tells us that he is not in temple (a nice American Reform touch, that word) and his spirituality is Jewish in its identifications but not in its ritual engagements. He makes the same case in a section of his poem “Religion:”

in hebrew i
am told there
is no word

that means “religion
for how or
why extract that

experience that emotion
from the surroundings
of everything else

Religion as Lazer describes it is both an experience and an emotion that cannot be separated from everything around it. It is part of any thick description of life, or, to take this further, it is indistinguishable from life.

Just as the best of Levine’s qualities—his verbal and rhetorical solidity—cannot be divorced from his loving struggle with that “stubbornness of things,” so Lazer’s strengths—the music he draws out of equivocations and a lyrical stuttering— derive from his desire to draw poetry as close as he can to religion by laying as much stress as he can on experience.

Lazer is no more playing hide-and-go-seek than is Levine; both are betting, but the two poets’ wagers are different. Levine doubles down on his sense of justice and hopes that the relative simplicity of his writing and the single-mindedness of his passion for commemoration won’t drive the reader away. On the other hand, Lazer risks alienating the reader through his syntactical complexities and unorthodox opinions in order to turn the poem into an occasion for thought, for playing with possibilities.

You don’t really have to go digging with these poets. We don’t need interpretive shovels. Sure, there are references and symbols, but they’re not the important thing. The depths are there on the surface, ready for the taking.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.