Soviet workers protest Israel, Lipetsk, 1967. The banner reads ‘Keep Your Hands off Arab Countries’

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Poetry After October 7th

The high arts are becoming an open sewer fueled by antisemitic hate. How can we continue to publish and create?

Maxim D. Shrayer
April 03, 2024
Soviet workers protest Israel, Lipetsk, 1967. The banner reads ‘Keep Your Hands off Arab Countries’

Source unknown

On Feb. 11, the poet and political activist Eileen Myles posted a photo of a lined notepad on their Facebook page. Written in a snappy block print, all caps, were the words “ISRAEL IS THE BABY CHILD AND INFANT PROTECTOR OF IMPERIALISM IN THE MIDDLE EAST — KWAME TURE STOKELEY CARMICHAEL.” The word “ISRAEL” was performatively crossed out, and the word “ZIONISM” written on top. The quote Myles used in their post has been making the e-rounds of the U.S.-based intifada revolution circles and is indeed attributed to Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael)—who is also reported to have said, in a 1990 speech, that “[t]he only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”

Eileen Myles—not to be confused with the Jewish poet Anne G. Myles—was born in 1949, grew up Catholic in the Boston area, and was educated at UMass-Boston. They moved to New York City in 1974 and in 1984-86 served as artistic director of St. Mark’s Poetry Project. One of the better known and bedecked of their generation of American poets, Myles has received an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers grant, four Lambda Book Awards, a Guggenheim, and the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America. In 2021 they were elected to the American Academy of Arts & Letters. In 2023 they were the subject of an episode of Queer Genius, a PBS documentary series. Myles divides their time between New York and Marfa, a desert town and arts hub in West Texas.

When I saw Eileen Myles’ public Facebook post, I was struck by the absence of comments. An endorsing silence, a bewildering silence, or a silence of tacit disapproval? I immediately queried two Jewish writers I know. “Today on the FB page of your friend Eileen Myles,” I wrote to both and shared a screenshot of the post. Both replied instantly. The first Facebook friend acknowledged that Eileen Myles is an antisemite yet warned of the dangers of policing one another’s lists of friends. The second friend referred to Eileen Myles’ trip to the West Bank in 2018, during which they fell in love with the place and the people. The friend added that Myles “would not survive in Gaza, Iran or any other country supportive of Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Why am I dwelling on a post by an American poet who has become a rewriter of Soviet-style anti-Zionist rhetoric? On April 2, 2018, Eileen Myles tweeted: “How dare Israel keep killing Palestinians. Joke! I’m a dyke.” What back in 2018 could have been dismissed as a countercultural joke does not ring funny in the post Oct. 7 climate. Instead, it reads like a symptom of a burgeoning obsession that began well before Israel’s current war in Gaza. Myles’ combative statements are replete with encouragements to her fellow residents of Marfa to oppose Zionism and with invocations of the eliminationist slogan “From the river to the sea ...” Such poetic activism is part of a nationwide literary campaign of vilification and ostracism in which Jewish artists and intellectuals are intimidated into publicly choosing sides, for or against Israel, or harassed into dwelling in silence.

The three days leading up to Feb. 11, 2024, were a particularly painful period in this new American history of cultural Jew-baiting carried out in the name of fighting Zionism and Israel. The ugliness of what’s happening in our arts and letters should be plain to any thinking person. On Feb. 10, Writers Against the War in Gaza and the New York chapter of the Palestinian Youth Movement shut down the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), charging the museum’s trustees, a number of them Jewish, with “fund[ing] genocide, apartheid, and settler colonialism.” This protest by “artists and workers” (words of the journalist Paolo Mossetti) as well as several other protests that occurred at the same time demonstrated that the so-called “Free Palestine” activists no longer pretended to be “anti-Israel” but not “antisemitic.” American poets specifically, have been at the vanguard of local and national efforts to isolate friends and supporters of Israel. Organized anti-Israel protests also occurred at the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Kansas City, an annual gathering especially important for independent and literary publishers and literary magazines. According to a detailed report by the writer Sarah Einstein, “a few days ahead of the conference [Radius of Arab American Writers] sent out a letter to all panel organizers (except those who were obviously Jewish or whose panel had a Jewish theme) […].” Panel organizers and moderators were “urged” to “acknowledge the ongoing genocide in Gaza.” On Feb. 9, protests broke out at the AWP conference, and writers, editors and publishers were targeted for public vilification and intimidations under the call to “Boycott Zionist literary institutions,” among which the protesters named PEN America and the Poetry Foundation.

Leah Maines, poet and publisher of Finishing Line Press, described her experience at the AWP book fair as follows:

I got cursed at in Arabic […]. I was also called a murderer, child killer, and doer of atrocities. […] I’m just an old Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish woman who stands with Israel. This made me sick and angry. […] In addition, some pro-Gaza supporters walked by my booth to look at me. Somebody took my photo. […] Others did a video of me saying they would post it and cause me problems. […] I did not feel safe.

It is important to dot the lines connecting an American poet’s public performances against Israel and Zionism, the anti-Zionist protests by workers of culture, and the growing, open harassment of Jewish authors, editors, publishers, and their non-Jewish allies. One could compile a catalog of other acts and spectacles of public protest-cum-intimidation, all occurring in January-February 2024, among them the Feb. 8 open letter to PEN America concerning the event with the actress and author Mayim Bialik. The letter, now bearing almost 1,500 signatures, was prominently featured on Literary Hub: “On Jan. 31, PEN America chose to platform Mayim Bialik, a person committed to the racist ideology of Zionism. In doing so, PEN is perpetuating dangerous, fascist views and offering tacit approval for the Zionist, racist and genocidal regime.” There is, finally, the recent collapse of the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92NY in Manhattan.

These are trying times for all American Jews, whether or not they openly support Israel, feign neutrality or disinterest, or practice forms of anti-Zionism. A Jewish poet who did not want to be identified told me: “The liberal establishment and media are willing to throw the Jews under the bus.” These are also unprecedented times for Jewish culture in America—as though its skein is being both violently cut and tangled. As a student of Jewish poetry and as a Jewish poet and translator, I find myself particularly attuned to the anxieties and reactions of fellow Jewish poets. A Jewish poet recently posted the title page of Jewish Vacation Guide: Hotels, Boarding and Rooming Houses Where Jews Are Welcome, published in 1916 by the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America. “Hope we won’t need this again,” the poet commented. The poet Rodger Kamenetz, whose book The Jew in the Lotus, an exploration of the Jewish-Buddhist encounter, is celebrating its 30th anniversary, told me: ”I would definitely say even in laid back New Orleans it’s pretty much consensus in the literary community that Israel is the bad guy.” Anna Halberstadt, bilingual poet in English and Russian who is originally from Lithuania, gave this assessment: “I think, it split poets, most of them liberals, supportive of human rights, into two groups, one—supportive of the Palestinian cause regardless, including total elimination of the state of Israel, and another—Jewish and non-Jewish poets, disappointed by the lack of empathy towards the victims of Oct. 7.” Erika Dreifus, poet and publisher of The Practicing Writer and My Machberet, and a keen monitor of Jewish literary life, told me: “There’s a virulent anti-Israelism in literary publishing more generally, and one can find it in other Anglophone countries. None of this is altogether new. But it has certainly become much more visible and pervasive—it has intensified—since Oct. 7.” The poet Richard Michelson thus summarized his trepidations:

I know many Jewish poets who feel abandoned by the larger social justice and literary communities. Others are afraid to speak out in support of their own people. Many of us have long held left-wing political views and fought for the rights of others. Personally, I have given time and money to organizations supporting Palestinian rights and those favoring a two-state solution. I deplore the right-wing government, and I support Israeli peace groups. But I now find myself estranged from many whose voices I previously championed, and I am disappointed in those who have condemned the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza (which deserves condemnation), but refuse to equally condemn the rape and slaughter of innocent Israelis attending a music festival. […] Poets are supposed to value words and understand nuance, and I am concerned, when I see those writers—whose work I love—lending their name to antisemitic sloganeering.

Many other Jewish poets I have spoken with over the past two months describe similar feelings of being let down if not downright betrayed by their social and cultural communities.

The post-Oct.7 explosion of literary antisemitism brought into sharp relief a literary cleansing and self-cleansing that had already been under way on the poetry scene, where some of the editors would do anything to prove that they, too, are marching in the anti-Zionist cultural battalions. One is tempted to modify two words in the pronouncement Jacob Savage made a year ago, when he spoke of the erasure of Jews from American public life: “Suddenly, everywhere you look, the [Jewish poets] are disappearing.” If part of the playbook of “the new antisemitism,” as Noah Feldman argues, is to regard Jews as “imperialists,” “settler-colonialists” and “white supremacists” (as opposed to Christ-killers and host-desecrators, Judeo-Bolsheviks and financial controllers of the world, all from the playbook of the old antisemitism), then it follows that today’s American workers of culture would seek to “liberate” and “decolonize” American culture from the Jews who had “settled” on it. This does not fare well for Jewish poetry, even of the anti-Zionist and apostatic varieties.

The erasure of Jews from the American poetry scene sometimes comes across as comical or grotesque, but once paying attention, it’s difficult to stop. The literary magazine Pocket Samovar, whose editors include Jewish poets and translators of Hebrew poetry, describes itself as “an international literary magazine dedicated to underrepresented post-Soviet writing, art, and diaspora.” The magazine’s mission statement reads: “We welcome poetry, short stories, essays, creative nonfiction, interviews, visual art, photography and film from Black, Womxn, Transcaucasian, Baltic, Eastern European, Asian, central Asian, indigenous, differently-abled, LGBTQ+, Muslim, and dissident etc. writers/poets. In honoring the complexity of diaspora and avoiding nationalisms, we understand post-Soviet broadly and any works that respond to each issue’s given theme/call are considered.” Rodger Kamenetz’s poems, “The Missing Jew” and “The Lowercase Jew”—also the titles of his poetry collections—leap to mind. “But where is the missing Jew?” one wonders. While surely the work of post-Soviet diversity is important, have Jews simply vanished?

In many cases, the answer is yes. Quite a number of America’s literary publishers and literary magazines are run by writers openly opposed to Israel and increasingly disinterested in Jewish poetic creativity; the fact that they may have Jewish editors on staff, or as part of their historical patrimony or matrimony makes them even less willing, or able, to publish work by Jewish writers. Joyland Magazine was co-founded by a Jewish author and lists Jews among its editors. On Feb. 27 the magazine announced on X that it “commits to adhering to the Palestinian international call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and to complying with the underlying guidelines for the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).” A literary agent in the U.K. recently claimed that “Half of British publishers are refusing to take books by authors who are identifiably Jewish.” How long will it be before U.S. publishers follow the British trend?

In some ways, I’m less viscerally affected by the post-Oct. 7 American cultural climate because I have lived through refusenikdom and harbor few illusions about literary solidarity. As a teenager, I saw poets forget our Moscow phone number after my father, David Shrayer-Petrov, was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers for our family’s attempt to emigrate and branded a “Zionist writer.” I remember picking up a copy of a daily Soviet newspaper in 1980 and reading a poem by a gifted Russian nationalist, in which he called my father a “werewolf” (oboroten) and a “son of a bitch.” As a former refusenik observing what may well be the darkest time for Jewish culture in America, I cannot dismiss the parallels between the anti-Zionist climate of the Soviet 1970s and 1980s and the fury of anti-Zionism here today.

Having recently conducted a survey of the state of Jewish poetry in America (survey being published at a later date), I know that many Jewish poets and translators of Jewish poetry are unsure how to function, to write, and to publish in the post-Oct. 7 climate. There are Jewish poets who envision a new status quo, one of clamming up and clenching teeth, and of hoping that the hostile climate will subside. There are Jewish poets who envision a retreat into Jewish cultural spaces (and both the early Nazi years and the late Soviet years offer examples of Jewish insular or underground cultural life under threat or duress).

A third scenario, one that I find especially refreshing, offers a return to Jewish civic and prophetic poetry addressed to a broad audience. The poet Robert Pinsky, whom I queried in connection with my survey, pointed me to “When Language Fails Us and the Moment,” his op-ed about language, strife and intolerance, published almost four months after Oct. 7. The Jewish poet, a former Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, noted the Orwellian fatigue in the omnipresent use of certain big words: “The reliably available terms of disapproval and approval—‘genocide’ and ‘patriotism,’ ‘antisemitism’ and ‘democracy’—convey large scale and importance but sometimes while avoiding the heavy cost of paying actual attention […] The more important the meaning, the harder the work.”

The poet expressed hope that “in the haunted house of our language, surrounded by desperate fogs of disapproval and righteousness, a flicker of comedy may signal a step in the right direction. Not to forbid the ghosts but to check them out.” Proverbs of Limbo, Pinsky’s forthcoming collection, will testify to the recipe’s application. Yet I fear we’re past the point of checking out the ghosts of antisemitism in America, either through flicks of bittersweet Jewish humor or bouts of gevalting. One does not need to be a Jew to hear danger in the poetry of street life. The recent addition of the expression “Got Israeled” to Urban Dictionary has provoked indignation in the Jewish community and a signature campaign, still unsuccessful, to remove it.

In a moment of insomniac’s clarity that came after I had analyzed 70 Jewish poets’ questionnaires I had solicited in February of 2024, I had a vision of myself as a foreign Jewish visitor who comes to America, in the hope of assessing the state of Jewish poetry. I imagined a revision of the famous scene in Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s satirical novel The Little Golden Calf (1931). Hiram Burman, an American journalist and a Zionist, is taking a trip with a group of newspapermen, a “special-charter train” bound for the construction of the Turkestan-Siberia railroad. The group includes one Heinrich, a representative of a “free-thinking Austrian newspaper,” and Soviet journalists, including one Palamidov.

At first, they talked about the Moscow Art Theater. Heinrich praised the theater, and Mr. Burman evasively remarked that as a Zionist he was mainly interested in the Jewish question in the USSR.

“We no longer have this question,” said Palamidov.

“How can there be no Jewish question?” marveled Hiram.

“There just isn’t. Doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Burman was beginning to feel agitated. He had spent his whole life writing articles on the Jewish question for his newspaper, and he would have found it painful to part with the subject.

“But aren’t there Jewish people in Russia?” he asked cautiously.

“Sure,” replied Palamidov.

“Then the question is there also?”

“No. There are Jews, but no question.”

In my phantasmagorically revised version of Ilf and Petrov, I traveled across the United States with a group of journalists. When asked where I could locate Jewish poetry, I was told: “There are Jewish poets, but no poetry.”

Here I pause to offer a bit of history. In a letter published in Commentary in 1946, Asher Brynes complained that, unlike the leading monthlies such as Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly, Jewish-interest magazines did not cultivate poetry: “It seems to me that the only way to correct the balance would be to add one long poem every month […].” In the 1950s and 1960s, not only Jewish publications but also some of the leading general interest magazines and quarterlies, took heed. Those were heady days for Jewish poetry! Just looking at some of the winning and most celebrated poetry titles of the late 1950s and early 1960s gives one a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, when Jewish poets, much like most Jews in America, began to feel that the fervent hopes and prayers of their immigrant ancestors have been answered.

Anti-Israel protest at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Kansas City, 2024

The late 1950s and early 1960s offer numerous landmarks of Jewish poetry in the American mainstream, among them Hyam Plutzik’s collection Apples from Shinar (1959), which was published by Wesleyan’s distinguished poetry series, or Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish (1961), which made the name of a central piece of Jewish religious service into a billboard of American poetry. The triumphant stride of Jewish poetry had one of its culminations with the publication, in 1975, of Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust.

In 1987, when I immigrated to America at the age of 20 and began to discover the living world of American poetry, the covers of literary magazines were adorned with the names of Jewish poets representing three generations. Among them were Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Maxine Kumin, and Philip Levine of the Jewish poets born in the 1920s, Grace Shulman, Marge Piercy, Alicia Ostriker, and Louise Glück, of the Jewish poets born in the 1930s and early 1940s, and David Lehman, Rodger Kamenetz, Edward Hirsch, Alan Shapiro, and Jacqueline Osherow, of the poets born in the late 1940s and 1950s. As a new immigrant at the time still writing poetry in Russian but already translating into English, I watched Jewish poets of my generation being discovered and championed by the American poetry scene.

1987, the year I came to America as a Soviet refugee, was also a special year for both Jewish and immigrant poetry because that year Joseph Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. He was an American writer, an ex-Soviet Jew who wrote poetry mainly in Russian and essays mainly in English. In 1991 Brodsky would be appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry. Since the position’s inception as Consultant in Poetry in 1937 and its subsequent elevation to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, 14 Jewish poets of the total of 54 have served, Howard Nemerov and Stanley Kunitz, twice.

The 1990s saw Jewish poetry in its American prime. Well do I remember having green tea with the late Edwin Honig at his first floor apartment on Pitman Street in Providence, Rhode Island, when the postman delivered a copy of the Boston-based magazine AGNI with Honig’s poetry. The year was 1991, and Honig, whom I got to know well and who became a friend of my parents, had already retired from Brown, where he established the famed creative writing program. A Jew of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic origin, a poet and translator of Spanish and Portuguese poets, Honig ripped open the envelope, saw his name surrounded by names of many fine poets, and intoned: “What did I do for AGNI?” The publication included Honig’s poem “God Talk” with a reference to the Shoah. Part II begins:

Seek me
and all I know of time
to show you

the game played
in the barbed wire city
with the fallen

where what you seek
already sees you
fallen […].

In the 1990s and early 2000s some of my earliest English-language poetry and translations of Jewish authors from Russia, notably Osip Mandelstam, were published in AGNI. Since Oct. 7, this American quarterly has positioned itself a literary bastion of anti-Israeli propaganda. How many of the dozens of Jewish poets AGNI has published over the years are horrified, as I am, by its one-sided perspective on the Israeli-Arab conflict—seen most clearly by the fundraiser Reading for the Edward Said Libraries in Gaza, which AGNI organized in close collaboration with Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore located in the Boston suburb with 10 synagogues and a large and diverse Jewish community.

A great deal has since changed in the landscape of Jewish poetry in America. The cleansing of the American poetry scene of Jews will probably take longer than it has in the U.K. not only because Jewish writers are deeply rooted here, but also because our publishing scene is much larger. But the troubling signs and signals are already present, notably in the realm of smaller and literary publishers that release the bulk of poetry, and in the literary journals and portals.

To say that the future of American Jewish poetry may lie underground or in fenced-off cultural spaces does not imply that it has no future. The literary scholar and memoirist Emma Gerstein, who was closely acquainted with both Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, described Osip Mandelstam’s mental and emotional state after he composed the anti-Stalinist poem “We live without feeling the country beneath ourselves …” (1933) and started to share it with friends and acquaintances. The poem began the downward arc of Mandelstam’s life, leading to his first arrest, internal exile, his second arrest, and eventually to his death at a transit camp in the Russian Far East. Gerstein recalled that Mandelstam told her about his poem: “‘Komsomol members will sing it in the streets! At the Bolshoy Theater … at congresses … from all the balconies …’ And then he added: ‘Look, not a word to anyone. If this reaches [the top], I could be … Executed!’” Upon hearing the anti-Stalin poem Boris Pasternak, also a great Russian poet of Jewish origin, reportedly told Mandelstam:

It is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide, of which I disapprove and to which I do not want to be a party. You never read anything to me, I never heard anything, and I ask you not to read the poem to anyone else.

Nadezhda Mandelstam offered her own version of Pasternak’s response to her husband’s poem against Stalin:

Pasternak was also hostile to the poem. He poured out his reproaches to me (this was when M. was already in Voronezh). Only one of these reproaches stands out in my memory: “How could he write a poem like that when he’s a Jew?” I still do not see the logic of this, and at the time I offered to recite the poem to him again so he could tell me exactly what it was wrong for a Jew to say, but he refused with horror (tr. Max Hayward).

A possible interpretation of Pasternak’s comment: Jews should display loyalism and should not stir up antisemitism by writing against the regime or the status quo. Pasternak refused to see the poem as a Jewish political act of defiance by Mandelstam. To revisit this episode today is to acknowledge, yet again, that Jewish poets have a particularly fateful addiction to language and and to political visions.

In his 1987 Nobel lecture, Joseph Brodsky, whose relationship with his ancestors’ Judaism and with Israel was riddled by contradictions, evoked the spirit of Mandelstam, the only Jewish poet among the other great poets he regularly found himself in conversation with, as he spoke of poetic cognition: “There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the Biblical prophets, revelation. What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them at once (gravitating primarily toward the second and the third)” (tr. Barry Rubin).

As a young Jew tried for “parasitism” in a Leningrad courtroom in 1964, Brodsky was asked by a Soviet judge, “Where did you study to be [a poet]?” He answered: “I thought … I thought it was from God.”

There was a time when every Russian-speaking kid in the vast Soviet empire had to memorize Pushkin’s “The Prophet” without being told that it is a rendition of Isaiah 6, and that Pushkin’s poet, who is called upon to “sear the people’s hearts with word,” is a Jewish prophet. Many of today’s Jewish American poets would probably recall Isaiah’s message, but would they also recognize the prophet’s poetic mission?

And so we turn, in closing, to the Hebrew Bible:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings; with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. […] I cried,

“Woe is me; I am lost!
For I am a man of unclean lips.
And I live among a people
Of unclean lips;
Yet my own eyes have beheld
The King Lord of Hosts”

(Isaiah 6, The New JPS translation).

Then follows the part that poets of yore have found captivating:

Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal, which he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched it to my lips and declared,

“Now that this has touched your lips,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin be purged away.”

Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me” […].

Israel is entering the seventh month of the war against those wishing to destroy her. The Lord’s commission remains, and the political and prophetic modes are bound to make a comeback in America’s Jewish poetry.

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, will be published in April 2024.

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