Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Present Tense

Can contemporary poetry engage the ancient art of prophecy?

David Kaufmann
January 23, 2009

These days, you don’t see many prophetic poems, and so it’s worth remembering that there was a time when vision and verse enjoyed a successful marriage. In the Bible, the pronouncements of the Hebrew prophets were sometimes laid out in prose, but they sounded most powerful as poetry—in part because of the particular kind of prophecy involved. These men and women were not fortune-tellers. They were hectoring voices of conscience and, because they were inspired by the Almighty, they had all the authority the world affords. Jewish prophecy was a kind of spiritual storm warning and, like weather reports, followed a strictly causal logic: if the people do not change their ways, then catastrophe will surely strike. But God’s wrath is not inevitable; repentance can avert disaster. Prophecy is therefore a form of public declamation. The prophet indicts our sins in the market and at the city gates.

In Jeremiah, Ohio, poet Adam Sol seeks to engage this legacy. Sol calls his book a novel and, although it is a bit thin on action, it is indeed a narrative. In it, Sol describes a road trip from Ohio to New York and back again taken by a reconceived, contemporary version of Jeremiah, the fierce prophet who, in the age of the later Jewish kings, preached against the dangers presented by the Babylonian empire. Sol’s Jeremiah is joined on the trip by an alienated ex-graduate student named Bruce, who—by serving as the addled Jeremiah’s companion, secretary, and guardian—embodies a version of the Baruch who was said to have recorded the biblical Jeremiah’s words. After passing through the malls, truck stops, and industrial waste of Pennsylvania, they end up in New York with Jeremiah in jail and Bruce reciting Jeremiah’s words at Ground Zero.

By casting his book as a story, Sol has worked to avoid the essentially tedious part of prophecy: its sheer repetitiveness. After all, the Book of Jeremiah is really a compendium of the prophet’s warnings and expressions of consolation. It covers the same ground in slightly different ways for 52 books. But because Bruce narrates the story-line, and Jeremiah provides the verbal fireworks, Bruce’s travelogue provides relief from the prophet’s exhortations. And by turning his prophet into a fictional character and embedding that character in a traveler’s tale, Sol can have his prophecy and disclaim it too. Jeremiah castigates and cajoles, not Sol. And, what’s more, Sol makes sure that we understand that Jeremiah is indeed out of his mind.

The storyline is maintained by Bruce, a matter-of-fact fellow who keeps things moving along:

I went out and bought a bag of carrots,
something good he could eat without his hands,
which were swollen, raw, and shiny with lymph.
I popped them in his mouth two at a time
while we worked our way back to the highway.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, is allowed to rant, but it turns out that in the early 21st century, prophecy doesn’t sound like it did in days of old. A contemporary poet just can’t get away with “the children of Noph and Tahpanhes will break your crown.” And so Sol retrofits his imagery and work his cadences: “Hear me while I call out my affliction/up in the smelly belly of this Greyhound Express.” Jeremiah goes on to offer up this peroration:

Therefore must we rake
our fingers across the vinyl seats, my friends,
and readjust the rearview mirrors.
Let us align
the tires and cancel our plans for the afternoon.

The mixture of biblical diction (“Hear me while I call out my affliction”) with the incongruously contemporary is intentionally odd, and has more than a touch of the hipster about it. It is reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s classic “Supermarket in California,” in which the poet has a vision of Walt Whitman interrogating the stock-boys: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” Like Lord Buckley—another Beat hero who was famous for telling the story of Jesus in a jiving form of bohemian scat (“The Nazz never did nothin’ simple/When He laid it, He laid it.”)—Sol is not really kidding.

Sol’s Jeremiah might be crazy, but he is no fool. His sections of the book inveigh against the kind of mindless devastation that has produced our aging and ailing Rust Belt, against the loss of community, against consumerism. And it is hard to say that he is wrong. But perhaps he is too easily right. In spite of his verbal surprises, Sol’s Jeremiah’s tirades and injunctions are too friendly to the reader and too easy on the community. This Jeremiah does not attack the nation for its harlotry and its backsliding, but instead tries to cajole it. Biblical prophets reprimand us, remind us of the hard duties we are supposed to perform. What use is a prophet that most people would agree with? What fun is a prophet you actually like from the get-go?

* * *

All this does not mean that a poetry of community conscience is impossible, that it cannot arise, as so much of our poetry does, from the first person. It will just have to use the plural. It will not only talk about “I.” It will have to speak not about “you,” but about us.

The work of Joseph Lease , author of two well-received books, is a case in point. In his recent poem “America,” he reminds readers that “the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of the widow and the orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor.” And he ends the poem like this:

We’re going back home to every vote
counts we’re changing the rules we’re
expecting disaster funding the nightmare
sure starve the poor try our new prayer try
our new blue Sunday try our new football
game turn off the shooting try our new
daydream and
try our

new rights

What is striking is the ambiguity here. Is Lease resorting to an indignant satire to attack us for the self-delusions that creep into our finer sentiments (“sure starve the poor”)? Or is he indeed saying that we can and perhaps will return to the better angels of our American Jewish natures? Perhaps we can actually make sure that every vote counts, that we can “turn off the shooting,” that we can actually change the rules and exert new/old rights.

Lease is doing both at the same time. He is both berating us and exhorting us while not claiming to be any different from us. By juxtaposing our Jewish ideals with our performance as Americans, he asserts that we can be a coherent community, one whose Judaism makes real demands on us as citizens and whose citizenship makes demands on us as Jews. “America” assails our blindness and our contradictions but it avoids the sweeping rhetorical gestures of prophecy.

This is probably just as well. Lacking the confidence of all assurances, we might just want to settle for such humility.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.