Everybody needs poetry, all the time. I am sure of it, sure enough to spend my life writing and teaching it, and even writing about it, often in these very pages. More than anything, though, the life in poetry, for me, is about reading poems—in books and off innumerable screens, quietly alone and with my partner, in coffee shops and at the dinner table, with my children and my friends, on the beach and at shul. And while most of the time, I read poems for pleasure, curiosity, and insight, there are times when my need for them becomes acute.
I remember how much I needed poems when my children were born. Or, on the other side of life’s swing, I needed poems when the war in Ukraine started, and I was lost for words, trying to turn the chaos in my head into thoughts, if not into a balm. I also feel the deep need for poems when seasons change, on birthdays, at celebrations, and during holidays. Like nothing else in the world, poems allow us to hold onto life’s pivotal, liminal points: we may feel speechless, but a poem’s words ring out, bring sense and beauty to the moment, and perhaps even sanctify it, as a ritual might. In this column, which I have entitled “You Need a Poem,” and further installments, I will feature poems the moment is calling for: the poems I need, which you might need as well.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot—the tradition of staying up all night reading and studying Jewish texts on the eve of Shavuot—might just be the one Jewish ritual I adore without any reservations. It involves unstructured, community-led learning, staying up late talking and thinking about the transcendent. (Drinking coffee and eating cheesecake at all hours doesn’t hurt either.) The theme of revelation, which the holiday commemorates, is spiritual and esoteric but it gets enacted in an intellectual manner as texts are received, discussed, and internalized. “Revelation”, admittedly, is a prohibitive, difficult word, but the learning and the convivial atmosphere bring it down to earth a bit.
Denise Levertov, a poet who has written extensively on spiritual experience and often draws from Biblical and Hasidic teachings, sees revelation as both transcendent and dream-like yet oddly concrete. In her 1961 poem “The Jacob’s Ladder,” (from the New Directions collection with the same name) she envisions the transcendent path:
The stairway is not
a thing of gleaming strands
a radiant evanescence
for angels’ feet that only glance in their tread, and
need not touch the stone.
It is of stone.
A rosy stone that takes
a glowing tone of softness
only because behind it the sky is a doubtful,
a doubting night gray.
A stairway of sharp
angles, solidly built.
One sees that the angels must spring
down from one step to the next, giving a little
lift of the wings:
and a man climbing
must scrape his knees, and bring
the grip of his hands into play. The cut stone
consoles his groping feet. Wings brush past him.
The poem ascends.
Perhaps the most striking image of the poem is the “doubtful, / a doubting night gray” sky. Rather than the “pitch black” darkness that is often invoked in poems and myths, the sky here is of a far more realistic shade, one we are most accustomed to actually seeing: that liminal dark-gray color, in which shapes and people might be discerned but are easily misidentified. Levertov’s night-sky is both “doubtful” and “doubting”, as if given the agency to think on its own. Through that thinking, it comes to question its own existence—the same way a human staring at the sky might. The “doubt” here is endemic to the spiritual experience itself: the skepticism that comes, almost inevitably, by way of talking and thinking, about such an experience.
Levertov imagines the stairway as “solidly built”, which is puzzling: the poem suggests the existence of a well-worn spiritual path, one that has been walked by others, and that is always there, honed and furnished, waiting for us. The sky around it may be fraught with doubt, but the stairway is solid. Can the spiritual experience be quite so defined? Or is the poem suggesting that the ancestral text, the story of Jacob’s ladder, is itself a passage upwards? Is this about the act of reading the tradition, struggling with its sharp edges, step by step, and making it one’s own—just as Levertov is doing here, creating her own midrashic reimagining?
There is a kind of faith in this poem—not only in the spiritual quest but also in the meaning-making. The year Levertov wrote “The Jacob’s Ladder” was also the year of a well-known trial in Jerusalem, which Levertov reflected on in her poem “Eichmann Trial”, describing the heinous criminal as “an apparition // telling us something he / does not know: we are members // one of another.” It is a poet’s verdict: sharp, scintillant, and brave. Clearly, Levertov believes that it is possible to find words for the unspeakable and respond to life’s most impossible moments; that the poetic contemplation of history, just like her contemplation of the sacred myth, can culminate in an insight.
After all, the culmination of the “Jacob’s Ladder” is the poem, as the final line attests. But it isn’t the writing: the poem “ascends” rather than descends, it is neither given nor revealed. Rather, it moves higher than the person “climbing” can reach—as a prayer might, or at least hopes to.
Rachel Mennies, a contemporary poet, whose incredible book “The Naomi Letters” was published last year by BOA Editions, has a very different approach to spiritual moments. “The Naomi Letters” is a set of epistolary fragments, addressed to the poet’s muse named Naomi. These letters are laced with desire—sometimes it is a desire for human companionship, other times it is explicitly erotic, other times it is numinous. We do not know whether Naomi is a real person or a textual mirage. References to Jewish holidays and Hebrew texts appear throughout the book, and Naomi’s name itself can’t be read without the Biblical resonance it carries. Yet, if Biblical Naomi was the addressee of the famous “Wherever you go, I go” phrase, the Naomi of Mennies’s poems moves in the opposite direction. She seems to be everywhere the poet’s imagination goes: whenever the poem appears, it finds Naomi there.
In one such letter, with a date for its title, “February 20, 2017”, the poem describes an ascent, radically different from Levertov’s:
A stack of books sits to my right and another to my left at my writing desk.
One stack reads Wrecks.
The other reads Odes.
Beyond the window our god will write nothing until the sun rises.
I do not understand my role at this desk, Naomi.
The ritual unchanged for years, the streets beyond the window unchanged.
I once thought aging was more like climbing a mountain than unfolding your unread letter.
I thought the view evolved the higher my legs took me.
That the air cooled you at certain altitudes – might easy the body, lull the limbs.
Instead I wake with a turning fist between my legs, another in my teeth.
The wind beyond the window disordering my pages.
Here, instead of a single, well-crafted ladder, we see two stacks of books, rising upwards: one is the collection of praise, the otherInenumerates destructions. But which is the right pathway for the poet, seated at her desk between them? “I do not understand my role,” she confesses. Unlike Levertov’s protagonist, she does not climb, but is stuck, paralyzed in her place. Her own book, one that we find ourselves inside of, is lyrical, and personal: she neither joins the ode’s chorus, nor speaks of the world’s wreckage. Her praise is for Naomi’s shadow; her wreckage is her own.
As with many tropes of ascent, this one also involves a mountain where revelations are given, which is how the narrator conceives of the process of getting older—being able to see more, to understand more. To receive the relief of “higher altitudes” is to attain the wisdom of aging, by acquiring more context, which, however, seems to remain “unchanged”. Yet even as she unfolds this vision, the narrator questions its viability. Could it be, she posits, that the revelation feels like the “unfolding your unread letter”? Here, the poem is at its most ambiguous. What letter are we talking about? Is it the letter from Naomi—a new letter, which simply has not yet been read or shared with the reader? Or is it a letter to Naomi, which is unread, and never will be, because Naomi does not exist? Or is it, perhaps, a letter to Naomi, which, like Naomi herself, exists in the recesses of the poet’s imagination, and is only still being composed, is if unfolded, and revealed? If so, it is not revealed with clarity, but with the intensity of some profound inward stirring.
While the first part of the poem occurs at the desk, as the letter is being unfolded, the poet suddenly finds herself in her bed. The penultimate line of the poem is its most haunting. It may be erotic, but it is also pained, fraught with loneliness and longing, with something stifled or silenced, and unresolved. It is a very private confession, and it is not here for Naomi’s benefit only: it is here for the poet herself, and all of us, too. If anything is revealed here, it is the speaker herself, who is now at her most vulnerable. Immediately, in the last line, we’re transported again, from the bed back to the desk by the window, where the wind is given a free reign. In Hebrew, the word for the wind is also the word the for the “spirit”, ruach: it is an unpredictable and disorienting power.
Many of the poems in “The Naomi Letters” address the matters of mental health, and more precisely, anxiety. As the “November 15, 2016” entry in the collection has it, “The doctor says my anxiety is situationally extreme, but I believe it’s just a good student of history.” Given the poem’s date, it is hard for me not to contextualize it against the backdrop of the election result that occurred only a week prior. But it could reference any number of reasons, past or future, that the poet may feel anxious. And is it not the role of the poet to be the lightning rod, the voice that finds pained words which intertwine historical and psychological? Writing and reading these words is the ritual of healing the poem offers. If, at the end of Levertov’s work, the poem-prayer ascends, Rachel Mennies’s “February 20, 2017” ends up with pages, scrambled and undone—but witnessing them as such may be a kind of ascent, too.
The “Book of Ruth” is chanted in synagogues on Shavuot. With Naomi’s guidance, Ruth comes into the fold of Jewish practices. I am reading Rachel Mennies’s book this Shavuot because it feels like a gradual revelation of the self at its most unreadable, using poetry as the only medium strong enough to hold the confusion. And I will be reading Levertov’s “Jacob’s Ladder”, because, like Levertov I know that against the backdrop of the sky of doubt, there are texts, ancient and contemporary, that feel to me like mythic ladders. Where do these ladders take us? For that, I think, we need a different poem yet: perhaps another time, in this very column.
The Jacob’s Ladder,” by Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1961 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.”
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.