Abstract Jewishness
Poems of a Jew.
by Karl Shapiro.
Random House. 71 pp. $3.50.


It is disappointing to find the rather dramatic title of this collection of poems and its short introductory essay, in which incoherence tempers hysteria, followed by the tame and all-too-familiar sheep which are the poems themselves. After all, were so gigantic a shepherd and so rabid a sheepdog needed to usher in these busy, skipping poems (reprinted in the great majority from other of Shapiro’s collections of poems)? Though often unamiable, they hardly seem up to the ferocity of the Introduction. And one is mightily tempted to chasten the metaphysical ambitions of the title with all sorts of modest qualifications, to make it something like “Selected Poems of a Third-Generation Modern American Jew,” etc.

Perhaps it is unfair to take seriously the pretentious nonsense of this Introduction. It begins unpromisingly enough: “These poems are not for poets. [Ouch!] They are for people who derive some strength of meaning from the writings of poets. . . . It is good to read poems for their own sake, but it is also good to read them as documents. These poems are documents of an obsession.” The object of this obsession is the Jew, who, Shapiro goes on, is indefinable, indeed “this defiance of definition is the central meaning of Jewish consciousness. For to be a Jew is to be in a certain state of consciousness which is inescapable. As everyone knows, a Jew who becomes an atheist remains a Jew. A Jew who becomes a Catholic remains a Jew.” According to Shapiro “the Jewish identity, with or without religion, with or without history, is the significant fact . . . and the word Jew retains its eternal shock, a shock that has nothing to do with Christ or the Crucifixion.” There follows a brief discussion of Judaism, which, Shapiro finds, having moved the Jew beyond religion, art, literature, philosophy, and mysticism, has yet left him “absolutely committed to the world”; and “the Jew represents the primitive ego of the human race.” Then, following a brief statement on Jewish history, Shapiro has it that “the free modern Jew . . . is neither hero nor victim. He is man left over, after everything that can happen has happened.”

It is hard to believe that any of this is intended to be rational discourse. Maybe a document. Maybe a dithyramb. And yet something is to be made of this symbolic Jew to whom even Shapiro is forced to restore a semblance of his history and religion. As I see it, far from being the archetypal figure Shapiro would make of him, he serves to document what is perhaps the penultimate development of American Jewish experience. If Jewish religion, tradition, and history remained the focal point of the immigrant Jew and became a source of division (with its concomitants of punctilio and nostalgia) for his sons, Shapiro’s Jewishness, or, rather, Jewness, is surely third-generation—at the most, nominalistic, at the least, abstract and symbolic. For precisely what seems to be lacking here is a central Jewish consciousness. Instead, we have its exact opposite: a Jewish identity which is completely external, hinging as it does on the fact that there are some people who call others Jews and some who are called Jews. If “the word Jew retains its eternal shock” (in the poem “Jew” it is put, “But the name is a language itself . . . ever and ever a blow on our heart like a fist”) it does so because to the assimilated American Jew it must seem eminently unfair that he be called a Jew, even, at times, that there be Jews at all.

As much may be said for Shapiro’s mythicizing of the Jew: it is an unmistakable sign of a waning Jewish identity. Like the contemporary American myths of love and the family and contemporary mythomania itself, it does not bespeak the revival of a particular institution or experience, it signifies their death; they have given up the ghost. Shapiro’s mythic Jew is such a ghost. The “free modern Jew,” alienated from his Jewishness, finds it again stripped of its carnal trappings of religion and history and poised like a doppelgänger at a mysterious distance from him. Indeed he is “man left over, after everything that can happen has happened.” But what has happened is that, except in name only, he is no longer a Jew. Jewishness has become as mythical to this neo-Semite as it is to anti-Semites.



The poems themselves bear this out in their own way. Sunday, Christmas, and confirmation suggest themselves as occasions for poems where the Jewish holidays and ceremonies do not. In fact, there are only two out-and-out Jewish figures in these poems—the donation collector of “Messias” and the subject of “My Grandmother,” the one a figure of terror, the other of pity, both, that is, figures of psychic distance. However, it should be added that the terror is resolved in a rather tepid irony and the pity strikingly gives way to complaint:

I pity her life of deaths, the agony of her own,
But most that history moved her through
Stranger lands and many houses,
Taking her exile for granted, confusing
The tongues and tasks of her children’s

Furthermore, the rare Biblical subjects dealt with by Shapiro, as in “The Murder of Moses” or “Adam and Eve,” are hardly treated with any freshness of vision. They are “new look,” Judaism in the Freudian perspective. And poems like “The Alphabet,” “Jew,” and “The Synagogue” which attempt to block out a definition of Jewish identity along the lines laid out in the Introduction are among Shapiro’s dullest and most factitious. A Jewish identity is neither created nor creative here, it is pieced together.

Viewed as documents, these poems seem to lack an inner Jewish consciousness; viewed as art, they lack lyric centrality. Shapiro is obviously a warm and earnest poet, but his is not a lyric talent. His more successful poems, like “University” and “The Southerner,” are constructed poems and not poems of a passion growing incarnate. Typically, they deal discursively with some limited, and often ephemeral, cultural phenomenon; they analyze, compare, introduce allusions, and finally try to envelop the subject in a broader-ranging irony. They are busy poems, and they get things done. But once the guide of an external subject has been left behind and the lyric is broached, the result is a hodgepodge of rhetorical inflections, rhythms, and diction which lacks all organic unity or even naturalness and ease of expression. And all too often he lets his machinery and his kitbag of contemporaneity, and even his very earnestness, stifle the nascent poem. “The Olive Tree” provides a fair sample of these difficulties. First, the setting is described: “Save for a lustreless honing-stone of moon/ The sky stretches its flawless canopy of silk . . .” and this then gives way to a generalized description of the olive tree: “You cannot find in twisted Italy/ So straight a one; it stands not on a crag.” I, for one, can’t understand what the little tune of the first verse-and-a-half is doing here, or why it should be followed by the heavy inversion of “it stands not on a crag.” Be that as it may, after a closer look at the tree and its fruit, the poem goes on to conclude:

The leaves ride boat-like in the brimming sun,
Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes.
                                   Now on the lawn
The olives fall by thousands, and I delight
To shed my tennis shoes and walk on them,
Pressing them coldly into the deep grass,
In love and reverence for the total loss.

I pass over the unnatural (and here self-contradictory) conjunction of moon and “brimming sun” in the same sky—though this is indicative of the absence of a true visual, that is, personal, center in the poem and, therefore, of a failure to keep the natural and the symbolic in accord. The poem’s ending suffers differently. The last verse of the first stanza has sucked the egg of wisdom dry and the climactic vision of the falling olives is, therefore, the merest shell and is immediately trampled down by those size-14 topical “tennis shoes”—which themselves move on all too hastily to the final, and unconvincing, moral.

Though the final impression of this volume is unsatisfactory, it is noteworthy in one important respect: it clearly marks the intensity of Shapiro’s effort to broaden and deepen his poetry. I think he has gone overboard in this, but it is hard to think of one of our younger poets—these titans of poetry’s Junior Chamber of Commerce—who could not use such a dunking. Or with courage enough to follow Shapiro into the drink.



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