Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Jewish Top 10s: Poets

Jewish poetry has showed a continued survival, and in that there is a distinct beauty. Here are 10 Jewish poets that we think encapsulate the continued importance and popularity of poetry

By: Zak Edwards

Published: March 28th, 2014 in Culture » Books » News

Jewish Top 10s: Poets

Welcome to Jewish Top 10s, where we compile lists that highlight the best and the brightest of everything yehudi, from delicious recipes to funniest actors, to most obnoxious Jewish wedding songs.

Probably one of the most memorable quotes about poetry and the Jewish people is by philosopher Theodor Adorno, who said “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.” Of course, this has been taken out of context from the moment it was published, but there is a certain quality to such a statement. Poetry, a form with a language unto itself, which defies the logic of other writings and seems answerable only to itself, has a complicated relationship with expression, and such moments devoid of the beauty it so often hopes to capture like the Holocaust.

But poetry remains and Jewish poetry in particular has become part of people’s every day experience, whether it is the lyrics of musicians like Leonard Cohen or the meditations of Primo Levi, who wrote about the very subject Adorno spoke about. Poetry changed after Auschwitz, of that we are certain, but the influence of Jewish poetry even from ancient history shows a continued survival, and in that there is a distinct beauty.

Here are 10 Jewish poets that we think encapsulate the continued importance and popularity of poetry, a list that can come nowhere close to appreciating the impact and major players of Jewish poetry from antiquity to now:

10.

Isaac Rosenberg

Born: Bristol, England in 1890


For many of us, In Flander’s Fields has come to dominate the realm of poetry written about or during World War I, but Isaac Rosenberg’s small amount of work remains some of the best of the period. To read Rosenberg is to read about the war, but also to see a young poet shed his influences and come into his own. His early work is heavily influenced by the Romantics, using sounds in almost identical patterns and speaking to large subjects, but his later work became more specific, and more distinctive. As critic Thomas Staley comments, “As war became the universe of his [Rosenberg’s] poetry, the power of his Jewish roots and the classical themes became the sources of his moral vision as well as his poetic achievement.” Rosenberg died in the war at 28 years old, leaving us with a small amount of work, but an interesting journey into the craft.

9.

The Poets of the Bible

Born: A long time ago in mostly the Middle East


Psalms, Song of Solomon, and the many other moments of verse in the Bible are probably the most widely read Jewish poetry in history. But even for those who don’t consider themselves religious, the lessons and beauty that are found in these words are still worth the read. Plus, these are some of the earliest versions of Hebrew poetry in existence and the influence on contemporary poetry is almost absolute, covering subjects such as sex and love, as well as social and political commentary.

8.


Dorothy Parker

Born: Long Branch, New Jersey in 1893

Few poets are able to balance caustic wit with strong humour the way Dorothy Parker seems to in every poem. Known throughout her life as a funny but outspoken writer, she spent more time getting in trouble for what she wrote than seemingly anything else. The FBI reportedly has a 1,000 page file on her! Her first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, sold an impressive 47,000 copies, and garnered mixed praise. The Nation said the collection is “caked with a salty humor, rough with splinters of disillusion, and tarred with a bright black authenticity,” but was dismissed by the New York Times as “flapper verse.” Of course, Parker wasn’t dismayed and continued to refine her craft both in poetry and in screenwriting. Known mostly for her scathing with, Parker will go down as a poet who had little patience for those who tolerated indifference or ignorance.

7.


Primo Levi

Born: Turin, Italy in 1919

Primo Levi will forever be remembered as one of the most important and widely read Holocaust survivors. His memoirs are important documents, but his poetry is important as well and a fundamental part of his nonfiction. Like Elie Wiesel, Levy infused his accounts with poetic language and literary devices to help readers engage in a deeper experience rather than a simple recounting of facts. With these stylings, Levy’s work becomes that much more horrific, that much more real, precisely because he knows how to use words. His poetry, while far less in number than his other writings, has a certain bluntness that achieves a similar feeling in some, a deadpan in others that belies the horrors he discusses.

6.


Frederick Seidel

Born: St. Louis, Missouri in 1936

Of all the people on this list, Seidel is the scariest. His poetry shows an appreciation and knowledge of the formal matters of poetry, including rhyme and meter, but frequently combines, disrupts, or outright defies these constructions for harsh imagery and criticisms. Seidel is not for the faint of heart, a man unafraid to use disturbing scenarios to comment on the world around us. Frequently derided as pretty much anything you can accuse someone of (mostly by people who are looking to be offended rather than actually engage with an artistic piece), Seidel’s poetry lodges itself in your brain for better or worse.

Continue Reading on Page 2 for Our Top 5 Jewish Poets

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