Walt Whit­man and the Mak­ing of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poetry

  • Review
By – February 26, 2024

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whit­man,” writes Allen Gins­berg in his poem A Super­mar­ket in Cal­i­for­nia,” imag­in­ing the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry poet wan­der­ing the aisles: In my hun­gry fatigue, and shop­ping for images, I went into the neon fruit super­mar­ket, dream­ing of your enu­mer­a­tions!” Ginsberg’s poem, writ­ten in the long, expan­sive lines we think of as Whit­man­ian,” is per­haps the most famous encounter in poet­ry between Whit­man and an Amer­i­can Jew. Most peo­ple would be hard put to think of any oth­ers; but in her new study, Walt Whit­man and the Mak­ing of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry, poet and schol­ar Dara Bar­nat describes Jew­ish Amer­i­can poet­ry as a long series of engage­ments with Whit­man. By focus­ing on four sets of Jew­ish poets — all linked to Whit­man through their shared grap­pling with his­tor­i­cal, social, and polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances — her book offers new ways of think­ing about Jew­ish writ­ing, inter­tex­tu­al dia­logue, the con­tin­u­um of the sec­u­lar and the sacred, and Amer­i­can poet­ry itself.

Whit­man is a foun­da­tion­al fig­ure for Amer­i­can poets gen­er­al­ly, but Bar­nat argues that his style, modes, sub­ject mat­ter, and per­son­ae have inter­est­ed Jew­ish poets from High Mod­ernism (begin­ning short­ly after World War I) to the present day. Bar­nat con­sid­ers self-con­scious­ly Jew­ish poets like Muriel Rukeyser and Ali­cia Ostrik­er along­side those whose Jew­ish­ness has been mut­ed — either by the poets them­selves or by read­ers’ empha­sis on oth­er ele­ments of their work — such as Ken­neth Koch and Adri­enne Rich. Charles Reznikoff, Karl Shapiro, Gins­berg, Ger­ald Stern, and Marge Pier­cy are the oth­er main fig­ures through whom Bar­nat argues that Whitman’s texts, and in sev­er­al cas­es (such as for Rukeyser and Stern) even Whitman’s imag­ined phys­i­cal body, are a site through which poets nego­ti­ate expe­ri­ences of being Jew­ish in America.”

One poet par­tic­u­lar­ly well served by Bar­nat is Shapiro, who may be best known as the lone dis­sent­ing vot­er on the com­mit­tee that award­ed the Bollin­gen Prize to Ezra Pound in 1949; he cast his vote on the grounds of Pound’s anti­semitism. Barnat’s trac­ing of Shapiro’s com­plex rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish­ness in his poems and prose will draw new read­ers to his work. 

Bar­net goes on to read the social and polit­i­cal activist Rukeyser as an exam­ple of Whitman’s pre­scient poet,” a prophet­ic fig­ure who pos­sess­es spe­cial insight and dis­sem­i­nates this insight to soci­ety at large.” She ana­lyzes the ways in which Rukeyser appears to chan­nel Whitman’s all-encom­pass­ing eye (and I) to con­vey her cri­tique of America.” 

Every read­er who’s acquaint­ed with Jew­ish Amer­i­can poet­ry will think of more poets to add to this list. Along with the dozens Bar­nat men­tions in her intro­duc­tion, one might also include Chan­da Feld­man, Dana Levin, Bert Mey­ers, Brooke Sah­ni, sam sax, Rachel Wet­zs­teon, and Ava Win­ter — just to name a few who would widen the field in terms of their engage­ment with eth­nic and racial iden­ti­ty, gen­der expres­sion, poet­ic form, pol­i­tics, and/​or reli­gious practice. 

Barnat’s book is, like Whitman’s poet­ry, expan­sive and wel­com­ing. Its frame­work will enable future read­ings of Jew­ish Amer­i­can poets across spec­tra of belief, iden­ti­ty, and experience.

Nan Cohen is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tions Rope Bridge and Unfin­ished City and the chap­book Thou­sand-Year-Old Words. The recip­i­ent of a fel­low­ship from the Yet­zi­rah con­fer­ence for Jew­ish poets, her poems have recent­ly appeared on The Slow­down and in The Beloit Poet­ry Journal.

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