Tribally Speaking


Is there a Jewish-American poetry?

Trick question. According to Stephen Paul Miller, all poetry is Jewish.

The reason? Two words: “Walt Whitman.”

Like many if not most scholars, Miller embraces the iconic l9th-century bard as the singular foundation of modern American poetry. But the provocateur poet-critic takes it one step further. To Miller, it was Whitman’s unique revisionist-Protestant adaptation of the long, rolling lines of the Hebrew Bible and the visionary declamations of its prophets that transfused American verse with a timeless, distinctly Jewish essence.

As Miller writes in his poem “There’s One God and You’re Not It” (also the title of his latest of six collections): “Through Whitman/biblical forms —/the nonstop melodies/in just talking—/spread by whatever structure works.”

“Whitman came to occupy the national space,” says the hefty and affable Miller. “As in the Bible, his prophet is both a poet and a critic.” Like many Jewish-American writers, the 60-year-old Miller, a professor of English at St. John’s University and a longtime fixture of New York’s downtown literary scene, underwent an ethnic reawakening. He chronicled his epiphanies in stem-winding verse over the last several years. He also, together with Daniel Morris, co-edited the 2010 critical anthology “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture.”

As Miller writes in that book’s poem-preface: “Ongoing intensity, neurotic intensity/marks not only the best Jewish poetry but simply /hot poetry.”

Of course, by now we all know what “Jewish-American fiction” looks like — its creative lights, its common themes and rhythms, its indelible mark on gentile-American fiction. Making a case for a distinct Jewish-American poetry (and its attendant how-to poetics) is, if anything, long overdue. And the delay is likely due in large part because, in this culture, a lot more fiction gets read than poetry.

All of this has started some lively conversations in saloniste forums.

“Radical Jewish poetry,” wrote Emily Warn in a Tikkun magazine review “There’s One God,” “promises an experience that expresses the agitated, untethered relationship that many secular Jews experience in relation to normative Judaism. Yet to comprehend the poetry requires the equivalent of the audio tours at postmodern visual art exhibitions — a function that this book provides.”

To Miller and his confederates, it’s possible that anything tagged a Jewish-American poem can’t help but be “radical.” Most of the “radical” poems cited in “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture” are pointedly not “about” anything Jewish. Rather, they start with a questioning, frequently contrarian spirit that subordinates what they say in favor of dramatic new ways of saying it, in a manner that the rest of the world has deemed “Jewish.”

Grappling with both the suggestiveness and slipperiness of the premise, Hank Lazer essay in “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture” identifies a “devotion … to an actively engaged mode of not-knowing, a perpetually inconclusive, midrashic mode of writing, which may or not be Jewish-American poetry.”

Similarly, Miller sings of Jewish work whose “parallelisms and/intensities dovetail with argumentative, narrative,/and/or referentially abstract, linguistically/reflexive/poetry that, as Duke Ellington puts it, swings.”

The roster of these swing makers is notably small. In “Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture” and in Miller’s own work, you won’t find much from mainstream writers like Anthony Hecht, Howard Nemerov, Delmore Schwartz, Louise Gluck. Instead, other names keep cropping up in the essays: revolutionary 20th-century formalists like Charles Reznikoff, Getrude Stein, George Oppen, Louis Zukovsky, Paul Celan and of course Allen Ginsberg (with a sprinkling of Yiddish poets and Tin Pan Alley composers), as well as heterodox scholar-critics like Walter Benjamin, Marjorie Perloff, Jacques Derrida and Gershom Scholem

The contributors cite one another without inhibition (Charles Bernstein, Adeena Karasick and Alice Ostriker come up a lot), turning up the heat in this subcultural hothouse.

Miller explains: “Of course it gets a little biblical, a little tribal. It’s a small world.”

Writing of the least Jew-friendly stars of recent cultural history, he declares: “And, obviously being subjective,/[T.S.] Eliot and [Ezra] Pound sometimes seem /more Jewish than Whitman./Well, sometimes anyway.”

Asked today if he still holds that typically incendiary thought, Miller replies: “I don’t know. Maybe not. I’d have to think about it.”

In fact, Miller’s wavering here, as elsewhere, goes to the heart of his practice, which he describes as “re-illuminating the traditions of ancient Israel, a sacred dialogue about freedom and economic justice, and taking them into the identity points of the modern world.” Inexhaustibly open-ended, his method is classically Talmudic, assiduously chasing this or that detail of ritual or esthetic law. But while in the Talmud, rabbinical umpires end the otherwise endless debate with a final decree, in Miller’s work, similar arbitrating is seldom found.

Miller began publishing his poetry in the mid-1970s, while writing several plays riffing comically on history, the day’s news, and assorted autobiographical ephemera. A representative work, “Whatever Bernard Goetz” at downtown performance space 8BC, elevated applied miscasting to a high art with the wraith-like elder raconteur Taylor Mead in the title role of the notorious “subway vigilante.”

Miller also authored the cultural study, “The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance” and, with Terence Diggory, co-edited “The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets.”

A 2000 Fulbright-sponsored visit to a Poland still in the throes of its transition from Communist to free-market governance dropped Miller into a land of unhealed traumas and anxious present.

“It was like World War II was still happening,” Miller recounts.

Crucial preconceptions upended, Miller found himself deeply rethinking his own self-perception as an artist and a member of a particular American religious-ethnic minority.

“I knew that being Jewish was important somehow,” says Miller, who grew up in an assimilated family on Staten Island.

Until then, Miller had made his mark as a star of the next generation of New York School poets, nimbly frolicking between philosophical rumination and wild elaboration on pop culture, with many adventures along the way. After Poland, descents into his racial unconscious, mingling secular, biblical and literary scholarship and an inveterate skeptic’s metaphysical yearning, dominated much of his verse.

“There’s Only One God and You’re Not It” discourses on “Postscript to Ezra’s Torah,” “Monotheism” and “Milking Honey.” It also treads older, familiar ground, in poems like “Being Being, Ha Ha Ha,” “Do You Mind If I Sketch You While We Talk?” “Laughter” and “FDR’s FDR, Jefferson, and the Bigger Than Watergate Operations against Them.” Lines like “Jews come up with the whole/denying other gods exist gizmo,/the ‘your mother’ of religion,/what makes Ancient Israelite Jews…” sit comfortably near “I’m a problem,/My roots are getting papery,/You on the other hand/Have tendrils./Forgive me./I’m so drunk.”

After three visits to Israel, confirmed diasporist Miller distrusts “theocracy” — driven agendas that he believes hamper Middle East peace efforts. “The right wings of both sides profit from ongoing conflict,” he says.

On hiatus from public readings and the various panels on radical Jewish poetry that surrounded the publication of the anthology he co-edited, Miller — “recklessly reclusive” — is concentrating on his teaching and new writing.

Says Maria Mazzioti Gillan, director of the creative writing program at SUNY/Binghamton and co-editor of the literary anthologies “Unsettling America” and “Growing up Ethnic”: “Even though I’m not Jewish, Stephen’s work leads me into Judaism. I want to find out more.

“He comes to grips with the struggle that’s in all of us and what we can take away from it. He makes me feel comforted.”

A bit of the old-fashioned Jewish patriarch himself, Miller has made use of the visual and poetic gifts of his now high-school son Noah in the pages of his books. He began doing so in the boy’s kindergarten years.

“Noah is a wonderful poet,” says Miller, “and, like me, he lives for research.”