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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2004
Number 61
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Poetry After Auschwitz?

The Terror of Our Days: Four American Poets Respond to the Holocaust
by Harriet Parmet
Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press

A Review Essay by Cliff Edwards

Harriet Parmet has taught courses in modern Israeli literature, ancient Hebrew literature in translation, American-Jewish literature and the literature of the Holocaust, and is co-founder of Lehigh University’s Jewish Studies Program. In this volume, based on her doctoral dissertation, she places in context and interprets the intent, strategies and effectiveness of four American poets who address the Holocaust in their work. None of the four directly experienced the atrocities of Auschwitz and related sites in Nazi-controlled Europe. The four poets — Sylvia Plath, William Heyen, Gerald Stern and Jerome Rothenberg — challenge T.W. Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Each of the poets becomes “a witness by imagination,” following in the shadow of “the seminal poetry of the Holocaust matriarch Nelly Sachs and patriarch Paul Celan,” preferring words regarding the horror of silence.

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and William Heyen (1940-present), neither of whom is Jewish, are treated as “confessional poets.” Plath is no doubt included in the volume to attract readers, as most will have heard of her brief, brilliant career and her tragic suicide by gas in her London flat. Plath “attempts to work her way out of her private turmoil through the utilization of the Holocaust metaphor,” and the legitimacy of her project is questioned by Parmet and earlier critics. Is reduction of the Holocaust to “metaphor” acceptable in view of the enormity of the event? Nevertheless, Parmet finds powerful reflections on suffering in such desperate poems as “Mary’s Song,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “The Thin People” and “Getting There.”

William Heyen is treated somewhat differently as he struggles with memories of an uncle who fought for Hitler and a Nazi father-in-law. He is given credit for his research and travel to death camp sites and his attempt to fathom the evil of the Third Reich as “shared heritage of humanity.” Heyen’s The Swastika Poems, My Holocaust Songs, The Trains and Erika: Poems of the Holocaust force the reader to join him in remembering. His poems work at the task of “creating memory for his reader.”

The third poet selected by Parmet, Gerald Stern, has been described as a “late, ironic Jewish disciple of Whitman.” Trained in the Hebrew prayer book and liturgy, Stern is attracted to Hasidic thought and kabbalistic secrecy. Living with a sense of guilt regarding his own comfort and security, he seeks catharsis through his creation of a “mythological literature,” probing the suffering of the Holocaust victims, entering into nature and reciting the details of his environment in New York City. Parmet competently examines for the reader the many facets of his art in such books of his as Lucky Life and Leaving Another Kingdom.

Jerome Rothenberg is the final poet examined by Parmet. She finds in his attempt to rediscover his Polish-Jewish ancestral roots the struggle to locate a “language of the dead,” to express archaic Judaism’s “oral worlds of myth, vision, relevation.” Works titled White Sun, Black Sun, Poland/1931 and Khubn and Other Poems are viewed as including elements of kabbalah and apocalyptic, strategies for approaching the terror of the Holocaust.

In her conclusion to the volume, Parmet returns to the issue of the possibility of a poetry of the Holocaust. She finally stands with Lawrence Langer’s critical position and Paul Celan’s poetic practice, preferring words to silence, remembering to forgetfulness. She writes: “Even as the systems that once sustained the spirit have defaulted, art is still called upon to salvage the voices of the dead and dying.”

Cliff Edwards is Professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and an editorial consultant. His latest book is Shoes of Van Gogh: A Spiritual and Artistic Journey to the Ordinary.

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