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Finding Poetry in Religion

December 7, 2006 By:
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So what actually constitutes an "American religious poem"? That's the question at the heart of a new anthology, titled, appropriately enough, American Religious Poems. It's been edited by the indefatigable Harold Bloom, the masterful literary critic and Yale University professor, with the assistance of Jesse Zuba, and published by the ever-enterprising Library of America.

Both editors have provided answers to the question in their separate prefatory remarks. Bloom is characteristically far-ranging, quoting esoteric texts, whether it be the Kabbalah or something from the Gnostic religious tradition. His introduction has the sweep and grandeur -- and some of the bombast -- of certain of his writings. But that's what makes Bloom Bloom. Zuba is far more practical, more focused on the nuts and bolts of the enterprise; that must have been why she was corralled into participating in the project. While someone was heading for the heavens, someone else had to be more rooted on terra firma since an anthology of this sort had to answer to certain basic needs.

Anyone who's studied American literature, when asked about America's religious poetry, would likely be able to dredge up a few stock figures fairly quickly, just by starting with the Puritans: people like Roger Williams and Cotton Mather. Zuba has made sure that they and others of their ilk are represented. And because the editors have purposely thrown a wide net, American Indian chants are included at the conclusion of the volume, along with spirituals and other "anonymous hymns."

But as those who've read Bloom with any consistency will know from the start, when he uses the term "religious," he doesn't mean anything that might smack of tradition; the fellows mentioned above he probably would consider limiting and obvious categories, necessary for inclusion in the book but not quite what he had in mind. And though he feels a deep affinity with Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, they aren't at the center of his conception of religious poetry either. Bloom's allegiances to various writers have shifted as he's aged, and he now seems smitten -- and that's not too flippant a word to describe his feelings these days -- with Walt Whitman, which is not too great a stretch if you know Bloom's work. The next in his pantheon is Emily Dickinson. Then the line moves on to Hart Crane -- even more than to T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, as Bloom has it (though all of these gentlemen are duly represented in the book).

Here is how Bloom puts it: "Whitman was our Homer, Dickinson our Shakespearean lyricist, Crane our Pindar, and Emerson our Plato. ...

"Like Whitman and Dickinson, Crane's 'Vision of the Voyage' (though his is also Melvillean) surrenders easier pleasures for the difficult pleasures of the American Sublime. Emerson identified 'Power' as the most American of attributes, and identified it with crossing or passing: 'the shooting of a gulf, the darting to an aim,' where 'shooting' and 'darting' are more vital than the 'aim.' Transition, in America, matters more than the destination. Hart Crane's The Bridge is the completion or coda to Song of Myself as the American epic. A Pindaric epic is an American aesthetic paradox: 'One song, one Bridge of Fire.' The three central American poets define the pragmatic limits of transcendence in the United States. Whitman is afoot with his vision, and stops somewhere waiting for us. Dickinson navigates from Blank to Blank, giving us the great negative of American vision, culminating in The Auroras of Autumn, where Wallace Stevens, the man who is walking the beach, turns blankly on the sand. The ruin or blank that we see in nature, Emerson prophesied, is in our own eye, and therefore we behold opacity, and not transparency."

'Two Overlapping Tasks'

Well, that's Bloom for you. There are times when he can be clear and resonant, and there are other times, especially when he goes for the grand gesture, when he can be obtuse and not very helpful to the general reader, who, I think, is the target of this challenging and rewarding anthology. Perhaps you should skip to Zuba, who cuts a clear path through the history surrounding these poems, then make your way to the verse proper -- either all of it or what appeals to you -- and postpone Bloom till the end. I fear if you start with him you might get discouraged, and that would be too bad.

As Zuba puts it, this book attempts to achieve "two overlapping tasks: to present poems that embody the specifically American religious sensibility whose implications Harold Bloom has explored in the introduction to this volume, in his study The American Religion, and elsewhere, and to offer a broad overview of religious poetry in America from its origins until now. In view of the extravagant diversity of American religious poetry, casting a wide net seemed less a choice than a welcome necessity."

Zuba and Bloom have chosen wisely from all the major periods, beginning with "the rigorous Calvinism of the Puritans," then on to the Great Awakening, "the massive revival that swept the eastern seaboard beginning in the late 1730s." Next comes the optimism of the Unitarians, followed by the radical exaltation of the Transcendentalists. Many of the famous names mentioned above fill these sections.

But as Zuba notes, these many shifts in religious thought "took place within the context of American Protestantism." By the middle of the 19th century, something else was at work in the country, and different religious traditions began to play significant roles in American culture. Zuba points specifically to the work of John Banister Tabb, a convert to Catholicism from Virginia; Ameen Rihani, a Lebanese-American who was a friend of the far more famous Kahil Gibran; and the Yiddish poet H. Leivick.

These newcomers, as Zuba writes, "brought with them their religious traditions, which swelled an already varied pool of paths and creeds even as they bolstered the ranks of established groups. It was on this wave that Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam rode onto the American scene."

The religious pluralism of the 20th century outshone all of these earlier periods and found expression in what Zuba calls a "plurality of poetic forms," all of which are represented here with at least a poem or two or more.

What's most surprising about this anthology is how many Jewish voices are here. In addition to Leivick, there are many writers, some who considered (or consider, depending on their age) themselves Jewish, some only born so. They would include Moyshe-Lyb Halpern, Charles Reznikoff, Jacob Glatshteyn, Laura Riding, Louis Zukofsky, Stanley Kunitz, George Oppen, Muriel Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, David Ignatow, Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht, Kenneth Koch, Samuel Menashe, Gerald Stern, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Levine, Cynthia Ozick, John Hollander, Allen Grossman, Grace Shulman, C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky, Alfred Corn and Alan Shapiro.

Most of the poems in this anthology are on the long side, and the Jewish contributors are no different, so I have chosen two shorter entries that will have to represent the collection as a whole. That seems unfair when faced with a work as rich in talent as this one is, but it will have to suffice.

The first poem is called "Luzzato (Padua 1727)," by Charles Reznikoff:

"The sentences we studied are rungs upon the ladder Jacob saw;
the law itself is nothing but the road;
I have become impatient of what the rabbis said,
and try to listen to what the angels say.
I have left Padua and am in Jerusalem at last, my friend;
for, as our God was never of wood or bone,
our land is not of stones or earth."

The other is by Samuel Menashe, and is called "Paradise -- After Giovanni di Paolo":

"Paradise is a grove
Where flower and fruit tree
Form oval petals and pears
And apples only fair ...
Among these saunter saints
Who uphold one another
In sacred conversations
Shaping hands that come close
As the lilies at their knees
While seraphim burn
With the moment's breeze."


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