The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets—to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology. —Liz Rosenberg
The question Matthew Silverman and I grappled with when putting together The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry was about what constituted a Jewish poem. The poets we solicited for poems wondered, too. A good number of poets wrote us to say they did not write on “Jewish themes.” We reassured them that this was fine.
In the essay “The Question of American Jewish Poetry,” John Hollander asks the same question:
The first hard question is: “Well, do these Jewish American poets write Jewish American poetry?” But that question is itself misleading. And matters are not made clearer by rephrasing it in the apparently sophisticated literary language . . . “Which poems reflect Jewish experience?” Such terms . . . mean little to poets, and perhaps even less to serious and inquiring literary critics. After all, can anything a Jew experiences—even apostasy—not be “Jewish experience”?
Matthew and I were at times no more certain than John Hollander. In a reflection that appears in the back of the anthology, Philip Terman states, “Judaism provides a good deal of the structures and tropes with which my personality is constituted and to which I’m drawn when I sit down to write. My childhood was guided by two calendars, my poetic education by two traditions. Every good poem transcends any one category.” We agree. Good poems go “beyond”—beyond Jewishness, beyond any single tradition—to explore, document, and reflect upon human experience.
After much discussion, we decided to include anyone who considered themselves Jewish, because we thought—and still do—that any American Jewish poet who writes poetry is writing both American and Jewish poetry even if they do not declare this outright. That said, we did not check ID cards. As editors, we decided to trust how others identified themselves.
Our job as poets is to make new what may be old and unoriginal. We do that each day we sit down at the desk to write. We recognize that words are screens—that, as Picasso said, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” that we’re here to make art and not check every fact. Hollander points out that if someone asks—naively, Hollander stresses—how American Jewish poetry reflects American Jewish experience, then that person is referring to a fictional book called “Experience” written by Modernism. We know that the writer must make new what’s old and can “steal” as long as the theft turns into original work. If, as Hollander says, “the true text of the world is always fresh and always renewing itself,” then every poem in this book aims to do the same whether or not it refers overtly to Judaism.