Beliefnet
Beliefnet readers are familiar with Rodger Kamenetz from his column about Judaism and spirituality and his efforts at Jewish-Buddhist dialogue. But Kamenetz is foremost a poet. Author of several collections of poetry and nonfiction works, he teaches writing at Louisiana State University. The poems in his latest collection, "The Lowercase Jew," explore many Jewish topics--from the Torah to the Holocaust to rye bread and corned beef sandwiches. He spoke with Beliefnet about these topics and more.

Do you always deal in Jewish themes in your writing?

I seem to put 'Jew' in the title a lot. My first book published is called "The Missing Jew." Then "The Jew in the Lotus," and now this one. I don't know if it's going to happen in the future, though. This may be my farewell.

Are there other Jewish poets that you particularly admire?

Well, I have been doing a Jewish poetry column for the Forward for last three years, called Psalm 151. What I have been amazed at is the number of really high quality Jewish poets. The Jewish audience isn't really aware of them at all.

Like who?

Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Alicia Ostriker . In the post-war era, since World War II, there has been a tremendous growth in the number of poets that are Jewish.

Do you think the events of World War II had something to do with that?

I think it had to do a lot with it. One of the things I'm addressing in those two poems in the front of the book, "The Lowercase Jew" and "Allen Ginsberg Forgives Ezra Pound on Behalf of the Jews," is that the modernist poets, Eliot and Pound in particular, were virulently anti-Semitic. The general acceptance of their work and the propagation of it in the period before World War II really made it difficult for Jewish poets in that time, the 20s and 30s. It was felt if you were writing poetry in English, you couldn't be a Jew. It was something to be ashamed of.

Clearly after World War II, after the Holocaust, with the emergence of people like Allen Ginsberg, it was possible for poets to be Jewish and to write in English.

Did Ginsberg really identify as a Jewish poet?

That's a great question. I think intrinsically he was a Jewish poet and he saw himself, in the beginning, in the line of the Hebrew prophets--sort of a minor Hebrew prophet. He wrote "Howl," which is kind of a prophetic protest, and he wrote "Kaddish," which is the only example I know of an American poem written to Aramaic. The whole rhythm of that poem is to the Kaddish. So, he was a Jewish poet but he died as a Buddhist.

Which you address in your poem about him.

Right. In that poem, Pound sees him as a Jew. Even though I think Ginsberg properly presents himself as a Buddhist.

So that conversation between Pound and Ginsberg actually took place?

Absolutely. It was used by the defenders of Pound to say, `See, look he apologized and he was forgiven.'

Since World War II, has it become easier for Jewish poets?

There still aren't many outlets for Jewish poets to write. One reason I started the column in the Forward was to give a place where if you wanted to use the word minyan or if you wanted to refer to Yom Kippur without a footnote, you could do it. I had a friend who had a story accepted in a prominent literary review, which is pretty sophisticated, and she used the word minyan in the title and she was asked to change it.

So I think in a subtle way there is still this idea that it's great to be Jewish, but not too Jewish. But I wouldn't say it's a major problem, given the prominence. The new Librarian of Congress is Louise Gluck. She's Jewish, although there is nothing Jewish explicitly in her work. Robert Pinsky was the poet laureate.

What I see is that the poets who probably were born in the late 20s and 30s and who came of age in the 50s and 60s, a lot of them were Jewish but not explicitly Jewish in their work. I'd say the new generation of poets, which I'm part of, and the ones coming up after me, are much more explicit.

Do you think when Eliot and Pound are taught in universities today, that their anti-Semitism should be addressed before their poems are read?

While reading. It's ironic because you're taught to read every word. You analyze for hours a single line or image. But when you get a line like, [from Eliot's "The Wasteland"] "the rats are underneath the piles, the Jew is underneath the lot," it's usually passed over in silence. It certainly doesn't become the topic.

Do you teach these poets?

By and large I don't. I have taught Pound to some extent. You almost have to--it's really hard to explain what happened to American poetry without talking about Pound's contribution.

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