Jewish American Poetry
Is there something uniquely Jewish about the poetry of Jewish Americans?
The link between Jewish poets and America is grounded in the very foundation of the country’s symbols of freedom and tolerance. Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty are these famous lines by the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), from her poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The Russian pogroms of 1881 would inspire Lazarus to write more of her Jewish experience in Songs of a Semite. The poems were a call to arms for Jews around the world, evoking the heroic past of Jewish history: “Wake, Israel, wake!/ Recall to-day/The glorious Maccabean rage,/The sire heroic, hoary-gray,/His five-fold lion-lineage.”
Lazarus was one of the first American Jewish poets whose work was explicitly Jewish and American, but it was not until the post-World War II era that there was a sustained burst of American poetry informed by Jewish experience. Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), who eventually found more lasting fame as a short-story writer (In Dreams Begin Responsibilities), turned Walt Whitman’s odes to the glories of the country into an immigrant’s song in “America, America!” (1954): “I am a poet of the Hudson River and the heights above it,/the lights, the stars, and the bridges/I am also by self-appointment the laureate of the Atlantic/-of the people’s hearts, crossing it/ to new America.”
Schwartz had filtered Whitman’s lyrical tone and glorified mundaneness into his own voice. In a similar fashion Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) became one of the most beloved Jewish American poets, applying his ecstatic joy and devoted attention to the infinite variety of American experience through political critique, ballads to homosexual desire, and a canny use of Biblical and religious imagery. Ginsberg made Jewishness a condition of his work—another aspect of his self that could no longer be rejected in the name of the American melting pot. In perhaps his most famous poem, “Howl,” Ginsberg turns a false god of the Old Testament into the false gods of