Review: A Life in a Poem

There is a spiritual intensity here which pervades both the poetry and the prose of this memoir, says Peter Lawson


A Life in a Poem by David Rosenberg (Shearsman Books, £16.95)

David Rosenberg is an American Jewish poet with a biblical mission. He has dedicated his life to reclaiming the Torah from the theologians, to translate it for the common reader. Rather than confining the Torah to synagogue prayer, Rosenberg strives to share it as poetry. As he remarks in A Life in a Poem, his literary memoir, “Torah is called shirah, which means both poetry and song in Hebrew”.

Rosenberg believes that, when we read biblical poetry, we are simultaneously learning about “our history, and with it our souls”. He stresses a “Hebraic culture” and the concomitant imperative to set “ancient Jerusalem on an artistic par with Athens, Elizabethan London and [Modernist] Paris”.

In approaching the Torah as ancient literature, he aims to show “that the Bible’s hundreds of lost writers can take their imaginative place beside Homer, Sophocles, Plato and Virgil”.

A Life in a Poem maps the unstable interface between Jewish poetry, language, culture, history and religion. For Rosenberg, such instability is akin to universality and leads him to suggest that “the Bible is our Shakespeare, our best literary knowledge of the unknowable”. By the “unknowable” he means “engagement with life as a creation” which we cannot fully comprehend.

Poetry shapes this “unknowable”, and so is “the essence of the human species”. The divinity is the product of poetry, but by no means does this negate His existence. Indeed, if “the universe is a poem, then imagining who wrote it guards us against the chaos of psychosis”.

Coming down to Earth, Rosenberg recounts his celebrated collaboration with the eminent critic Harold Bloom on The Book of J (1990). This comprised Rosenberg’s translations of the unknown poet to whom scholars give the title “J”, and who is credited with writing much of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers. Bloom contributed several critical essays to this project, controversially suggesting that “J” was a woman who had lived in the court of King Solomon.

According to Rosenberg, The Book of J spent seven weeks near the top of the New York Times best-seller list and “achieved a record paperback sale”. Judging by the standard of the poetry cited in this memoir, such success was merited. Here are just two examples from Rosenberg’s translation of Ecclesiastes: “all life depressingly empty/ hollow as cardboard dumbbells/ in a bad circus”; “the best thing for a man/ is to eat, drink and be/ just be.” There is a spiritual intensity here which pervades both the poetry and the prose of this memoir.

A Life in a Poem places Rosenberg within the context of such American poets as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and “the New York School masters, [Frank] O’Hara, [James] Schuyler, and especially Kenneth Koch”.

But, perhaps he finds his closest literary soul-mate in Charles Reznikoff, whom Rosenberg characterises as both an “experimenting” American-Jewish poet and one of the “few major English-language writers who can be said to love the Hebrew Bible”. Clearly, Rosenberg’s modern English and ancient Hebrew reveals a similar love .

Peter Lawson’s books include ‘Passionate Renewal: Jewish Poetry in Britain since 1945’ and a volume of poems, ‘Senseless Hours’

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