THOUGHTS TOWARD A POETICS OF TIKKUN HA-íOLAM

a reflection and an appeal

     Sometimes one can live with a rather obvious idea for a long time, and yet find oneself addressed by it with fresh urgency: has one expressed this yet, is it generally understood? Today, on Hoshana Rabba 5761, after three weeks of dark events whose resolution is still not in sight, I feel the need to recur to an idea that was at the beginning and the root of my path as a Jew: It was in the fall of 1968 that my dissertation professor, the late Heinz Politzer, suggested that in order to understand the poems of Paul Celan I ought to read two books: Martin Buberís Tales of the Hasidim and Gershom Scholemís Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. It was this particular configuration of readings which suggested to me a connection between tikkun ha-íolam and the poetic act.

     From Scholemís book I gathered that, according to some Kabbalists, the Divine light was originally stored in "vessels" which shattered, so that the light was scattered as sparks and encased in husks or shells, giving rise to a material world of suffering and evil, the world of exile. For redemption, or tikkun, to occur, the scattered lights must be released from the captivity of darkness, raised and restored to their right place. This process of restitution is also called the "unification of the Divine name." According to the Kabbalists this was to be accomplished by performing the commandments with the right intention, and by esoteric exercises and meditations. Every Jew was thought to have a potential share in this process, though adepts were thought to possess special -- often downright magical -- powers.

     This idea quickly became associated in my mind with certain gestures in the work of Paul Celan. His second collection begins with the following poem:

 

I HEARD IT SAID

I heard it said: there be
in the water a stone and a circle
and over the water a word
that places the circle round the stone.

I saw my poplar walk down to the water,
I saw her arm reach down into the deep,
I saw her roots raised to heaven, begging for night.
I did not hasten after her.

I only picked up from the ground that breadcrumb
that has your eyeís form and nobility,
I unbound from your throat the chain of the sayings
and bordered with it the table where the breadcrumb now lay.

And saw my poplar no more.

The lifting up of the "crumb" which is also a word and is evidently connected with the soul of the person addressed, seemed analogous to the "raising of the sparks" by the Kabbalistic adept. An earlier poem also came to mind: "This word is your motherís ward...Your motherís ward bends down to lift the crumb of light." So, this is a gesture of "raising the sparks." And this gesture is not isolated in Celanís poetry. In the very way he used nouns -- names -- generally, there is a carefulness, a reverence, that suggests he is not so much speaking of things as invoking them, trying to call forth their essence, their spark.

The idea of raising the sparks, gathering the light, is explicit in a later poem, evidently connected with Sukkot:

HUT-WINDOW

The eye, dark:
as a hut-window. It gathers
what was, what remains, a world: the
wandering
East, the Hovering ones,
the Humans-and-Jews,
the cloud people, magnetically
it draws you, Earth,
with heart-fingers:
you are coming, you come,
dwell we shall dwell, something

--a breath? a name? --

walks around in the orphaned spaces,
dancingly, lumberingly
shod with an angelís wing invisibly
weighted
by the black hail that fell
in Vitebsk, there too,

(and those who sowed it, now
write it off
with mimetic howitzer-claws),

walks around, searches,
searches deep, searches wide,
seeks with the eye, hauls down
Alpha Centauri, Arcturus, gathers

the light-ray too, from the graves,
goes to ghetto and Eden, culls
the constellation together
which a human being needs

for a dwelling here, among humans,
paces off
the letters and the mortal-
immortal soul of the letters,
goes to Aleph and Yod and goes further,

builds the David-shield, lets it
flare up, once,

lets it die down -- there it stands
invisible, stands
by Alpha and Aleph, by Yod,
by the others, by
all: in
you,

Beit -- that is
the house where the table stands with

the light and the Light.

     Celanís vision and style are of course highly individual. And yet there seems to me something generally valid about this vision of what poetry might do. The secret of poetry lies in the relation between the unique particular and the global whole, the fitting of details into a picture that, even when the details are dark, radiates a kind of beauty that makes us feel released from fate. You could say that in every successful poem, something analogous to a "raising of the sparks" has taken place.

     If poetry doesnít seem to be having much of an obvious redemptive effect on the world, this is, I believe, in part because we tend to view a poem as a thing in itself. It is that, of course, but it is also just one vortex in a stream, one nexus in a web of associations and correspondences, one speech in a world-wide and world-long epic drama. One canít begin to interpret one poem by Paul Celan without invoking several other poems, without having in mind the course of his work as a whole. And, often, one is led to poems by other authors as well. This has led me to think that perhaps a redemptive poetic practice would be one in which poets were aware of their activity as a conversation, a consultation, about the world. If we were to think more in terms not just of the poem and the oeuvre, but in terms of some collective work -- nu, like the Talmud -- which poets were engaged in elaborating together.

     This idea is hardly original with me. In 1979 an Orthodox rabbi referred me to HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, who had thought that poetry might reconcile the religious and secular world. But for whatever reason, a "Talmudic" practice of poetry never did get started. Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading, believes he can discern Freudian obstacles that blocks poets from listening to one another (so why werenít the Talmudists blocked from listening to one another?), and hints at the economic imperative of competition which affects everyone in capitalist society, poets included. Poetry becomes "property," individual identity becomes an impenetrable shell (a "klippah," so to speak). Perhaps it is for this reason that Cynthia Ozick, writing in Commentary, once opined (as against Celanís bold statement in the name of Marina Tsvetayeva that "all poets are Jews") that no poet can be a Jew, because the poem is an "idol." But is the poem essentially that, or is the appearance of being an idol a shell that could, with enough care, enough perspicacity, be removed?

     Just last week, in a biography of the poet John Keats by Andrew Motion, Englandís current laureate, I happened on a passage that refreshed this vision in my mind. It comes from a letter written in 1818 by Keats, by a young English poet -- and physician -- who had probably never even heard of Kabbala. And yet I hope you will share my perception of, and delight in, the Kabbalistic quality of the following passage:

The points of leaves and twigs on which the Spider begins her work are few and she fills the Air with a beautiful circuiting: man should be content with as few points to tip with the fine Webb of his Soul and weave a tapestry empyrean -- full of Symbols for his spiritual eye, of softness for his spiritual touch, of space for his wandering of distinctness for his Luxury -- but the Minds of Mortals are so different and bent on such diverse Journeys that it may at first appear impossible for any common taste and fellowship to exist between two or three under these suppositions -- It is however quite the contrary -- Minds would leave each other in contrary directions, traverse each other in Numberless points, and all [sic] last greet each other at the Journeys end -- A old man and a child would talk together and the old Man be led on his Path, and the child left thinking -- Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbour, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great, and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Furse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees.

The ethereal fragility of these sentences, the short life of the poet who wrote them, remind us that to safeguard the integrity of such a collective poetic process would not be easy. But perhaps a setting could be created in which this would be possible. Perhaps the framing of the problem is a first step.

     To be thinking about these things, this week... Perhaps it seems almost frivolous. A Presidential campaign in which the phrase "tikkun ha-íolam" amazingly, if briefly, broke upon the ear of the general public, is winding up amid widespread disillusion and disgust, with a conversative victory probable. Conflict has broken out in the Mideast, bringing great suffering to both sides, making the peace which many hoped would be concluded soon appear remote, accompanied by disturbing reports of anti-Jewish attacks worldwide. And I talk about poetry. But after all any spiritual effort, placed against the dimensions of world events, appears remote. And yet we are called on to feed and shield the spark as best we can.

     This morning, out of a need to make a coherent picture of the situation, to set at least my own thoughts in order, I set down some verses with which Iíll conclude.

HOSHANA RABBA 5761

This house of cards that we are living in,
This air-balloon that oil-fires keep aloft,
This palace built on piles of sufferance
That at a momentís notice may go soft,

This country driven, hypnotized, where no one
Knows their neighborís face, their leaderís mind,
But set their courses from instructions given
Out at a window few will look behind;

And Israel, like an external soul
Of that great nerveless body, hard beset --
What vital threads run through that distant pole
This country does not guess -- as yet --

Outpost of conscience far from any base,
Hammered to factions, and most grievously
Compelled to acts it weeps for, then accused
By those who fashion the necessity;

And we who find ourselves both here and there,
From whose hopes in intractable furrows sown
We are -- when did we dream this? -- made aware
What hateful harvest once again has grown:

This morning in the shul some walked around
Seven times and chanted "Hosha-na!"
While some appeal to heads of state and press
To whom the market seems the only law.

 

... And we, in whom the pain of what we know
Wells up in words that cannot be denied
By us, though by the masses entertained
With facile falsehoods, lightly brushed aside,

We poets here convene to hear each other,
To unroll in verse the maps of our perceiving,
To pool and sort our knowledge, though the ill
Appear far past prescribing and relieving:

Still toward a common center we press in
Hoping for synergy, that each oneís word
May gather strength and resonance from the rest,
And so increase our chance of being heard.

We have all read the legend of the breaking
Of vessels and the scattering of the light
To sparks, around which grew obscuring hulls,
Until the righteous find, release, and reunite

Those sparks. Perhaps, if anyone, we poets,
who sense both the particular and the whole,
could give the legend meaning, and thereby
make, too, a case for the outmoded soul,

rebuild and reconnect a center of awareness,
nerve unto nerve, heart unto heart, until
the body could again be moved to fairness --
not by shouts, no, but by breath-held skill:

-- A dream to warm us as we gather round,
However much or little may come true.
O let us pray it may not be too late
For such a hope -- and do what we can do.

Hoshana Rabba 5761

 

POSTSCRIPT

I should like to cite two further texts that have been important to me in developing this idea. The first is the passage from Martin Buberís novel For the Sake of Heaven where Prince Adam Czartoryski goes to consult the Maggid of Mesritch. The Maggid says to him:

"In the depth of suffering the return to good is born and this return it is which evokes redemption. Now this return is the beginning of justice of which redemption is the completion. You tell me, Prince Adam, that you can find no thread. You can see none so long as you are willing to try less than the disentanglement of the whole. The beginning and the beginning alone is placed into the hands of men. But it is placed in them. Simply make a beginning and at once you will see all about you, in the very circle of your personal activity, all kinds of threads. You will have to grasp but a single one of them and it will be, if God wills it, the right one. Others will do even as you have done and what will come to pass, will come to pass."

Second, an "Invitation" which I wrote in 1975 and which has since been used since as an introductory reading for discussions on the theme of tikkun haíolam:

We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world's fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.