Ariel Resnikoff: Louis Zukofsky and Mikhl Likht, A Test of Jewish American Modernist Poetics, Part Two

Photo of Mikhl Likht courtesy of YIVO New York
Photo of Mikhl Likht courtesy of YIVO New York

[The first part of Resnikoff's essay on Zukofsky & Likht appeared September 11, 2013 on Poems and Poetics, while a significant section of “Procession 3” was posted here on September 3. The thrust of all these postings is toward the recovery/discovery of Likht as a Yiddish-American experimental modernist whose long poem, "Protsesie," may well stand alongside Zukofsky's "A" and Pound's Cantos as a major example, in whatever language, of early American avant-garde poetry. A complete translation of "Processions" by Resnikoff & Stephen Ross is now in progress. (J.R.)]

Likht’s “Protsesie dray” [Procession Three] in contrast [to Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The’” is a poem that rejects the possibilities of a Jewish American English-language literary culture—yet it reads, writes Merle Bachman, as if Likht “is thinking in English and writing in Yiddish” (Bachman 189). Its structure, like “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ follows a musical form, beginning with a Prelude, followed by three sections, A-B-C (ג–ב–א), followed by an Interlude, another three sections of A-B-C, and two versions of a Postlude. As Bachman has suggested, “the sense of development and recapitulation [in “Protsesiye dray”] is achieved not by progressing from “A” to “B” to “C” as much as the linkages and echoes between the parallel sections” (emphasis is Bachman’s). The “A” sections deal with violent representations of an eastern European past and the “B” sections describe a move away from eastern Europe to New York; the “C” sections introduce a poetic subject, a pensive “I” (ikh) who reflects on the impossibility of reconciling the fragmented experiences expressed in the “A” and “B” sections. The “Interlude” is the only section of the poem that commits to a narrative, rendering reminiscences of an eastern European childhood; and the “Postludes” recall the eight previous sections. Likht’s poem is an extraordinarily difficult text to read and was censured (as was much of his poetry) by many of his Yiddish intellectual contemporaries for its “incomprehensibility” (in Yiddish: umfarshtandlekhkayt) . This “incomprehensibility,” is a critical feature of Likht’s poetics, however, since it ensures and promotes a Jewish American literary culture as exclusive and erudite as Eliot’s Anglo-American modernism. 

The poem begins with a declaration of poetic authority:

Whereas a great world willfulness
fences in dismal lives          infringing on their inclinations
in a skeleton of inflexible bars
I hereby give a signal to the Master
the Overseer: ‘Stop tormenting!’ (lines 1-5)

The poet/speaker here asserts himself as a force against those who are fenced “in dismal lives infringing on their inclinations.” He is positioned “in early morning East of sunrise-willfullness” (line 11) and uses this moment of emergent dawn to break the “skeleton of inflexible bars” and facilitate a consummation: “so a part of my word-chaos couples/ with the clarity of unambiguous meaning// And: the newborn that is maliciously stamped ‘hypermodern’/ is yesterday dressed in the present’s bonnet…” (lines 12-17) It is worthwhile here to consider Likht’s philosophical essay, “Fragmentn fun an esey,” in which he describes the “crystallization” of sacred Hebrew and Christian European influences, which produced the Yiddish literary form. Likht regards his Yiddish literary expression as a gemstone, which, since its “crystallization,” has progressed upon a pure linguistic track, arriving logically (and inevitably) at his own high modern(ist) Yiddish. He consummates his “Protsesiye dray” by reminding the reader that this “newborn” Jewish American literature is not in fact “hypermodern” but steeped in the tradition, of “yesterday,” only “dressed in the present’s” garb. 

Likht builds on this notion of Yiddish literary purity throughout “Protsesiye dray” by developing a series of ideal oppositional binaries. In her “Approach to ‘Procession Three”’ Bachman comments that she is drawn “toward the poem’s recurrent phrases: ‘Jew…where are you going/ goy…where’ (in the first half of the poem); and ‘ben Amram the smart one knows and/ does not want to understand it/ ben Yoysef the simpleton…the innocent wants to…and cannot grasp it’ (in the second half)” (252). These opposing associations engender a tone in “Protsesiye dray” that privileges the individual over the collective, the pure over the mongrel. The interlinear spacing in Likht’s poem adds to this tenor. In the first “A” section (to which Bachman refers) the sixth and seventh stanzas appear as such:

stretches out hands
gropes in the dark
Jew                 goy               

Jew                where are you going
goy                 where
                                       (lines 51-55)

The physical shape of Likht’s text helps convey the ideological underpinnings of his poem. Hands stretch out and “grope in the dark,” but even in the light—that is, the exposed materiality of the work—Jew and goy (gentile) remain divided, though parallel.

In the first “C” section of “Protsesiye dray” Likht reveals the catalyst that impels the eventual breakdown of the pure distinctions in his poem. “My head lies in a caress,” he writes,

not on the Shekhine’s      but foolish on my beloved’s breast
a shatnes pant-belt             no pretty ritual sash
divides heavenly from earthly…(lines 99-102)  

Rather than laying his head on “the Shekhine’s” (female embodiment of God) breast here, the poet/speaker foolishly lays his head on his “beloved’s breast.” The dichotomy between the “heavenly” and the “earthly” functions as a conceit for a broader problematic dynamic which Likht wishes to address. The poet/speaker wears “a shatnes pant-belt” suggesting a mixture between two forbidden substances (shatnes, from Hebrew, meaning a material made of mixed linen and wool, which Jews are forbidden to wear by Jewish law).  “The sense of opposites or opposing forces held in tension,” writes Bachman, “which runs through the Procession can be seen here…”  What Bachman misses, however, is the way in which these “opposite or opposing forces” coalesce in this stanza, through the image of a mixed substance that is explicitly proscribed. The second “C” section, brings to light the repercussions of this mixing: ‘“Look through the partition,” Likht writes,

‘that divides us up from them
‘see how, struck by misfortune
‘your brothers           my children      beg for aid
‘from every fool   from every false leader
‘who has no more than a good word for them       
‘and nearly drinks up the swamp at times…(lines 250-257)

The partition (Yiddish and Hebrew: mkhitse), which traditionally separates men from woman during prayer services, takes on a radically different significance in this stanza. Likht’s partition divides the poet/speaker and his cohort from their “brothers” who, “struck by misfortune…beg for aid” from “fool[s]” and “false leader[s].” It is important to read these lines within the context of the early twentieth-century Jewish American milieu in which Likht found himself upon immigrating to the United States from Europe in 1913. The “brothers” across the “partition” may be interpreted as Jewish Americans who have given up their distinctiveness (embodied by Yiddish language) in the face of sociocultural “misfortune” and “beg for aid” from the “false” (non-Yiddish) American cultural institution.

Yankev Glatshteyn’s 1935 essay,“Der marsh tsu di goyim” (The March to the Gentiles), speaks clearly to this dynamic. In this work Glatshteyn scorns Yiddish writers who make an effort to have their works translated into English for the sake of wider cultural recognition, referring to them as “vulgar assimilators.” Likht himself turned his back on English writing at the start of his career in the United States, committing himself wholly to Yiddish literary endeavors, including the translation of a large body of Anglo-American English poetry into Yiddish. For Likht, the Jewish American turn from Yiddish to English letters represented the collapse of pure Jewish American literary expression and proved just how necessary a Jewish American modernist conservation of Yiddish truly was.  

The mythic/religious quality of the second “C” section of “Protsesiye dray,” cited above (which reads as a hallowed lament for the poet/speaker’s lost brethren), is constantly at play in Likht’s poem. This is true of the image of the “shatnes pants-belt” as well. Likht is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish difference and linguistic-cultural purity in his Yiddish version of the “modernist ‘long poem’” (Bachman). His Jewish American modernist poetics idealize the moment of Yiddish literary crystallization, when, as he depicts in his “Fragmentn fun an esey,a Jewish literature of equal stature and with an equivalent tradition to the Christian European literature, was consummated; “Protsetiye dray” bemoans the decline of this literary tradition, doing its best to shore the fragments of its ruins.

The relationship between Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ and Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” is chiasmic. Although the works converge along the lines of Jewish American modernist expression, they simultaneously diverge as a function of Jewish American language choice. Zukofsky is able to construct an alternative epic, as well as an alternative “ruin” for American literature in “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ by weaving his Jewish/Yiddish cultural heritage into an English reply to Eliot’s The Waste Land. Likht’s “Protsesiye dray” replies to Eliot’s poem in a language that would have been unintelligible to the Anglo-American modernist writer and translates Eliot’s “catastrophe” into Jewish American terms through a Yiddish modernist apparatus. In the end, it is literary translation that ties these poems together most tightly and infuses the differences between them with cultural and historical significance. While Zukofsky’s translation of Yehoash faces frontwards and rallies for a twentieth-century American literature modern enough to translate Jewishness into its narrative, Likht’s translation of Eliot (which is not explicit in “Protsesiye dray” but certainly fuels the poem’s elegiac logic) faces backwards and attempts to glean the relics of a once pure Jewish literary tradition from (and for) a declining Jewish American intellectual milieu. In this way, though both poems are important Jewish American modernist works, they utilize a Jewish American modernism toward opposing ends. The modernism of “Poem Beginning ‘The”’ situates itself at the start of new mongrel American poetry, while the modernism of Likht’s Protsesiye dray” attempts to tie up the final split ends of a “pure” Jewish past, quickly fading into the American melting-pot.

Conclusion

This essay focuses on the respective English and Yiddish works of Zukofsky and Likht as two case studies within a Jewish American modernism that surely deserves further investigation. There is still a great deal of research to be done on the question of the multilingual dynamics of Jewish American literature, especially on the relation between twentieth-century American Hebrew literary output and the work of the Jewish American English and Yiddish modernists.

The question that has everywhere been implicit in this particular study is: how well, if at all, did Zukofsky and Likht know each other? On November 28 1928, Zukofsky wrote William Carlos Williams to tell him he had been recently translated into Yiddish:

And you've been not traduced but translated -- as something is just translated on a level or even to heaven -- you, and Ezra, and Cummings, and Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, and Mina Loy (all these names don't mean the same thing to me of course but I'm trying to outline the effort for you). And the fellow who did it – one Licht – asked me to ask you to forgive him for not asking your permission! If a half dozen read his work and understand it as Yiddish I'll be – but it is Yiddish and literature too! (2003: 21-22)

It is difficult to say how well Zukofsky knew this “one Licht,” but the suggestion that they might have been associates at this time is a tantalizing proposition. Here, Zukofsky refers to translations Likht published in 1927 in Undzer Bukh, which were later collected in Moderne amerikaner poeziye (1954). How well did Zukofsky know Likht’s work, and vice versa? This is the next major inquiry that must be made.