Today, poet Janet R. Kirchheimer kicks off a new series on our website—Poetry Wednesdays. As part of this series, we will be publishing poems from Collegeville Institute program participants on Wednesdays, on a semi-regular basis. Janet’s essay on poetry below reminds us that, “all great poetry reaches toward the sacred.”
Janet’s work has appeared in a variety of publications both in the U.S. and abroad. Her moving collection of poems about the Holocaust, How To Spot One Of Us (2007) was received with critical acclaim. A Teaching Fellow at Clal–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Janet conducts leadership development seminars, text study classes, and workshops in which adults and teens explore their Judaism through creative writing and poetry.
“All who are thirsty: come for water…”
As a poet, I am often asked to explain poetry. Webster’s defines it as 1. the art or works of a poet, and 2. writing in metrical verse.1 Although this may be true, it is like trying to define Torah as a book of sacred writing. Such definitions do not do justice to either poetry or Torah. Samuel Taylor Coleridge defines poetry as “best words, best order.” To paraphrase Yvor Winters, a poem is a statement in words about a human experience with particular attention paid to the emotional connotations of language. Edward Hirsch, in Poet’s Choice, says that “poetry puts us in touch with ourselves. It sends us messages from the interior and also connects us to others. It is intimate and secretive; it is generously collective.”2 Robert Frost asserts that “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”3 Poetry is as simple and difficult as that.
We don’t speak poetry in our daily lives. Poetry is manipulated language. The poet leads the reader. The word choice, the resonance(s) each word conjures, the line and stanza breaks, whether the poem is written as formal or free verse, and how much information the poet chooses to reveal all go into making a poem.
In Passwords – Teaching Wislawa Szymborska: In Praise of the “I Don’t Know,” Sarah McCarthy writes,
Wislawa Szymborska believes poets pursue truth by engaging in what she calls the continuous and unutterable, ‘I don’t know.’ In her Nobel Prize speech, Szymborska declared, ‘Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was absolutely inadequate.’ 4
As soon as I’ve completed one poem and start the next, I do feel wholly inadequate. I have nothing to say. I have no faith in my writing, in my abilities. But once I allow myself to write something, anything, I begin to be filled with wonder, and that allows me to keep finding out what I don’t know and to keep writing. If, at the beginning of a poem, I know exactly where I am going, exactly what the poem should be, there is no discovery, nothing to be learned.
I am not equating poetry with Torah, but I think my own writing and study of poetry is analogous to studying Torah. Torah, like the poetic canon, is so vast, has so much to show us, that a lifetime of study would not yield more than a drop in the ocean of what it has to teach.
Poetry, using metaphor and a variety of other literary techniques, gives the reader more than one way to view the text. Torah, with its seventy faces, gives us the opportunity to view the text from many different angles and points of view. Poetry and Torah employ some of the same literary techniques. They both invite us in, invite us to have that initial reading (p’shat) and then call us to dig deeper, to explore, and learn more (d’rash). Poetry has many definitions and so does Torah. Good poetry shows and doesn’t tell. Torah, even when it seems to tell, shows.
“Just as water is from heaven, as it says, ‘At the sound of His giving, a multitude of waters in the heavens’ (Jeremiah 10:13), so the Torah is from heaven….Just as [the downpour of] water is accompanied by loud thunderings, as it says, ‘The voice of the Lord is upon the waters’ (Psalms 24:3), so the Torah was given with loud thundering…” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:19). When I study Torah, I try to keep in mind that all I know is that Torah, like water, is a source of life and I don’t know what will happen, what I will discover. What an amazing gift Torah gives me—it folds and unfolds like origami before me and invites me to see more and more each time I engage with the text. Martha Collins writes, “I really believe that poetry is a dialogue between oneself and the poem….For me, it’s the poem on the page–it’s talking to me and I’m talking to it.”5 There are times when Torah comes to me with loud thunder, and I have moments of great clarity and think I definitely understand, but mostly I have these quiet moments, ice melting slowly on the page, that elucidate a word or if I am lucky, a pasuk. Torah is talking to me, and I am talking to it.
Torah gives me the opportunity to discover myself over and over again, to be dizzy with momentum from wrestling with the text, to gain new points of view, to grow in ways I had not previously imagined.
My study of Torah has been enhanced by engaging with its poetry, and my poetry has been informed by Torah. Torah is sacred, and I believe that all great poetry reaches toward the sacred.
“Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both,” says Christian Wiman.6 I go to Torah for the same reason. I can still recall the exact moment I knew I wanted to join Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. During the kedushah of Shabbat Musaf, I was listening to the hazzan sing o’me’reem pa’a’mayim b’ahavah. In Ashkenazi services, it is o’m’reem pa’a’mayim b’ahavah shema o’m’reem. The word ahavah, love, carried me into the Shema. Once I heard that shift in the order of the words, the poetry in the prayer, I knew I was in the right place.
Mary Kinzie in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry writes, “The best poems satisfy by surprise, either because they reject something more familiar, or because they teeter on the edge of confusion in knowing something else. Understanding the poem we are reading is a process that moves from ignorance through partial insights to higher levels of understanding.”7 Torah surprises, it invites and challenges me to live a fuller, more holy life. Poetry gives me another way to live a fuller, more holy life.
When I began this piece, I knew two things: 1. I am committed to Torah and believe poetry has much to teach, and 2. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write. It can be terrifying to be in a place of not knowing—it’s not how many of us are taught to navigate this world. But Torah and poetry are always there, inviting me to teeter at the water’s edge of knowing, of not knowing, and to be open to surprise, mysteries, and doubts, to stay in the not knowing for a while, and to be willing to listen to all Torah and poetry can show me.
This piece is based on an essay that Janet wrote for Conversations, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, in the autumn 2011/5772 Issue 11 edition on Orthodoxy and Creativity. Read the original essay at http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/waters-edge.
1Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary, Revised Edition,1996.
2Edward Hirsch, “Poet’s Choice” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006 (introduction).
3Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” 1939.
4Sarah McCarthy, “Passwords – Teaching Wislawa Szymborska: In Praise of the ’I Don’t Know’.” Teachers & Writers, January–February 2003,Volume 34, Number 3.
5Martha Collins, The Writer’s Chronicle, May/Summer 2011, Volume 43, Number 6.
6Christian Wiman, Poetry, April 2004.
7Mary Kinzie. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.