My father hangs upside down on a pipe that separates our street from the next. All of his change falls from his pockets. I am eight years old. The kids in the neighborhood have fathers in their late twenties, and mine is in his early forties. He waves to me. He looks so young.
From an early age I knew we were different, outsiders. Not only was he the oldest father on the street, we were the only Jewish family, my parents the only immigrants, the only Holocaust survivors. Maybe this was good training for being a poet. Or maybe it was my love of reading, escaping into the words and worlds of others, my shyness, or just the way I came into the world.
My poetic journey started when I was eight and wrote my first poem about love, and then it took a detour for many years. In my teens, I wanted to be a short story or essay writer, to write about the Holocaust. In my twenties, I worked for General Electric. In my thirties, I felt a strong desire to write again and signed up for a creative writing class with Elizabeth Ayres at NYU. In one class, she gave an assignment to write about a door and a woman. The student next to me wrote for what seemed like an hour and could have started a novel. I wrote that the woman went through the door. She came out on the other side. Elizabeth said I should try poetry. About four months later, I was in a workshop with Mary Stewart Hammond.
Eliza Griswold in an interview in Poets and Writers in 2007 said, “What poetry allows for is dealing with ambiguity, which is impossible to deal with in a nonfiction article. Or, at least, I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. There are paradoxes that are essential to understand what’s going on. There are experiences that there’s no other language for, no other place for.” Ambiguity, according to one definition, is an attribute of any concept, idea, statement or claim whose meaning, intention or interpretation cannot be definitively resolved according to a rule or process consisting of a finite number of steps. Another: ambiguity is something that does not have a single, clear meaning.
The Holocaust and its aftereffects can in no way be resolved according to a rule or process, and it never can have a single meaning. When I first started writing, I thought fiction or essay would be the best way to write about the Shoah. But I couldn’t make up details, and in essay I couldn’t find a way to write what I wanted to say. Once I was in a poetry workshop, I realized I needed to write my truth. Poetry was the only way I could write about the Shoah and my family.
For all the stories I have heard from my parents, I always knew much could never be spoken. Poetry was the way to bridge the chasm between that which could be spoken and that which could not. Learning the craft of poetry – the music of the line, the word choice and their connotation(s), the breath, line and stanza breaks, and so much more – allowed me to write about the maze of twists and turns that is the Holocaust.
Theodor Adorno was a German sociologist, philosopher and musicologist known for his critical theory of society and for writing: To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
From Mindful Pleasures: A literary blog by Brian A. Oard, he writes, “ The original quote (always taken out of context and rarely footnoted) occurs in the concluding passage of a typically densely argued 1949 essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” reprinted as the first essay in Prisms. Here is the entire passage, from the English translation by Samuel and Shierry Weber: The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)
This is a harsh, devastating idea, and Adorno eventually came to consider it something of an overstatement. In his late work Negative Dialectics he offers this conditional revision–a revision that is, in its own way, perhaps even more devastating than the final paragraph of “Cultural Criticism and Society.” I quote from the English translation by E. B. Ashton: Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier. (Negative Dialectics, 362-363)
Adorno wrote Negative Dialectics. Keats about negative capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I take Adorno seriously. Yes, culture and barbarism can go hand in hand, but I have deep faith that poetry is capable of influencing culture for the better.
I believe we need to write about Auschwitz and all its implications for the living, as well as for the dead. Survivors began new lives. Their lives were not easy. Many felt guilty for surviving. The living had dreams and nightmares about the dead. That is what I write about. Survivors tried to shelter their children from their pain. They did not succeed. They had joy, tinged by sadness. They loved. They lived. They died. That, too, is what I write about. I think that poetry after the Holocaust is necessary. It can be holy.
–originally published by The Best American Poetry
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Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of “How to Spot One of Us,” (Clal, 2007). She is currently producing AFTER, a poetry film that explores poetry written about the Holocaust. Her work has appeared in journals such as Atlanta Review, Belmont Story Review, Limestone, Connecticut Review, Lilith, Natural Bridge and on websites and in anthologies. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received a Drisha Institute for Jewish Education Arts Fellowship.