Page 156 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 39

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the records) is subservient, whilst pure literature is visionary — it
can carry an overall scope. No one could doubt that what
Greenberg tries to do in his poetry, is not to record facts or to cope
with a varying, changing, subtle picture, but to grasp an essence.
And for Greenberg, this essential nature o f Jewish history is as
described. It does not have to be accepted necessarily as accurate
either in detail or in greater perspective; but it does have to be
granted as a cornerstone of the poet’s mythic structure, and the
poem must then be read within that structure of assumptions.
The real test is whether the poem that then emerges is true to
itself and meaningful to the reader, and the greater doubt raised
by Robert Alter is as to the nature of that poetry itself.
Alter notes, and again this is not to be doubted, that the poetry
is uneven. There is a fine borderline between the forceful, bril­
liant poem with the striking, original image carried through the
lines, and a sort of hectoring, repetitive and bombastic rhetoric.
In the same article Alter claims that at times “the verse medium
has been reduced to a rumbling vehicle for an ideological mes­
sage.”2 Greenberg sometimes wants to beat the reader into sub­
mission, especially when he feels that the subject is very urgent.
Alter also argues that a mythical view of history, implying neces­
sity and cycles, must impair the specific nature of any particular
event. Such is the case with the Holocaust. It cannot be, at the
same time, both unique and characteristic. Because, for
Greenberg, the Holocaust had been foreshadowed by earlier
events, it can no longer carry the enormous dimensions o f a
special, peculiar and quintessentially shattering event. This is
true. For Greenberg the Holocaust must bejust one, although the
greatest, of many exemplifications of an eternal pattern. He even
suggests at the opening of his work
Rehovot Ha-Nahar
(Streets of
the River), that it might happen again, although the present
terror has scarcely ceased. Certainly something of the sort has
happened before — “the sun is like yesteryear.” “It happened to
us yesterday . . . but — as though generations ago.” It is not
legitimate to criticize the poet for not grasping the uniqueness of
the event, when he explicitly rejects any thought of its uniqueness.
It is rather the highest peak in a mountain range, greater, differ­
ent in intensity but not in nature.