We are highlighting some great Jewish poets with a strong connection to the Detroit metropolitan area.
Sometimes I feel like every subject is a Russian doll, with a subject within that subject, ad infinitum. And poetry, of course, is equally layered, surprising and full of iterations. There is poetry from different time periods; poetry from different places; and poetry from different cultures, orientations, languages. Even within a specific time and place — 20th century American poetry, say — there is 20th century Jewish-American poetry and, within that, Michigan Jewish-American 20th century poetry. Ad infinitum.
Because it’s National Poetry Month, we would like to highlight some great Jewish poets with a strong connection to the Detroit metropolitan area. Some are better-known (Philip Levine), some less (Ezra Korman). But each of these poets loves language, expression, creativity and their connection to Jewish culture and Detroit. And each has also been featured in the pages of the JN. So, pull up a chair, and enjoy these short introductions.
Ezra Korman (July 4, 1888 – Oct. 25, 1959) was a poet, anthologist and translator. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he immigrated to the United States in 1923, soon after to Detroit. Michael Yashinsky – the actor, playwright, stage director and Yiddishist, as well as contributor to the Detroit Jewish News – has written a powerfully moving essay about Korman for the Yiddish Book Center. In that article, Yashinsky wonderfully calls Korman “Detroit’s dean of Yiddish letters.”
I think Yashinsky is right. Even before moving to Detroit, Korman published a book of translations of Heinrich Heine (before he turned 30), as well as translations of a history of Russian Jews during the revolution, and a drama by a Dutch-Jewish playwright. If we’re counting, that’s three languages he could not only speak, read and write, but translate.
Once in Detroit, Korman edited an anthology of poetry of Yiddish women poets (1928); played an important role in forming an international journal called Heftn – far literatur, kunst, un culture (Notebooks: For Literature, Arts, and Culture) (1935-1937); published a book of translations of the popular Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1946); and wrote his own poetry, publishing Shkie: lider fun elter un toyt (Sunset: Poems of Old Age and Death) in 1932, and a second volume, Signs and Symbols: Verse and Long Poems, just before he passed away in 1959.
Korman also translated his own poems from Yiddish into English. Here are two beautiful ones, published in the JN:
Marge Piercy is a poet, novelist and social activist. Born March 31, 1936 in Detroit, she grew up in the Jewish Dexter-Davison neighborhood, then on the west side. She is the author of 17 novels, 19 volumes of poetry, including her latest, Made in Detroit, and five works of nonfiction.
As a teenager, Piercy won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where she won various Hopwood Awards, which gave her enough money to travel to France. Later she lived in Boston and Chicago, before settling more permanently in Cape Cod, where she moved in 1971 and to which she credits a deepening of her writing practice. She and her husband, the writer and radio personality Ira Wood, ran a chavurah (Jewish fellowship group) on the Outer Cape for 10 years.
Piercy’s work has been translated into 12 languages. Her archives are housed at the University of Michigan. More information about her can be found online, including a JN article about an exhibit at U-M of Piercy’s work. One of the most moving encounters I’ve discovered is Piercy speaking fearlessly, frankly and powerfully about her own abortion on Bill Moyers’ program No Choice. Regardless of our feelings on the topic, we can still respect someone’s desire to tell the truth from their personal experience.
Piercy also has some quite moving poems on the website for Poetry magazine, one of the most prestigious journals for poetry in the country. Two of my favorites are a mediation on color, time and gardening, called Colors passing through us, and a powerful longer poem about her relationship to her mother, called My mother’s body. Lastly, Piercy’s website shares more about her, with links to her books and interviews.
Philip Levine (Jan. 10, 1928 – Feb. 14, 2015) grew up in Detroit. The second of three sons and an identical twin, his father owned a used auto parts business and his mother was a bookseller. His father passed away when Levine was 5. He attended Central High School and Wayne State University, where he began writing poetry, encouraged by his mother, to whom he dedicated The Mercy. After graduating, he worked for Chevrolet and Cadillac, experiences which provided material for his work.
Levine attended the University of Iowa, studying with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, He was later hired in the late 50s to teach at California State University, where he taught until his retirement in 1992. Levine has won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for The Simple Truth (1994) and two National Book Awards for Poetry for What Work Is (1991), and Ashes: Poems New and Old, (1980). He was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011.
Levine’s poems are marked by a tender toughness and a strong voice, not afraid to be vulnerable. He can also be quite funny. Throughout his career, he wrote intensely moving poems about his family and the working class people he knew, loved and worked with in Detroit. The title poems of two of his most beloved books — The Simple Truth and What Work Is — found a place in the JN: The Simple Truth can be found here, and What Work Is can be found here. They Feed They Lion is another famous Levine poem – very intense and visionary. Levine wrote it in 1968, a year after the Detroit riots. You can see him read it in person here.
David Rosenberg is a poet, biblical translator, editor and educator. He was born in Detroit on Aug. 1, 1943. His father worked in the popcorn business; his mother worked as a seamstress. Rosenberg earned a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan; an MFA from Syracuse University; and he did additional graduate work at the University of Essex in England and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
After graduating with his B.A., Rosenberg was the personal assistant for the poet Robert Lowell at the New School in New York. He has taught at the New School, York University in Toronto, CUNY La Guardia, Princeton University and Central Connecticut State University, where he was the poet-in-residence. He also served as the Master Poet for the New York State Arts Council. In 1978-1982, Rosenberg lived in Israel and worked as an editor for The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked a senior editor at the Jewish Publication Society. He currently lives with his wife, Rhonda Rosenberg, a public health scientist, in Miami.
Rosenberg served as editor for The Ants Forefoot from 1967-1973. He also edited Forthcoming from 1981-84. He is best known for two books: A Poet’s Bible: Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text, which earned the PEN translation prize in 1992, and the New York Times bestseller The Book of J, a collaboration with Harold Bloom. In The Book of J, Bloom and Rosenberg, argue that the original writer of the Hebrew Bible, the “J” writer, was a woman.
In addition to A Poet’s Bible and The Book of J, Rosenberg has published a historical biography of Abraham; a fictional exploration of King David; a dual biography interpreting Moses and Jesus less religiously than culturally; translations from the Kabbalah, and more. His latest book, A Life in a Poem: Memoir of a Rebellious Bible Translator, was published last year. For a taste of Rosenberg’s translations, here is his translation of Psalm 130 in the JN, and an excerpt from his translation of the Book of Job.