Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Cautions on Writing Holocaust Poetry

In the decades since the publication of Charles Reznikoff’s groundbreaking and virtually egoless masterwork, Holocaust, the tendency for writers to place themselves at Auschwitz; to take on the mantle of victimhood or martyrdom --the special aura of the survivor -- has become more noticeable, and more disturbing. In that booklength sequence of poems that Rezikoff based on the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial records and on the records of the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, he never uses the personal pronoun “I” and remains invisible before the agonizing story he relates in twelve unsparing, and historically accurate, sections. There’s no confusion about who is speaking at any point in the text, and it is easy to see why: Reznikoff reports faithfully things that clearly shocked and angered and wounded him, but he invents nothing. He puts words in no one’s mouth -- certainly not on the lips of survivors or victims . . . and not on the tongues of their tormentors and killers. He knows the record itself -- which includes the testimony of survivors, the memoirs of the victims, and the meticulously documented and archived accounts of the perpetrators -- is sufficient to his task. His work as a poet, and as a human being, is to carefully select his material from the overwhelmingly dense and detailed historical record: to select and organize and illuminate by juxtaposing what needs to be understood in context.

How different Reznikoff’s humility seems when set against the hubris of those who would masquerade as survivors or invent dialogue for actual people who lived and died and, in some noteworthy instances, spoke and wrote as themselves. Here, I need to say that it is not the use of the first person itself that I object to -- in fact, I do believe a poet may use the personal “I” when writing poems about the Holocaust, if the poems are clearly and accurately framed. My objections and cautions have more to do with motivation and intention. What, for example, is gained when W. D. Snodgrass, in his Führer Bunker, speaks through the mask of Hitler or his mistress, Eva Braun, or through mentally deranged caricatures of Martin Bormann and Magda Goebbels? Does it honor the dead or present us with a rich new vision of historical truth? Is this merely another entertainment? or is it something more problematic and unsettling? Can we escape the conclusion that what this poet offers us, out of the entire colossal record of the Shoah, is a rather strange and unsettling orchestration of unreal voices and a text marked by dubious sympathies? Doesn’t the simplest, least sophisticated, verse written by a survivor give us what Snodgrass does not? I refer, of course, to our hunger for authentic voice; for events faithfully remembered, not whimsically imagined; for poetry that stands as witness to the world we have inherited, the world that has shaped us and that shapes us still.

I don’t mean to single-out Snodgrass, much of whose work I admire, for there are more dangerous missteps and more calculated presumptions than his. What, for instance, should I have thought, in 1983 or ‘84, while I was editing the Texas Tech edition of Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, when one widely published poet sent me a group of poems in which she presented herself as a survivor who had suffered grotesquely at the hands of concentration camp guards and other Nazis? Although I was certain she was not a survivor who had experienced such terrors, should I have overcome my revulsion and applauded her for her courage? or should I have questioned her about this need to pass herself off as something she was not and should feel blessed not to be? I rejected her poems because I believed then (as I still do) that they occupy a space in which truth is virtually indistinguishable from fantasy, so that the real and the verifiable is trivialized and devalued. Since then, I have received too many poems by writers who were not near the camps during the Holocaust, much less inside them -- but who, nonetheless, have succumbed to the temptation to speak as survivors or victims -- to believe that the first-person voice in that unsettling packet of poems I received in the early 80s was an aberration. Sadly, in the past quarter century, the inclination to impersonate the living and the dead, to bear false witness, of one kind or another, has burgeoned rather than withered.

In her 1986 collection, Your Native Land, Your Life, Adrienne Rich appears to reflect on the increasing use such “techniques” and “strategies” in contemporary literature. In the long poem, “Source,” dedicated to Helen Smelser, she states: “I have resisted this for years, writing to you as if you could hear me. It’s been different with my father: he and I always had a kind of rhetoric going with each other, a battle between us, it didn’t matter if one of us was alive or dead. But, you, I’ve had a sense of protecting your existence, not using it merely as a theme for poetry or tragic musings; letting you dwell in the minds of those who have reason to miss you, in your way, or their way, not mine. The living, writers especially, are terrible projectionists. I hate the way they use the dead.”

I like Rich’s use of the word “projectionists,” for isn’t the constructed “I” in the sort of poem I’ve been objecting to an “I” that announces the writer’s need for personal connection with the Holocaust -- that projects that need onto invented characters or onto actual people whose true inner voice the writer could not have known and, in most instances, doesn’t really care to know? I read this as a kind of literary charade, in which the writer seeks to create the illusion of proximity to, and intimacy with, the Holocaust -- to generate what might pass for a sense of permission to write these things . . . permission and authority. And isn’t it true that most of these efforts fail, in part, because they are prompted by the need to gain a measure of control over the enormity of the Holocaust and because the authors have miscalculated the importance of context and consequence in writing about this darkest of subjects? It is ironic, I think, that -- in the worst instances -- poems like those I have been discussing constitute a kind of literary necrophilia that leads writers to devour the dead, instead of revivifying them or honoring their memory.

An especially troubling example of this kind can be seen in the early published version of C. K. Williams’ poem, “A Day for Anne Frank,” in which Williams imagined a scenario for the final days of the famous diarist whose life ended in Belsen. Williams described Anne’s last day, in which -- as he envisioned it -- she was raped and murdered by an SS guard. The poem was powerful, a tour de force . . . but it recorded for posterity a conclusion to Anne’s life that, put as gently as possible, is simply untrue. Williams, in crossing the boundary between what can be known and what cannot, between what can be imagined and what should be written and published, managed to both muddy the waters of history and to set up his own poem for instant obsolescence, once the genuine facts of Anne’s death became known: she died of typhus in the final days of the war, a fact attested to by survivors who remembered her and were with her when she died. Although Williams revised the ending of his poem about Anne soon after I sent him my reasons for not accepting it for Blood to Remember, in that initial misrepresentation of a moment in history he was not yet privy to know, he had constructed a false picture of Anne’s fate, as if she were not an actual person who had died -- and lived.

Yet there are successful examples of the dramatic monologue in post-War American poetry. These include booklength sequences, such as Julie N. Heifetz’s Oral History and the Holocaust, with its narrative versions of videotaped survivor testimony; Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s In Evidence: Poems of the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps, her series of terse but affecting poems based on taped testimony of American GIs who helped to open the camps; and individual poems that come to the reader with a specific frame that underscores the intended separation between authorial voice and the voice of the subject. I include here, in particular, Edward Hirsch’s “Paul Celan: A Grave and Mysterious Sentence.” Especially when accompanied by the remarks he makes in Blood to Remember, Hirsch’s representation of Celan’s voice, as well as Celan’s concerns following the war -- including the fate of his language and his own survival -- is rooted in verifiable details of his subject’s life and is shaped by the poet’s passion to bear witness to the truth, however complex and ragged it may be.

I suggest that the desire to speak in the voices of real or imagined victims, survivors (often quite capable of speaking for themselves, once they choose to address their personal histories), or perpetrators (most of whom have remained silent, in the aftermath of their crimes) too often leads to misguided projects that delegitimize the voices of the living and rebury the voices of the dead. This seems to me a perverse and, at times, obscene outgrowth of the postmodern inclination to relativize and neutralize all things by making all subjects available and, if possible, interchangeable and equal in value. For too many American poets, this murky picture of the actual presents them with no incontestable reason to hold back from imagining the “unimaginable,” to resist speaking as Hitler or revealing a possible, yet false, death for Anne Frank. In a world in which the Holocaust itself has repeatedly been called into question -- in which those who have our ear can deny the reality that hundreds of thousands of still living survivors experienced and remember, that General Eisenhower and thousands of American GIs under his command stood shocked and silent before -- in such a world, in which a literary fraud can pass as a stand-in for the real, as if the real wasn’t actual, wrenching, haunting, or persuasive enough, it seems essential that we honor the genuine article, authentic voice. In the writing of Holocaust poetry, the dramatic monologue is rarely the appropriate vehicle to carry this burden.

Charles Adés Fishman
April 2009


Books and Articles Referred to:

Fishman, Charles. Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (Texas Tech University Press, 1991).

Fishman, Charles Adés. Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Rev. Second Ed. (Time Being Books, 2007).

Heifetz, Julie N. Oral History and the Holocaust Pergamon Press, 1985).

Hirsch, Edward. “Paul Celan: A Grave and Mysterious Sentence,” in Wild Gratitude (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Hyett, Barbara Helfgott. In Evidence: Poems on the Liberation of Nazi Concencentration Camps (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986).

Reznikoff, Charles. Holocaust (Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

Rich, Adrienne. Section XXII, from “Sources,” in Your Native Land, Your Life (W.W. Norton, 1986).

Snodgrass, W. D. The Führer Bunker: The Complete Cycle (BOA Editions, 1995).

Williams, C. K. “A Day for Anne Frank,” in A Day for Anne Frank (Houghton Mifflin,1968).


  1. Well said. I would ad that the power of Reznikoff's HOLCAUST poems comes from the manner in which he edits and juxtaposes testimony so as to frame to words and present a point of view, which without using the lyrical "I" is nevertheless HIS point of view. This is how good found poetry works as POETRY. Rezi's emotional restraint in presenting the material makes the poems all the more powerful. You could say--I would--that the emotional resonance and power is inversely proportional to the degree of authorial reticence. Rezl' guiding aesthetic was borrowed from the 11th century Chinese poets whom he cited as saying: "Poetry presents the THING in order to convey the FEELING. It should be PRECISE about the thing and RETICENT about the feeling."--Mark Pawlak

  2. Thanks for the note, Mark. The reticence is key, but what do you think about intention? I don't feel that Reznikoff has any self-serving intention in what he writes in HOLOCAUST--to me that's important. He's not saying "look at me, look at me" the way some poets do when they write about the terrible.