There have been Jewish American poets for about as long as there has been American poetry. Some of them predate, for example, even Emma Lazarus (author of the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty) and the "sweatshop poets," who wrote politically charged slice-of-life poems powered by the griefs and angers of the turn-of-the-century New York Jewish ghetto and the dehumanizing low-pay labor of the Garment District.
Jews are famously the People of the Book, and if the names of Jewish novelists (Bellow, Roth, Malamud) resound more familiarly for literary audiences, rest assured Jewish poets are still alive and thriving. 1 hope that what follows is a useful thumbnail guide to some of the Jewish voices that have contributed lately to the rich ongoing pleasures of American poetry.
The world of poetry recently lost three great poets--major literary figures by any standard--Philip Levine and Maxine Kumin (both recipients of the Pulitzer Prize) and the widely respected crown prince of American poetry, Kenneth Koch. Levine remains one of the most affectionately revered poets of his generation--"Uncle Phil," as one of my old poetry-loving friends always called him. But although his work can be tender in an adult way, particularly in its understanding look at the world's disadvantaged, there is nothing warm and fuzzy in Levine's poems. They are unsentimental considerations of blue-collar existence, of the spirit-deadening factory work in the Detroit of his childhood, of the Spanish Civil War and of the difficulties of our racially divisive country. Light in a Levine poem can shine gently from a menorah but can as readily burst forth from the fires of rage in a ghetto, such as in his famous "They Feed They Lion," so prescient of the headlines surrounding Ferguson, Missouri. His are poems of great empathy and enormous gusto for living amid both our glory and our grime. His book Sweet Will (1985) is as good a place to start as any, along with Strangers to Nothing: Selected Poems (2006) and his forthcoming posthumous volume, The Last Shift.
Maxine Kumin, like Levine, was a part of the generation of American poets whose career arcs followed the transition from rhyme and meter to the currently prevailing free verse. Kumin's later work, however, sometimes incorporates, or at least bears the marks of a lineage of, formal constraints: She has written about how serious swimming early in her life, with its metrical counting off of strokes, influenced her writing. With...