The following is excerpted from a talk I gave at the ACLA’s 2014 Conference in New York.
Although the reaches of American and European Modernism most certainly extended to the Jewish-American urbanites of the inter-bellum period, little mainstream critical attention outside has been paid to these Yiddish-writing Modernists. Modernism, for its part, historically has had no need to extend its reaches to so-called “minor” literatures, and has instead favored an opposite
approach to pluralist inclusivity. The modernist milieu—that behemoth of a movement—was one of manifestos, of splintering, and division. Although they shared many interests in common, the movements of Vorticism, Objectivism, Surrealism, Dadism, Futurism, and Imagism all situated themselves as distinct entities uniquely capable of pushing poetry into the 20st Century. The Inzikhistn were no exception. In their desire to break away from both their Jewish-American forefathers and contemporary American counterparts, they produced a body of work and literary criticism that celebrated its movement’s singularity.
In this paper, I situate the Yiddish movement of Inzikhism or “Introspectivism” within the broader context of Anglo-American Modernism. In particular, I shall link the secular, self-conscious introspectivism of the In zikh writers generally—and Jacob Glatstein’s work specifically—with Henri Bergson’s philosophies of a concurrent spiritual and physical world. In both cases, the self is constructed through various confluences of collective and individual memory; additionally, l’étendu, or calendar time, is seen as part and partial of more ethereal le durée, or internal time. In seeking to understand Jewish Modernism of the inter-bellum period, I aim to explore the In zikh project of “poetic musicality, free and non-repetitive, but also strongly felt” (Miron 175). Moreover, I aim to show that a reliance on metaphors of vision and cinematic structure help to structure the both Inzikhistn and the American Imagists. I argue that the minority status of the Inzikhistn, as well as the transnational nature of the Imagist poets, allows for a play on the word “vision”: Both of these movements have utilized vocabulary of sight to suggest a more intangible second sight that borders on mystical vision.
Much work has been done extrapolating the influences of Anglo-American Modernism on Jewish-American writers, including several recent books on the dialects of Jewish-American modernism and the role of Modernism in Jewish-American poetics. However, that is not my aim here. I do not wish to simply extrapolate the Modernist—and, more specifically, the Imagist—influences on the Inzikhistn, nor am I interested in showing how one movement borrowed from the other. Rather, I would like to put these two movements together in order to understand what cannot be understood by looking at either alone. I assert that these two movements “speak” to each other, if you will, insofar as each illuminates characteristics of the other. Together, these two movements can help to understand the broader Modernist project of world-recreation and secular word-based spirituality.
I. An Overview of the Movements
Inzikhism was formed by Yankev Glatstein, Aron Glantz-Leyeles, and N.B. Mikov in the late 1910s at a crucial juncture in Anglo-American Modernist poetics. Their first journal, written in 1919 and published in 1920, was born on the heels of the Dadaist and Futurist movements in France and Italy, and the Imagist movement in America and Great Britain. In the watershed years of 1916 and 1917 alone, James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and T.S. Eliot published Prufrock and Other Observations. Although their poetry, with its focus on irony, free verse, and urban landscapes, does not seem out of place in the mainstream American milieu, it was represented a radical shift from mainstream Yiddish verse. The Yiddish audience was exclusively an Immigrant populace and, thus, common themes traditionally included working conditions, socialism, and alternately yearning for and feeling alienated from a homeland. Yiddish poetry was, in short, built on realism. The predecessors of Inzikhistn, Di Yunge, had broken with their “sweatshop” poets predecessors in order to create a symbolist poetics built on a European model, but Inzikhistn chose to abandon the impressionistic aspects to build a decidedly American poetics.
The In zikh manifesto, signed by Yankev Glatshteyn, A. Glantz-Leyeles, and N. Mikov and published in the first issue of In zikh, is the most appropriate place to look for such a poetics. As was the custom, both in Europe and America, this manifesto spells out the group’s intentions and argues for their unique status in American poetry. Unlike their predecessors, they discourage “Jewish” topics and themes as such; they argue that they are “Jewish poets simply because we are Jews and we write in Yiddish” (Harshav 750). Any and all topics are appropriate for poetry according to the Inzikhistn, so long as they are of “genuine sincerity” (777). They lament the status of poetry in both Yiddish and non-Yiddish circles as a closed scientific system insufficiently expressive of the individual poet. And here we come to the fundamental key to writing Inzikhist poetry:
The world exists and we are a part of it. But, for us, the world exists only as it is mirrored in us, as it touches us. The world is a nonexistent category, a lie, if it is not related to us. It becomes an actuality only in and through us. (774)
As their name proclaims, the Inzikhistn were, first and foremost, individuals. They belonged to this particular group because they shared its thoughts and ideas, but not because they followed a common blueprint for poetry. Rather, each poem’s structure was dependent on a poem’s subject matter; in this way, “form and content are the same” (776).
Perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of the In zikh manifesto is its praise of the poet’s “internal panorama” as reflected in a “kaleidoscopic” style (774). A poet should therefore try to express “the individual image, or cluster of images, that he sees within himself at that moment” (775). This borrows from modernist art (Cubism in particular) as much as it does Einstein’s theories: A poem is a multi-faceted representation of any given moment. Like Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 “Nu descendant un escalier n° 2” the poet’s present is split into multiple memories, dreams, and visions to create a dynamic, multi-veiled version of time. The poet is mystically able to see one image from multiple perspectives—a technique the Inzikhistn thought uniquely capable of capturing the “labyrinth” of the human psyche.
Parallels of thought abound in statements made by the American Imagist poets, arguably the closest relation to the Inzikhistn. The Imagists were a transnational group of poets and, like the Inzikhistn, saw themselves as a revolutionary force in 20th Century poetics. They produced just four anthologies of poetry from 1914-1917, but left a lasting impression on Modernist poetry. Ezra Pound, the founder of the movement, probably coined the term Imagiste, but it was a poem by H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle) from around 1912 that first attests to it usage (Jones 17). Other participants of the movement include Amy Lowell—who took over the group when Pound left in 1915 due to creative differences—Ford Maddox Ford, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, F.S. Flint, and William Carlos Williams. The first publication of Imagists—as noted briefly in their biographies—was in Poetry magazine. It contained neither manifesto, nor any prefatory remarks and, as Jones notes, “it was inevitable that questions would be asked and answers given” (18).
These answers took the form of a brief set of principles published in Poetry 1913 by F.S. Flint regarding “direct treatment of ‘the thing’”, economy of words, and musical rhythm. Free verse was not necessary, but like the Inzikhistn, Imagist poems should not be restricted by form. The first real “manifesto”, though it was not called such, was published by Ezra Pound in the same issue of Poetry and was titled “A Few Don’ts By An Imagist.” Here Pound defines the “image” as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Jones 130). In other words, like the Inzikhistn, the Imagists were concerned with both the intellectual and spiritual achievement as it appears to the poet. Pound stresses that poetry must appeal to “the imaginative eye of the reader,” suggesting that even in a foreign tongue musicality can be found; this suggests a necessary musicality and visuality of the poem itself, even at the expense of meaning (133). The trick for the poet is to discover that immortal piece of poetic that appeals to the reader, even as it explores the interiority of the poet. Poetry, for the Imagists, was an individual, highly specific endeavor that transcends ordinary existence. Like the Inzikhistn, they sought to create poems with “that sense of freedom from time and space limits” (130). Each poet must be able to see in a very specific, almost mystical way.
Since “A Few Don’ts” was published several years before the In zikh manifesto, it would be tempting to say that the Inzikhistn borrowed from the Imagists and leave it at that. However, I think that a more useful line of inquiry concerns why these particular concepts resonated for both groups. Although I do not subscribe to the “Zeitgeist” theory—that the same cultural spirit influenced all artists of a particular time—I do think that the Imagists and the Inzikhistn were working toward similar goals. Of course, one of the main similarities between the Inzikhistn and the Imagists is the centrality of “image.” They may differ in their application—often the Imagists choose an actual image to describe as objectively as possible, which Inzikhistn poets always retained the individuality of the poet—but in both cases, it seems to me, the notion of an “image” has resonances that run deep.
II. Bergsonian Vision
Firstly, the presence of a certain Bergsonian thread undergirds both philosophies. Henri Bergson, born in Paris in 1859, was something of a celebrity in the early 20th Century. His monumental work Matière et Memoire (Matter and Memory) was published in 1896, just in time to comingle with theories of Modernism, and was among his most successful. In it, Bergson suggests that durée—as explored in his earlier Time and Free Will, a kind of time that is real, as opposed to a mechanical calendar time—is akin to perception, which “is never a mere contact of the mind with the object present; it is impregnated with memory-images which complete it as they interpret it” (170). In short, the “kaleidoscopic” techniques of the Inzikhistn and the Imagists’ complex “image” represent a kind of Bergsonian perception. Such perception is present in our everyday lives, but we fail to notice it. Poetry shows us its core. Moreover, Bergson’s assertion that his work “affirms the reality of spirit and the reality of matter” foretells the Inzikhistn proclamation that “there is no boundary between ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’ in contemporary man or in the contemporary poet” (Harshav 779). In his discussion of the Imagists, F.E. Flint likewise notes that they “consider that Art is all science, all religion, philosophy, and metaphysic” (Jones 130). That poetry was something compromised of equal parts physical and mental arts, and that it need not divorce itself from rational thought, was a key concept drawn from Bergson. Such play with role of art—its vision, let’s say—is crucial to the larger picture of what both movements hoped to accomplish.
The Imagists were certainly familiar with Bergsonian philosophy. In fact, T.E. Hulme, whose guidance was central to the movement, gave lectures on Bergson and translated his 1903 essay “Introduction à la Métaphysique” into English (Jones 19). So there is little question that his philosophies made their way into the Imagist movement. The Inzikhistn must have been likewise familiar with Bergson, although they never stated this explicitly. However, as intellectuals, and artists, it would be difficult to thrive in the late 1910s without exposure to Bergson, either directly, through reading, or indirectly, by participating in discussions about his work. Bergson’s thoughts on intuition even seem to speak to the group’s name. In The Creative Mind, Bergson writes that intuition is a process of moving within oneself; in doing so, the poet creates a sense of durée, “a certain well defined tension, whose very determinateness seems like a choice between an infinity of possible durations” (185). This is nothing short of an introspective, kaleidoscopic experience. Bergson’s intuition is a process of seeking real time within oneself—and of pulling out individual slivers of experience that speak to a larger vision.
As evidenced by their manifestos, the external world has the ability to obfuscate truth in the Imagist and Inzikhistn realm. The poet’s job is to bring an image to the surface in such a way that it reveals hidden truths. In this way, the obfuscation of an obfuscation becomes truth; it becomes an unmasking. Yankev Glatsteyn’s poem “In Smoke” centers on an inability to see properly, but this inability to see leads to a vision of the otherworld. We enter the poem with a speaker “half-napping”, his eyes “squinting” through cigar smoke (2-3). He sees a young woman in a chair, and, as the room fills with smoke, he imagines that they dance and are whisked away with the smoke, only to be revealed as a “big fool” blinded by the “sea of whiteness” that is the young woman’s dress. “Suddenly—” as if in a dream,
In a big Morris chair
You become a tiny spot
You become smoke drawn out.
In front of the big fool,
With the broad, squinting eyes. (20-26, translation my own)
Whether in a vision of lust or mystical second-sight, the speaker’s failure of sight—his foolishness—leads to a very different sort of seeing. In this way, he is able to see through the smoke to the core of the moment, an act of disappearance.
In each case, the relationship between seeing, watching, or looking leads to a second sight that allows the speaker to see beyond the initial image around which the poem is centered. This is the core of both Imagist and Inzikhist poetry: the image mentioned in their manifestoes both is and is not a purely visual image. In seeking to explore the kaleidoscopic properties of a complex moment in time, the poem peels back veils of the image to reveal its emotional core. The language of sight is crucial to this revelation and propels the poem into its secondary role: that of a visionary expression of self-revelation in a material world.
As I hope to have shown, it is clear from the In zikh and Imagist manifestos that the relationship between thinking and feeling, as well as self and other, is not a binary, or otherwise mutually exclusive one. This corresponds wonderfully to what Gillies calls Bergson’s “third view”. In their poems, moreover, two kinds of visuality—physiological looking and a kind of seeing through—correspond to two ways of being in the world. To use here Bergson’s terminology, there is, on the one hand, the matter of reality. This manifests in the concrete “image” that is explored in the poem. On the other, there is stuff of spirit, the transcendent and metaphysical being that is individual and introspectivist. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, the historical circumstances of both movements suggest that these poets were seeking a poetics that could answer far-reaching and eternal questions. How best to live in the world after war? What is the meaning of art in tragedy? How to understand spiritual life after organized religion?
Such questions are far from immaterial in our world today. In the Imagist issue of The Egoist, May Sinclair describes the Image (here capitalized) as decidedly not “a symbol of reality (the object); it is reality (the object) itself” (quoted in Thacker 46). Poetry, in other words, is very a much a part of the world in which we live. It answers questions that are germane, and its answers are open-ended; it not only reflects the world, it is the world. Sinclair later conveys such metaphysics in religious terms, claiming that “Imagists are Catholic; they believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and wine are the body and blood” (46). If art, as the In zikh manifesto proclaims, “is ultimately redemption,” the division between life and poetry contracts, and the metaphor of religion becomes even more apt (Harshav 776). Glatsteyn returns to this point later in the same issue: “In our time of millions slaughtered, so many souls wandering without redemption, and science dumfounded, the poet is left only with his poetry, only with his art as a lantern in the dark corridors of life’s labyrinth” (788). I would add that the reader, too, takes solace in this communion. Life is no less labyrinthine than it was 100 years ago, and, when all else fails, there is still that lantern swinging hopefully in the dark.