Skip to:

Poetic Currency

ISSUE 5, Spring 2018
Issue Editors:
Adriana X. Jacobs, Anat Weisman

This essay looks at Gertrude Stein’s fraught relationship with money across her career, from the strong ethical importance that she attached to it in her early prose through to her crisis of value after the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Focusing on her 1932 long poem Stanzas in Meditation, I argue that Stein’s language works to undermine our shared social and economic language while at the same time revealing a profound anxiety about money. Ultimately, I suggest that in its language of number and measurement Stanzas describes and enacts an intellectual labor, the logic of which is incompatible with wage labor or capital’s gendered ­hierarchy of values.

David Avidan (1934–95, Tel Aviv) was a revolutionary shapeshifter throughout his poetic career. As early as the 1950s, while his Hebrew contemporaries were publishing postsymbolist poetry, Avidan’s work already embodied the desire to produce poetry that would be read and consumed as both an avant-garde and a commercial product. Four decades later, at the age of sixty-one, Avidan was found dead in his apartment in Tel Aviv—alone, ill, and destitute. Avidan’s notion of the poet as merely an “entrepreneur” of his own work can be understood against the background of affinities between high modernism and economics. This article will also consider this stance against Avidan’s own economic background.

My essay sheds light on current Israeli poetry that seeks to negate, resist, and avoid the currency of “poetic currency,” in three main senses: a poetry that refuses to serve as a valuable element of exchange, resists the current streams of Israeli culture, and avoids being a valid representative of the national economy. I focus on the work of Ya’acov Bitton, one of the leading voices in the new generation of Israeli poets. His statement, in one of his early poems, that he strives to “despise the birthright”, suggests a unique economy of the poetic stance. Bitton’s first book of poetry, Ina Dada (The great mother, 2007), rejects the oedipal heritage of hegemonic Hebrew poetry in favor of a legacy of an “other,” a marginal tradition represented by the disparaged body of a demented old grandmother in a wheelchair, a legacy “with no teeth.” Accompanying the process of his grandmother’s deterioration, dying, and burial becomes a total rejection of the values of the nation-state and the secular tradition of its poetry. Bitton’s poetry is a fierce indictment against the violence perpetrated by capital and the humiliation of man and exposes “the horror of being human” as the underpinnings of the enlightened face of a developed, technological, and militaristic Israeli society. His next collection of poems, Mahbarot ha-tvusa (Notebooks of defeat, 2013), locates his poetic position in a void, “outside the camp,” where the poet’s voice serves as a soundbox for the forgotten and the far-flung. Bitton’s poetry, I argue, rejects concepts of ownership, paternal mastery, and economic force and creates a “legacy of defeat,” a state in which “all yesterday’s inheritances are vandalized / fallen.”

The article examines the relations between economic thought and Jewish theological discourse in modern Jewish literature in Yiddish and Hebrew from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. Treating capitalism and Jewish theology as two parallel orders of representation, the article claims that the abstract reasoning characteristic of the capitalist economy provided modern Jewish literature bold complex concepts with which to articulate the relations between the earthly and the heavenly and between history and its messianic end.

We explore the intersection of the poetic and the theological in Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky’s poetry and suggest that the two join to offer a political and economic critique of secularism and the capitalistic “society of the spectacle.” We claim that Zelda’s theological-poetic moment relates also to semiotics and to the relations between poetry, economy, and use. We show how Zelda’s poetry rephrases, from this theological-poetic articulation, a position of signification and meaning that confronts the axioms of Western metaphysics and presents a poetics of poverty and a political stance of free use.

Zelda’s poems desire a moment of union and reconciliation between the signifier and the signified. Her poetry is not only a theological attempt to bring about a mystical union of things and words, signified and signifier, poetry and theology, but also an attempt to open up the option of use, poor and simple and thus free. Poverty, for Zelda, is not an aesthetic disposition but a political stance, a unified symbol working against the raging images of the glory of capitalist images.

Since 2013, three poetry collections of the Greek financial crisis have been published by Anglophone presses. This article looks specifically at the manner in which these poetic anthologies speak (if at all) to Greece’s classical antiquity. I explore the ways in which specific poets, who circulate in different spheres of publication (blogs, online magazines, literary journals, and published collections), engage antiquity in their poetry. While antiquity is not necessarily a unifying theme in contemporary Greek poetry of the crisis, I examine instances where antiquity has been used by individual poets and demonstrate how certain mythological figures, such as Penelope and the lotus-eaters, have gained particular currency in this poetry as a way of articulating an unprecedented material and social reality.

In this article, I address the work of the Israeli poet Tahel Frosh, whose debut collection Avarice (2014) advances a critical commentary on neoliberalism and the privatization of the Israeli economy. Against official accounts of Israel’s economic history and their emphasis on development and growth, Frosh’s poetry offers an accounting of the toll of capitalism and the free market on individual bodies and spaces. Her work also proposes an intersectional reading of gender, economy, and the value of poetic labor set against the backdrop of the 2011 social justice protests in Israel. Acknowledging the market relations between Israel and the United States, my reading brings Frosh’s work into relation with that of the U.S. poets Anne Boyer, Lorine Niedecker, and Laura Sims, highlighting points of comparison in the formal strategies that shape their critique of capital and labor.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to Hebrew, Jewish, and comparative literature.

Contact Us

Email:

diburlitj@gmail.com

Dibur Supporters

Dibur is made possible by a grant from:

  • The Israel Institute
  • The Stanford Initiative for Religious and Ethnic Understanding and Coexistence, supported by the President's Fund, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University
  • Stuart R. Epstein, California