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ISSUE 2, Spring 2016, Dedicated to Benjamin Harshav (Vilnius, 1928–New Haven, 2015)
Issue Editors:
Vered K. Shemtov, Anat Weisman

What do we talk about when we talk about form in literary studies today?
Our new issue of Dibur is out, featuring contributions from Jonathan Culler, Thomas Pavel, Lucy Alford, Na’ama Rokem, Lilach Lachman, Vincent Barletta, Hannan Hever, Caroline Levine, Chana Kronfeld.Vered Shemtov and Anat Weisman. Dedicated to late Yale Professor Benjamin Harshav (Vilnius, 1928- New Haven, 2015).

This essay explores desire as one mode of poetic attention. Through readings of poems by Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Robert Hass, and Wallace Stevens, I show how desire is given form through the formal orchestration of attention. In these poems, desire emerges as a mode of attention brought into tension by inflections of interest and lack. This reading gives us a new way of thinking about the poetics of desire and a new language for exploring how desire is not only described but also produced and embodied in poetic form.

Benjamin Hrushovski’s important contributions to a systematic poetics make what he calls an “Internal Field of Reference” a necessary feature of a literary work. How does this adaptation of the concept of fictional world work for the genre of the lyric poem? This essay argues that in taking fictionality as a norm, this framework produces a distorted model for the lyric and that one would do better to adopt Käte Hamburger’s distinction between fictional discourse and lyric and to treat lyric as fundamentally a nonmimetic, nonfictional discourse that makes claims about the world. Roland Greene’s conception of a foundational tension between fictional and ritualistic elements in the lyric is a useful corrective, but often in the lyric the ritualistic dominates the fictional and prevents it from being a necessary condition of literariness.

This essay takes a draft of a German-Hebrew bilingual poem, found in the archive of Ludwig Strauss at the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem, as its point of departure. In my reading, this experiment in bilingual prosody speaks to the historical moment in which it was written—the early 1940s—and comments on the state of the relations between the two languages, and the two nations, at that moment. But the poem does so not simply by naming the two languages, or by mixing them, but precisely by using them both to produce a single prosodic unit. In other words, it is a text that addresses poetic form and uses it as a medium to ask historical and ideological questions.

What is the role of form-making in the reception of the lullaby? How does the cradlesong radicalize the lyric’s tension between the drive to approximate the earliest syllable preceding speech and its verbal transmission to a historicized reader? This article traces the shapings of mother tongue(s) in the lullaby and accounts for this form’s roles in culture through three stages: (1) a Babylonian (Akkadian) baby-­incantation that exemplifies the infiltration of magic poetry into written speech; (2) Dahlia Ravikovitch’s keening “Lullaby” (1986), in which the lullaby is reframed as a dense rhythmic phonic pattern, thereby engaging the reader in constructing a historical memory site to which she or he becomes the witness; and (3) Avot Yeshurun’s “Your Face to My Face” (1991), an entombment poem that radicalizes the lullaby’s potential by distilling its core address to an other. Each of these instances, in which the intimate relational structure of the lullaby is mediated through sound and rhythm patterns, engages us in an active mode of poetic attention (“listening”), while emphasizing different aspects of the act of readership. Although a fuller historical review is beyond the scope of this essay, my contention is not only that the lullaby may be read as a poem on the very possibility of poetry but that this minor form has played a significant part in shaping modern Hebrew (Jewish-Israeli) poetry.

In the present essay, I explore the historical roots of “rhythm” in biblical Hebrew and classical Greek. In both cases, the concept of rhythm arises from an account of material form. In Hebrew, rhythm (ketsev) speaks in the first instance to the limits, cut, or shape of a given object, while in Greek the idea of ruthmós as form also intersects with deeper philosophical considerations. I conclude by connecting these complementary ideas of rhythm to Emmanuel Levinas’s fragmentary aesthetics, pointing to an understanding of rhythm as both form and dispossession.

The main task of this article is to outline a framework of a theory of the politics of the literary form of the Hassidic tale. The point of departure of this theory is that the basic literary form of the Hassidic tale is a narrative of the accomplishment of a magic act that is conducted by the Tzaddik, the spiritual and political leader of the Hassidic community. The literary form of the tale is the main power creating the materialistic magic act. This is the reason why the political effect of the magic act represented in the tale is a product of the tale’s form. The political effect of the tale is created by the way the tale is received by the Maskilic reader. As a religious person he makes a very sharp distinction between his acceptance of the authority of God and his rejection of the political theology that provides the Tzaddik with his political sovereignty. The Maskilic political response is based on the rejection of the Hassidic deep belief in the spiritual connection between God and the magic acts of the Tzaddik. The Maskilim despised the magic acts performed by the Tzaddik. As a matter of fact, the Maskilic repudiation of the Hassidic tale, which produces by its narrative form the Tzaddik’s magical act, creates for the Maskilic addressee the political act of the tale’s form.

Levine starts with a definition of “form” that is much broader than its usual usage in literary studies. What if we understood all shapes and patterns as forms, from bridges to gender hierarchies to class schedules? How might that change our analysis of the relations between literary works and social worlds, and how might it reshape our analysis of power? This essay, a brief account of a longer work, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, sets out the contours of a formalist method that reads forms across aesthetic and social contexts.

Thanks to the inspiring Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification: Essays in Comparative Prosody by Benjamin Harshav (Yale University Press, 2014) and in particular its first chapter, “Basic Aspects of Meter and Rhythm,” it is possible to take a fresh look at the history of French verse and its elusive relations between meter, rhythm, and poetic breath. In this essay I will examine the features of the rhymed alexandrine (the classical type of French verse), the various attempts to go beyond its limits, and the recent creation of a blank alexandrine, which blends rhythmic balance with ample phrasing and syntactic scope.


Harshav’s Likrat, Toward a New Poetics and Politics of the “Statehood Generation”

Watch here!
Published on April 24, 2015

Recorded on March 2, 2015 in North Haven, CT
Video editing and English subtitles by Isaac "Itsik" Bleaman
Produced for Leyenzal/Forverts.

Dibur is a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to comparative literature.

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Vered Karti Shemtov, Dibur Editor-in-Chief
Yotam Popliker, Dibur Executive Editor
Chen Bar-Itzhak, Dibur Editor
Chen Edelsburg, Dibur Curated Editor


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Dibur is made possible by grants from:

  • Stuart R. Epstein, California
  • The Taube Center for Jewish Studies
  • Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, Religious Studies
  • Jewish Community Federation's Newhouse Fund
  • The School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University