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Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub

Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is an English and Yiddish language poet, a Yiddish translator, and a Judaica librarian. His poems, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, have appeared in numerous publications, including Five Fingers Review, The Forward, Pif Magazine, and Prairie Schooner. He recently translated eight Yiddish plays, including The Jewish King Lear by Jacob Gordin, for the Foksbiene Yiddish Theater. He appears in, served as Yiddish subtitles editor, and received an "additional writing" credit for Divan, a documentary film by Pearl Gluck.
      His first poetry collection, The Insatiable Psalm, was published by Wind River Press in 2005.

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When Clio Met Euterpe: Notes on the Centrailty of History in Poetry

Poetry came to me as a life force while I was adrift in a graduate program in history in Atlanta. Those years of having to read three or four monographs in addition to numerous scholarly articles every week were both grimly satisfying and numbing. The satisfaction resulted from "mastering" the dense arguments of various historical texts and historiographical schools, a kind of determined slogging through the epochs and their loquacious interpreters. And yet the satisfaction remained fleeting. I always had the sense that there was another text waiting for me—that to truly be an expert, I had to read at least one more article. I had nightmares about drowning in an ocean of words, searching for the definitive argument that I had yet to encounter. After having stood for so many hours over the flickering light of the photocopy machine, the mere deposit of the articles in the recycling bin after class somehow didn't seem to be enough of an expiation. Like Andie MacDowell’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape obsessed with the plight of garbage, I wondered about the fate of the disintegrating photocopies. Where did they really go?

Even more unsatisfying than the vastness of the scholarship was the very tedium of the empirical process itself. Having to "prove" a chain of events and the certainty or, at least, the likelihood of causality struck me as daunting, if not terrifying. The seminar discussions devoted to hunting this or that evidentiary absence or shade of overemphasis began to seem increasingly abstract. The evidence marshaled, however voluminous, seemed necessarily paltry. Pursued so relentlessly, the protagonists themselves seemed to flee from the scalpels of their scholarly special agents.

As my scholarly project began to totter and crack, I turned to poetry as a means of creating a kind of internal order. Walking through the beautiful campus park, listening to the music of Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, P J Harvey, Sinead O'Connor, Cowboy Junkies, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, I brought along a notebook and jotted down thoughts, phrases, strands of words. The sounds of my circle of alternative divas helped clear out the garbage in my own head and reach the vital music buried deep within. Listening to my walk man in this setting of natural beauty set in the mall strewn terrain of suburban Atlanta, I internalized for the first time the sense of wonder that nature and art have inspired in writers over the ages. When I returned to my rooms, the anxiety I felt when in front of the computer screen the night before an academic paper was due fell away. Rather than sifting through my mountains of photocopies, I sought a different, yet admittedly still elusive, kind of truth in a few pointed lines and images. Instead of being a yoke, writing began to be a source of solace.

This is not to say that the writing was easy. While poetry does not require the arduous burden of proof of history, it cannot lack a sense of coherence. Whether cacophonic or intensely lyrical, free verse or formalist, the poem must manifest its own rhythms and language. Moving from an image or a line to creating a working poetic structure was often a labor-intensive struggle. A false line, a misplaced metaphor, an exaggerated tone and the entire poem could collapse. A staying the course, a persistent excavation toward clarity, on the other hand, and the rewards could be tremendous.

As time progressed, the importance of history in my work became steadily more apparent. The very interests that had propelled me into graduate study in that field remained central concerns in my creative writing: the mysteries of human achievement, the connection of the individual to the communal, and the creation of narrative from the stuff of events. My work in history, far from being a repressive force, seemed instead to fuel my poetry. What changed was the process of interacting with history. Instead of having to build monumental structures to transparency, I was able to explore the questions of human agency that preserved and sometimes heightened mystery. In writing The Insatiable Psalm and more recent poems, the protagonists resorted less and less to flight.

In the end, I remain grateful for my academic training in history. While some argue that art must necessarily transcend the limitations of history, I cannot resist the ongoing call and challenges of historical inquiry. The assemblage of source material, the rigor of argumentation, the complexities of interpretation, the challenges of excavation all strike me as essential methods to understanding the human condition. Instead of opposing history and poetry, I work to appreciate the singularities of their approaches. Next to my favorite, slim volumes of poetry stand dense tomes of history, both testaments to the drive to knowledge, expansive exemplars of my own slow movement toward creative integration.

 

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