Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Towards a Poetics of I/Eye-Witness: Documentary Expression and Jewish American Poetry of the 1930s
by Mayk-Hai, Liati, Ph.D., The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2015, 234; 3738079
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation, “Towards a Poetics of I/Eye-Witness: Documentary Expression and Jewish American Poetry of the 1930s,” explores the ways in which a lens of witnessing can shed light on the ethical and aesthetic concerns embedded in the work of three Jewish-American poets. The study begins with the English writing and verse of Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), and continues to the Yiddish poetry of Berish Weinstein (1905-1967). It situates their poetry and ancillary writings from the early thirties within the culture of documentary expression that permeated artistic creation, social action and public discourse throughout the Depression era. By focusing on poetry that deals with human catastrophe, including historical and contemporary contexts of racial injustice, Jewish persecution, personal loss and animal slaughter, my analysis weighs the burden of representation on personal and universal levels. Transcending the visual and moral divide between the “eye” and the “I,” the poets in this study use verse to document the memories, experiences, histories and testimonies of Others; in doing so, they uphold their own ethical ideals of reparation, truth and justice. In the prologue, I set the stage for the dissertation by examining the link between lynching photography and Jewish poetry embodied by the famous Jazz song “Strange Fruit.” The introduction presents the theoretical framework and historical background central to the literary analysis of the dissertation. I offer an overview of the Great Depression and the American documentary scene and demonstrate how the visual and ethical ideas of “documentary” and “witness” have been utilized in various contexts. Chapter One builds a case for a Jewish poetics of I/eye-witness in the work of Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff. I trace the intersections of documentary form, historical consciousness, personal rectitude and justice through a selection of poetic texts and archival materials, including two long works published by The Objectivist Press in 1934, Testimony and In Memoriam: 1933. Chapter Two reflects on the emerging sense of poetic witness in Muriel Rukeyser’s early poetry and documentary writing. I locate her ideas about responsibility, utility and truth in her Jewish upbringing and education at the Ethical Culture-Fieldston School. I then offer a comparative reading of the three genres Rukeyser utilized to represent her experiences as a witness to the second Scottsboro Trial: diary entry, reportage and poetry. Chapter Three contributes new translations and an in-depth analysis of a selection of Yiddish poems from Berish Weinstein’s first published collection, Brukhvarg (1936). I focus on Weinstein’s representation of the slaughterhouse as the symbolic locus of modern suffering, and the relevance of such a trope for the historical barbarism against African Americans, as well as Jews.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Mann, Barbara
Commitee: Kalmanofsky, Amy, Mintz, Alan, Roskies, David, Rubinstein, Rachel
School: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
Department: Jewish Literature
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 77/04(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American literature, Judaic studies
Keywords: 1930s, Documentary, Jewish american poetry, Race, Witness, Yiddish
Publication Number: 3738079
ISBN: 978-1-339-28277-0
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