:: Article

Voices (& Blank verse: a lecture)

By Nissa Jochelson.

Blank verse: a lecture on poetry, without misplaced notes and without additional heckling

Allow me to begin with a confession: giving a public lecture is akin to hurling oneself headfirst from a high building. I have forgotten the origin of that particular aphorism. In such cases, the rule of thumb is to mumble ‘Oscar Wilde’ and hurry on to the next point. Or, indeed, the next PowerPoint.

‘Rule of thumb’ strikes me as curious, as indicative of an inherent meekness in our language. The Germans, for example, rule by fist, as do the Dutch and the Finns. If I remember correctly, the German phrase is Faustregel. A connection with Goethe and Mann (not merely Marlowe) should be apparent.

I intend to discuss two poems with you. The first was published by Nissa Jochelson in 1969; the second was composed by me, a couple of minutes before I began this lecture.

Over the next half hour or so, I’d like to explore the relationship between these poems. It’s common practice on this course to leave fifteen minutes for questions, although I abhor questions. Ask nothing personal: to lecture is to don a series of masks. And what do masks signify? In antiquity, they were worn by the chorus, which was responsible for describing and dissecting the drama. Masks were also worn by actors playing multiple parts — actors overreaching their dramatic range.

Is historical context important when discussing the merits of a poem? Jochelson’s background is of particular interest: she was born in April 1909, to a wealthy Parisian family. In a rather typical act of late-teenage rebellion, she became fiercely left-wing; she wrote a series of pro-Republican pamphlets in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, achieving her first publication with a vitriolic attack on Franco in the early months of 1939. She was arrested in Paris, together with her parents, on the morning of July 16th, 1942. She was sent to a concentration camp. A month later, when the women’s camp was closed down due to overcrowding, she was transferred to a second camp. She survived the War, and returned to France in 1945.

Don’t feel that you need to be writing down these dates: they are dry facts, of little or no significance. I am fascinated by the work, not by the numbers behind it. In 1951, she published her first full collection, La Puanteur et la Grâce — later translated into English as Depravity and Grace. Intriguingly, the poems demonstrate no political commitment whatsoever: their content is bucolic, idyllic, hopelessly outdated.

The Road from Damascus, published three years later, details — as the title suggests — Jochelson’s movement away from the religious orthodoxy of her upbringing. In page after page of plodding hexameter, she presents her reader (it would be overly generous to use the plural, given the collection’s initial circulation) with toe-curlingly glib visions of a Socialist utopia. Until the late 1960s, all Jochelson’s published poetry could be subdivided into one of three categories: sub-Wordsworthian poems responding to the events of her childhood; political poems that rarely rose above banal Leftist propaganda; reverent pastoral pieces that would have appeared hackneyed had they been written at the time of Virgil’s Georgics, let alone in the second half of the twentieth-century.

In 1966, she broke her silence, reviewing a theatrical adaptation of Levi’s If This is a Man. Jochelson praised Levi’s account of a year in Auschwitz as ‘supremely realistic; imbued with the fascinating, unflinching horror of the truth.’ Three years later, in 1969, her Selected Poems included the piece I would like to discuss – her first, and only, attempt to turn her War experience into poetry.

My own background, meanwhile, is considerably less dramatic. On the strength of several meagre academic publications, I was employed by this university to lecture on literature. I mark undergraduate work for a salary I consider faintly insulting, and occasionally stoop to the level of the armchair anarchist in my distaste for the insidious advance of bureaucracy. This morning, my alarm clock woke me at exactly three minutes past eight — I do have my idiosyncrasies — and I showered and shaved before cycling to this lecture hall. As I waited here for you to arrive, I produced the poem I would like to discuss alongside Nissa Jochelson’s.

As you can see, both poems are entirely blank. Before we discuss their respective merits, I will endeavour to add some context. The idea that the blank poem represents a curious perfection certainly did not originate with me, nor did it originate with Nissa Jochelson. Since long before my period of expertise, writers have been intrigued by the tabula rasa, by empty spaces, by gaps in the text. Within my lifetime, Pierre Macherey has drawn attention to the idea that ‘the text says what it does not say.’ Extending that elegant formula, the text that says most is surely the text that remains silent. Macherey and Jochelson are linked on the left: in their early writing careers, both were obstructed by the urge to politicise their work.

And yet Jochelson’s silence is not political, or not merely political. It is poetic — an attempt to silence the critical voices that already know too much. We know that Jochelson was persecuted for three years because of a faith she no longer possessed, but Jochelson asks us not to let that knowledge influence our approach to her work. When, after more than twenty years of ignoring the subject at the centre of her life, Jochelson finally approaches it in poetry, the poem must be read on its own terms.

Alternatively, the poem is an attempt to fashion a space for the voices which remained with Jochelson for more than two decades. Only on the blank page will those voices have the freedom to express themselves. If we take this view, the blank poem is not silent at all — it is a multitude of voices. We can take the view that the most complete language is the language that lies beyond the reach of words.

Many poets have been fascinated by the empty page, and it requires no strenuous effort of the imagination to associate the white sheet with death, that most pregnant of silences. However, we can state with equal plausibility that every poem is concerned with creation — poems search for voices rather than searching for silence.

Heidegger writes that the poet’s oneness with language emanates from an ability to be spoken rather than to speak: what could be more natural for the poet than to turn inwards and examine the nature, and the source, of those voices that speak through him (or, of course, through her)? Throughout twentieth-century poetry, we encounter an enduring fascination with voices emerging from nothingness. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath communicated with Pan through a Ouija board (Plath records that Pan selected ‘Mussel Hunter’ as his favourite of her poems); Fernando Pessoa, who admired Aleister Crowley and translated his ‘Hymn to Pan’ into Portuguese, stated that he received dictation from the voices of the dead. You will already, presumably, be aware of the connection between Crowley and W.B. Yeats, both of whom were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Poetry, then, is gripped by the occult, is spoken by spectral voices. Those voices are loudest when the text remains significantly silent.

What of my poem? If I were to hold this sheet of paper up to you and say nothing, how many of you would conclude that it contained poetry? At this point, I feel it necessary to define, very briefly, what a poem is. In debating themselves into opposing corners on this issue, previous critics have, in my opinion, privileged qualitative concerns. In other words, they have asked ‘what is a good poem?’, or ‘what is a successful poem?’ rather than asking ‘what is a poem?’ To my mind — and this may sound overly simplistic to you — if a poet produces a piece of work which he or she describes as a poem, then that piece of work is a poem. It remains a poem whether it satisfies one’s pre-conceived notions of poetry or not.

If the spectral voices of the concentration camp are permitted to speak through Jochelson’s piece, which voices are permitted to speak through mine? I would like to argue that I have allowed several ‘influential predecessors’, to use Bloom’s term, into the space created by my poem. Speaking here, for example, is Vasilisk Gnedov, the Russian futurist who, in 1913, concluded a sequence in Death to Art with an untitled blank poem. And here — Don Paterson, something of a recidivist when it comes to composing blank poetry. In God’s Gift to Women, Paterson included ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’, a blank poem, and followed that with another blank poem, entitled ‘Unfold’, in Rain. While Gnedov sought to make a rather heavy-handed statement with his poem, Paterson shows that it is perfectly possible to write light blank poetry. ‘Unfold’ is dedicated to the memory of Akira Yoshizawa, ‘the grandmaster of origami’, and belongs to more or less the same humorous genre as James Wright’s blank poem ‘In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems.’ One doesn’t need to adopt Auschwitz as one’s subject matter, but it’s worth noting that death appears in the blank poetry of Gnedov, Paterson and Wright, as well as the blank poetry of Nissa Jochelson.

I’ll finish with some thoughts on the relative merits of the two poems under discussion. Textually, the two poems are identical, and yet I imagine most of you will feel that Jochelson’s is the stronger piece. Don’t worry — my skin is thick enough to bear the rejection. Her ‘Voices’ took twenty years to form themselves into a poem, whereas my piece was written in two minutes. Jochelson will, therefore, appeal to those of you who believe that hard graft is an essential part of writing. Her poem emerges from a set of experiences far deeper than my own; her page is full of screams, whereas mine seems simply empty.

And yet you’ll recall the following axiom, which Keats included in a letter to John Taylor: ‘…if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’ Surely my work fits a certain Romantic conception of the poem: the extempore effusion, the piece composed in a single sitting under dictation from the Muses. Keats also believed that ‘we hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’, and few poems have a more palpable design on us than Jochelson’s. Her voices are didactic, pointing us back in the direction of the concentration camp and pre-emptively designing our reaction to the poem. My piece has no such designs on the reader: it is open to any number of interpretations.

Perhaps my work lacks the originality of Jochelson’s, but in what sense is Jochelson’s work original? In The Force of Poetry, Christopher Ricks notes that ‘The Nazi extermination camps are a horror which has been felt to dwarf all art and to paralyse all utterance. There would be something suspect about anybody who felt nothing of the impulse which voiced itself in George Steiner as ‘The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason.’ But then this very impulse can uglily become a routine, a mannerism, a cliché.’

Would it not be more courageous, and more original, for Jochelson to fit words to her voices? Too many indolent theorists have cited Theodor Adorno’s declaration that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, conveniently forgetting his counterargument: ‘it could equally well be said, on the other hand, that one must write poems.’ Abraham Sutzkever, the Yiddish poet, described words as ‘a kind of link between the living and the dead.’ In 1942, Sutzkever was awarded a literary prize by the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto: culture endures, and words endure. The afterlife of the wordless poem is less certain: I hope I have shown that there are no limits to the subject matter which can be addressed by a blank poem, and I hope I have shown that there are circumstances in which we must admit that a blank poem is no longer enough.

By Jacob Silkstone.


Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Webber (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981)

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, By Words Alone: the Holocaust in Literature (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980)

Vasilisk Gnedov, Smert ‘iskusstvu (Death to Art) (St. Petersburg: 1913)

John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Paul Muldoon, The End of the Poem: Oxford lectures on poetry (London: Faber and Faber, 2006)

Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (London: Faber and Faber, 1997

Don Paterson, Rain (London: Faber and Faber, 2009)

Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)

James Wright, Collected Poems (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971)

Nissa Jochelson (1909-1970) was born in Paris. She was an active member of the PCF, and stated that her ambition was to see Israel became “an earthly paradise, with absolute equality of opportunity” by the end of the millennium. During the Spanish Civil War, she published a number of articles and pamphlets, stressing the need for unity between left-wing parties. In addition to her political writing, she published three collections of poetry and achieved some renown as a public speaker. She died shortly after the publication of her Selected Poems.

Jacob Silkstone is her English translator.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 24th, 2013.