Attempted transcendence
Abraham Sutzkever's 90th-birthday celebration at YIVO

A prophet is apart from his people, yet a part of it: his remonstrations are centered on his audience's present-day concerns. Abraham Sutzkever, whose 90th birthday was marked last night at YIVO, is a prophetic poet of a different variety. While his contemporaries in 1930s Vilna saw poetry as an immanent art, anchored in the conditions of their time, Sutzkever strove to forge a transcendental poetry, which would protect (as one of his poems has it) even the snowman from melting.

While Sutzkever was both a victim and a participant, from his earliest youth to his formative middle age, of most major Jewish historical transitions of the twentieth century (the First World War, the Vilna Ghetto, the successes and final tragedy of Soviet Yiddish literature, the trial at Nuremberg, the creation and birth pangs of the State of Israel, victory in the Six Day War), he never saw himself as a "hardship case" (as Ruth Wisse of Harvard, the evening's main speaker, phrased it) -- rather, he has always sought to crystallize the Jew's history-challenging mission. As Wisse has it, "Materialists like Theodor Adorno have suggested that Auschwitz destroys the faith on which great poetry depends. This does not tell us anything about poetry after Auschwitz. It only tells us why the materialists have not written great poetry. Sutzkever's faith in poetry was no more subject to German power than Rabbi Akiva's faith in God was subject to Roman power, and it seems certain that his defiance of death derived from the apprehension of God's immortality. Defying the odds is the condition of being a Jew. Sutzkever also made it the condition of being a great poet."

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