No 1 - Spring 2001
The Poetry of A. C. Jacobs
Collected Poems and Selected Translations (The Menard Press/Hearing Eye 1996; £13.99)
A. C. Jacobs was born in 1937 of Jewish parents in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. His grandparents were immigrants from Tsarist Russia. His family moved in 1951 to London, where he completed his formal education. He began writing verse as a boy, at first largely in Yiddish, his parents' tongue, and in 1955 became a member of the Group, the gathering of poets that met weekly at Philip Hobsbaum's flat. Here he met Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove, George MacBeth and the poet whom he most admired, Martin Bell. He also got to know Jon Silkin, with whom for a time he shared a flat. Silkin published some of his early poems in Stand, and others appeared in the late 1950s in the Times Literary Supplement and the Jewish Quarterly.
In 1960 he went to Jerusalem, intending to spend a few weeks there, and stayed on for three years. This visit, which inspired some of his finest poems, led him to translate poems by several modern Hebrew writers. His later life was divided between England, Scotland and Spain, a country which he loved as the home of the Hebrew poets and philosophers Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Moses Ibn Ezra and Yehudah Halevi, who flourished under the tolerant rule of the Moors. His first collection, The Proper Blessing, and a volume of translations from the Hebrew poet David Vogel, The Dark Gate, were both published in 1976. These were followed by a pamphlet containing ten poems, A Bit of Dialect, in 1991 and an expanded edition of The Proper Blessing in the following year. He died suddenly in Madrid in 1994 while writing the preface to his volume of translations from Abraham Ben-Yitzhak, which was published shortly after his death. Fewer than a hundred of his poems and translations had been published in book form in his lifetime, but dozens of unpublished poems were found among his papers. As a result a collected edition was published in 1996 which places him among the major English poets of the second half of the century.
I call him an English poet as belonging to the tradition of poets born or writing in the British Isles over the last 1400 years who have used one of the many dialects of the English language. For this Scottish Jew or Jewish Scot who spent most of his life in England questions of nationality and language were important. Even his name reflects the ambiguity of his position. His orthodox parents gave him the un-Jewish name Arthur, which he used to sign his early poems, but when he went to Israel he adopted the Hebrew name Chaim. Yet he never used its full form, signing himself first Arthur C. and then A. C. Jacobs, as if he did not want to commit himself to either his British or his Jewish self.
In his poetry it is the Jewish side of his personality which is dominant, although he was not a Jew in the religious sense of the word. He begins his poem "Supplication":
Lord, from this city I was born in
I cry unto you whom I do not believe in:
(Spinoza and Freud among others saw to that).
His naming of two Jewish thinkers as his teachers of atheism is intended as a reminder that scepticism is also a Jewish tradition; he devotes another poem to the seventeenth-century freethinker Uriel da Costa, who was flogged in the synagogue and excommunicated for his heresies. His rejection of Judaism did not make him any the less Jewish. Visiting an ultra-orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, he was conscious of "centuries of such / Isolated quarters striving in my blood". He draws heavily on the liturgies with which he had been familiar since childhood, as when he says of uncollected poems "There should be some ceremony / Like Kol Nidrei, the solemn cancellation / Of all vows unaccomplished, / For these untended poems", or calls his first collection The Proper Blessing because, as he explains in a note, there are blessings in Judaism for many occasions. In one of his most deeply-felt poems, "Where", he ponders the situation of "the Jewish writer / Who doesn't fast, who / doesn't go to synagogue / On Yom Kippur, / the day of atonement." Ironically, this poem has ended up in the prayer book of the Reform Jewish Movement. He is conscious of belonging to the community of Jewish poets, from those who lived in medieval Spain through Heine to Rosenberg and Silkin,
Who turned my people towards Jerusalem,
or, hopeless in exile, mourned the loss of fulfillment
And the human errors that warped their love.
He refers ironically in one of his poems to Auden's contention that "poetry makes nothing happen", but he clearly did not agree.
Many Jewish poets, like many Irish poets, bear on their shoulders the weight of their people's tragic history; while serving on the Western Front Rosenberg wrote two poems on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jacobs was no exception. In his poem on Jewish poets, "In Early Spring", he recalls
the miraculous, broken poems
That were made in the enclosures of insanity
Whose authors heard the chanting of the Inquisition
And smelt the smoke of the crematoria
And knew there was no escape, yet wrote
To show how life is at the verges of humanity.
A visit to York inspired him to write on the massacre there in 1190, when eight hundred Jews killed one another rather than die at the hands of a Christian mob. His poem, which appeared in Stand, suggested Jon Silkin's better-known poem on the same episode, in which he seizes on Jacobs' phrase "this cold northern town" and makes coldness the dominant symbol running through the poem. For Jacobs as for Silkin, this medieval atrocity inevitably summoned up memories of the holocaust, although neither referred to it directly. Jacobs' direct comment is found in his "Poem in memory of all the Jewish girls who were made prostitutes for German soldiers and then suffered the ultimate martyrdom", written when he was about twenty:
See, my bride, your lover comes.
His fatherland is that lust in his eyes.
Be proud and do not be afraid:
You are a barren daughter of Zion.
Do not cry out for the princes of your people;
A German soldier wants your body;
Your soul is thrown out into the wilderness.
As in these lines, throughout this terrible and magnificent poem the sensual imagery of the Song of Songs is juxtaposed with the stark reality of rape and murder.
It was inevitable that Jacobs, with his concern with his people's fate, should visit Israel. His reaction to the country was surprisingly detached. Irritated by an Israeli girl's smug self-satisfaction, he retorts "God, girl, your Israel is a ghetto / Narrower and more firmly surrounded / Than any we have known." In "Afternoon by a Kibbutz" he brings together three aspects of Israel, the idealism of the pioneers who founded the kibbutzim, its materialism and its oppression of the Palestinians:
An Arab ruin crumbles on a hill. A
Cement factory puffs up its soft smoke into
The unmoved blue. Further, halfway up a slope
Are the green, frail huts of a settlement
Where some are trying to establish absolute
Equality, necessary kinds of links.
The fate of the Palestinians troubled him deeply, leaving him torn between his loyalty to his people and his sense of guilt. His dilemma is apparent in his poem "Isaac", in which Isaac represents the Jews and Ishmael, his illegitimate half-brother, the Palestinians:
It was my father forced him into the desert –
My father, the patriarch, fearing for my inheritance,
And my mother, jealous of the strength of a concubine's child …
I hear rumours he dreams of marching against me
To seize his inheritance. What shall I do against God and my father?
I, too, believe in the destiny of my children.
He found Israel congenial enough to stay for three years, but he could not settle there. Perhaps the most valuable outcome of his visit was his translations, which his editors assure us are faithful to the originals and are also admirable English poems in their own right.
Jacobs was very conscious of being a wandering Jew, a man without a country. His patriotism is almost as much Scottish as Jewish; he called himself "a tall talmudic Jew / With a slightly Scots accent", and wrote of Scotland as "a nameless country / That could be mine". His divided loyalties are apparent in his reminiscences of childhood. In one poem he recalls how at school he enjoyed singing "Wi' a hundred pipers an' a' an' a'", which he calls "the battle song of my native country", in another how in the Jewish youth movement he "learned simple songs in Hebrew, / Danced the hora, heard stories of heroism". The opening lines of one of his most Jewish poems, "Manger sits in Gan Eden / Drinking a glass of tea", are a parody of the Scottish ballad "Sir Patrick Spens": "The king sits in Dunfermline toun, / Drinking the blude-reid wine". Jacobs was Scottish enough to write a poem on Mary, Queen of Scots, and another on John Knox, whom he sees as a Scottish rabbi. He writes of both with respect, though he finds Knox less congenial than "burd Helen and the loves of Robert Burns".
His Scottish-Jewish childhood left him with a permanent fascination with the problem of language. As a child he would have spoken Yiddish at home, Glaswegian Scots in the streets and standard English at school, and although he wrote his poems in English he used Scottish, Yiddish or Hebrew words wherever they seemed appropriate. One of his poems, "Tongue", is defiantly Scottish: "It can come lowpin' up in me an' a' / This wey o' talkin' / I dinnae ken whit tae dae wi' it / But it's there richt eneuch." Elsewhere he quotes one of his aunts as saying "Ah'm no froom / Bit whan Ah see them / Ee'in the trayfi meat / It scunners me." This mixture of the Yiddish words "froom" (religious) and "trayfi" (non-kosher) and the Scottish "scunners" (upsets) is the sort of Babylonish dialect with which Jacobs was familiar in childhood. For him dialect had a positive value, "raw expression that / No one's quite sure how to handle", with "a way /Of surviving, breaking out, whatever / Gentility may say". He was conscious of the tragedy of Yiddish, with its rich literature, dying because of its rejection in favour of Hebrew by Israel, the state which Yiddish writers had longed for and helped to create.
The problem of language, he saw, was bound up with that of nationality. He writes of Scottish nationalism with that wry, shoulder-shrugging humour that Jews have developed over the centuries in selfdefence: the "ancient miss" teaching her class "Wi' a hundred pipers", in preparation for future wars, the girl who knows that the national anthem "is anti-Scottish / Though she can't remember exactly what / It says about us". But he was also aware of the problems of "this strange slow-dying land", and of the affinities between Scottish nationalism and Zionism. He faces these problems, and that of his own nationality, in his poem "State":
Here in my native country
I'm answering for somewhere else.
Exile within exile.
Who's a Jew? Who's a Scot?
What happens after independence?
How much history does anyone need?
What's worth fighting for?
Banal questions posed over and over.
This year in Jerusalem, next year in Edinburgh,
The meaning of this poem is obvious and yet profoundly enigmatic. Its ten lines pose six questions, to which Jacobs leaves us to supply our own answers. If Scotland attains its independence, what comes next? In view of what followed, was Israeli independence worth having? Are the Jews or the Scots (to say nothing of the Irish) too conscious of their own history? Are the English not conscious enough? Is Scottish or Israeli independence worth fighting for? The questions are general, but they are also personal. Am I, Arthur Chaim Jacobs, a Jew or a Scot or both? And what is the significance of that final enigmatic "Self"? Is he asking when he too will attain his independence?
The inescapable memories of his people's sufferings through the centuries determined his philosophy, which is formulated in his powerful poem "I choose neither":
Only those I seek who say: 'Pain is real,
And not to be put by with a shrug,
And also: 'Love is more than a gesture' and
'Know what you destroy'.
But those who scrutinize and say:
'You do not fit the pattern of my analysis',
'So many laws are broken here',
'The gods, our teachers, do not like that',
Are those whom I want to avoid, my enemies.
To those who think my choice simple I write:
For these and for want of these
The blood of my relatives and ancestors
Ran down the gutters of empires.
These memories compelled him to identify with all oppressed peoples, as in his poem "Six towards Africa": "I know / The structures of your pain as well / As one Jew born in Europe in a fiendish age / Can know." They also supplied him with literary criteria which enabled him to dismiss with contempt the trivialities of the hangers-on of the Movement:
A lot of our short past cries out of pain;
Much rough disturbance crawls across the sky:
But "suffering" 's not in fashion, you explain,,
Unless governed by the smooth "ironic eye".
It was because to Jacobs the miseries of the world were misery, and would not let him rest, that he could usurp the heights of poetry.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The