Thursday, September 20, 2012

Poetry of the Shofar / The Shofar of Poetry

After a long hiatus, I'm back, to post on Whirlwind, my blog about poetry, the arts, and whatever else passes through me.
Each year, Jews the world over listen to one of the crudest of instruments. In the midst of abundant prayers, we people of the book, the word, the Torah, the ones who value interpretation of what is written, listen to the orchestrated blasts of a ram’s horn. It strikes me as a paradox, though quite poetic, to do so. It is a mitzvah to hear the shofar being blown. It’s also a commandment. And yet. The shofar blast is the place beyond words, beyond meaning we can articulate, beyond time. Did the shofar blow at the moment of Creation, which is what we are celebrating every year? Did the Jews in the desert hear the shofar when Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai? I don’t know. But I do know that there is something in us, verbal as we Jews certainly are, that yearns for what lies beyond words. What even words can’t say. And so we turn to the animal. The ram. Sign of the akedah: the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, a story we read from the Torah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Sign of the prohibition against child sacrifice. Sign of the mystery. Sign, perhaps, of the wound in creation. The sound of suffering. The sound of liberation
 [The photo, by the way, is of Antelope Canyon, in Arizona. 
   It's how I picture the inside of a shofar.]
For me, the shofar is like poetry. We go to poetry to be moved. To hear language that is encantatory, even revelatory. Metaphors and images that leap in ways that are not entirely rational. But surrounding every poem, each line of verse, is the white space: the shofar of silence that punctuates the sound of words and phrases. Silence we feel more deeply because the words all point to the ineffable. If poems are prayers, then the shofar is the space in between our prayers. The shofar of space. The shofar of time.

We think that we, as humans, are given something that the animals are not given. But it is only humans who need the gift. The animals already embody it. Thus we take up the shofar and blow: Tekiah, Teruah, Shevarim . . . blasts, toots, wails, blares, laments.

I go to synagogue each fall to pray: to recite the words in melodies my ancestors sang but also to stop and hear what lies beyond the limits of speech. What points to the void. Or the transcendent one. The shofar.

A footnote: Tonight I went to hear a program honoring John Cage at 100. It was an alternation, a dialogue, of music between Cage and Pierre Boulez. It was the first time I had heard Cage’s 4’33” (1960) performed. It is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Well, there is never complete silence. Just the instruments and musicians were still as was the conductor. Perfectly still. But the sounds, the clicks, the paper rustlings, throat-clearings, all the ambient noise in the audience at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, where I was, including all the buzzing in my head, as in everyone else’s heads, I suppose, continued. This, too, was a shofar of silence.