Exploring mysticism through poetry

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Martin Bidney claims that he retooled, rather than retired, when he became professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Binghamton University. After years of teaching literature, he decided to write his own, particularly poetry. His inspiration comes from his reactions to the words and writings not only of such literary greats as William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but Jewish religious literature. His latest work “Wordsongs of Jewish Thought: 108 Tanya Response Poems” (Dialogic Poetry Press), is an example of the latter. In it, he explores Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism) through his poetic interpretation of Rabbi Adin Steinhalz’s commentary on the “Tanya,” which was written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitch Chasidic movement. 

Bidney has created a new genre, one he calls a “verse interview book.” He treats the books he studies as if they were mentors teaching him and replies in poetry to what he is being taught. The source for his newest work the “Tanya.” In an e-mail interview, Bidney noted, “A landmark of Chasidic literature, [the ‘Tanya’] was recommended by my friend Rabbi Aaron Slonim. Of extraordinary value to me was the ‘Tanya’ commentary made by the late Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a Judaic scholar of great renown, also a superb writer and raconteur, whose explanations are rich in Chasidic anecdotes and insights.” In addition, Bidney was also attracted to the “Tanya” because “I have a special liking for mystical traditions involving personal spiritual portraits of questers for transcendent meaning.”

He finds the verse interview book genre speaks to him more personally than other formats. “There’s no other kind of apprenticeship to a mentor-text that I ever found so richly and instantaneously rewarding,” Bidney said. “My 108 conversations with the Steinsaltz ‘Tanya’ are especially relevant to Chasidic practice and cultural tradition, since this way of practicing Judaism is superbly person-centered. I got to know the many saints and sages (some of them quite lovably eccentric, it might be said) that the commentary told of. In my responses, I was constantly thinking of real, deep-hearted, living people, their personalities and their mystic illuminations. The excitement of this can’t be described. I wrote my 108 replies in 13 days.”

Although Bidney has not formally studied Jewish mysticism, he has been reading it for years. That includes the research he did for another book, “A Lover’s Art,” which featured poems that interpret King Solomon’s Song of Songs. “There, I versified King Solomon’s Song of Songs in English meters and came to learn about the unfolding interpretive tradition that equated the Shulamite beloved with Lady Wisdom and then with the Shekhinah, or God’s own female Indwelling Presence,” he said. “‘Wordsongs of Jewish Thought’ is my 33rd book of verses, most of them in verse interview format, so I’ve been carefully trying to become an effective apprentice, an attentive learner, in each tradition I encounter.”

Bidney chooses works he thinks will stimulate him to “write deeper, more colorful, more enlivening verse.” He notes that although he cares “deeply about ethics,” his main quest is to bring beauty into the world. “Before beginning to write, I always ask myself, ‘What verse form will be most moving, most heartening, most engaging and absorbing for what I want to sing?’” he added. “I never ‘say’ anything in my verse; rather, I sing whatever it is you’re hearing. Please read it aloud!”

Part of his quest is to teach “how beauty arises from formal variety and craft,” he noted. “As a translator-interviewer of Russian and German poets (Gumiliov, Goethe, Rueckert), I’ve learned to deploy verse forms based on three-syllable, as well as two-syllable, formal units. I combine the threes and the twos in ways unusual among Anglo poets. I’ve learned much about such combinations from studying ancient Greek and Roman wordsong makers. You will be startled by the zest and even jauntiness of my rhythms, also the dreamlike intensity of my rhyme and verbal harmony patterns.”

Bidney hopes that when people read his latest work, they will see “art emerge from life, both of them enriched by mentorship and dialogue, also by faithfulness to melodic artisanry and dedicated craft. You may be interested to learn that I perused the ‘Tanya’ like a fortune-teller, looking for what would ‘set me off.’ There’s something magical about the bibliomantic mindset.”