David Caplan is the Charles M. Weis Chair in English at Ohio Wesleyan University and the author of four books of poetry criticism and poetry, most recently, Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014) and In the World He Created According to His Will (University of Georgia Press, 2010). His sequence, “Observances” won the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry. A French-language edition of his monograph, Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form (Oxford University Press, 2005), is forthcoming from the University of Liège Press (Presses Universitaires de Liège).
Okla Elliott: You work as both a scholar and a poet. How do these two endeavors interact or inform each other?
David Caplan: In my criticism, I try to figure out what other poets are doing. In my poetry I try to figure out what is happening to me. That is not to say that my poetry is necessarily autobiographical. The poems you reprint depict a fictional student studying in a Chassidic yeshiva I have visited. He is not me, but imagining another life allows me to think about mine.
My research often starts with questions that bother me and that I cannot answer. My first book, Questions of Possibility: Contemporary Poetry and Poetic Form, began as my dissertation. When I was a graduate student, I wondered why contemporary poets favored certain forms—for example, sestinas and ghazals–and not others—for example, the heroic couplet. As I read, wrote, and revised, I tried to develop persuasive explanations.
My recent book, Rhyme’s Challenge: Contemporary Poetry, Hip Hop, and Rhyming Culture considers why hip-hop artists dominate the contemporary art of rhyme. My poetry is not influenced by hip hop; I admire its artistry and wanted to clarify its achievement (both to myself and to others).
Okla Elliott: Would you talk a bit about form and formalism in poetry? You write both formalist poems and free verse, but as is often said, free verse isn’t entirely free. What is your interest in formalism, and how do you conceptualize form within free verse?
David Caplan: I am in interested in poetic form because I am interested in reading and writing well-made poems. “Well-made” of course can describe otherwise very different kinds of poems. For instance, Harryette Mullen and Derek Walcott are two of my favorite contemporary poets. Their poems hardly resemble each other’s. Both, though, write what I would call “well-made poems.” Whether in meter or free verse, a poem is well made when its formal elements instruct and delight.
Okla Elliott: The poems reprinted below owe much of their content to Jewish cultural and historical traditions. Would you discuss how you have incorporated these materials? I am particularly interested in how utterly contemporary the poems feel while still linking into millennia-old traditions.
David Caplan: All of our lives mix the old and the new. In this respect, the lives of Orthodox Jews are no different. When learning Talmud, they might look up an unfamiliar Aramaic word on their smartphones (as I mention in one poem). I try not to present such moments as quaint. Instead, they are meant to suggest how we live.
There is a tendency in much Jewish-American poetry to approach traditional Jewish texts primarily as folklore. When contemporary authors draw from these texts, they often try to capture a certain otherworldly quality.
I read the same texts differently. My poems respond to certain Chassidic texts—namely The Tanya and other teachings by the leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—because they offer powerfully challenging insights into human existence.
Into My Garden
As if New Jersey were Babylon, an Argentine
and an Israeli argue in Aramaic, Styrofoam cups
of instant coffee warm in their hands,
Other boys return to last night’s commentary:
I have come into My garden,
back and forth they sing like an invitation.
What did I learn in school? Whenever
the philosopher lectured on the death of metaphysics,
pollen found an open window, pistil
and stamen crazed with each other.
Yellow, the serpentine walls and columns.
Yellow, the library where a church belonged.
Some nights his best student recited
the lecture like a pledge, but nothing changed
not the pitcher between us, the glass
slick with our fingerprints, the envy I felt.
Boys dressed like men race the stairwell as if to the singing,
as if to hear what My garden means:
seven generations caused God to withdraw,
seven generations drew him back.
All those years of talking–what did I learn?
All arguments end with a shrug.
Only the Hebrew
The sudden quiet of a room emptied of noise.
Only the Hebrew, a stone on his tongue.
The boy who carried his suitcase up the stairs
swayed as if into a thought.
What is holy? No walls of Jerusalem stone,
no microphone discreetly clipped across a lapel
to announce when to stand. The more
you need them, the more words demand.
Windowsills honored with books,
pictures of the righteous, watching:
this is how we learn to walk,
a father stepping back, just out of reach.
Chassidus by Telephone
On the train home, a Bluetooth in his ear,
he listens to a lecture on fear and love,
the four kinds, lower and higher.
To get religious—what does that mean?
Sometimes it all feels like an improvisation:
the snow lifting from the tracks,
a hardboiled egg wrapped in foil, an extra
sandwich in case he meets someone who needs it.
He has no wonder story to tell, no moment
where a miracle resolved all doubt,
only a classroom after the term’s last class,
mango liquorish saved for the occasion,
blessings in the forms of toasts.
Love and fear: a wordless tune
sung faster and louder,
as if that were the reason
the soul descended into this world,
to link arms with friends and sing.