In declaring, finally, the superfluity or disposability of “prayers and words and lights” before the presence or memory of a dead loved one, Charles Reznikoff’s “Kaddish” exemplifies a break with the traditional kaddish, and appears to mediate a self-consciously secular memorialization. Yet it does not merely reflect or represent a secular regime as it has developed outside the world of the poem; rather, it labors to articulate an uncertain, yet recognizably Jewish, sensibility of the secular. This sensibility should be understood in the context of the poet’s broader concerns with the modern significance of biblical and post-biblical Judaism, concerns that can be read in the very cycle of which “Kaddish” is the conclusion, the 1941 “Going To and Fro and Walking Up and Down.” In addition, George Oppen’s own poem in memory of Charles Reznikoff enables us to identify an aesthetics of the humble that, intertwined with an ethics of humility, is distinctive of Reznikoff’s work, and that leads to the conclusion that the secular sensibility in “Kaddish” amounts to more than a simple act of negation, a simple disregard or scorn for the trappings of traditional ritual.

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