09/07/2013 17:10 BST | Updated 06/09/2013 06:12 BST

Yiddish Folk Song Re-Imagined as Poetry

The act of poetic re-imagining is a necessary art. Coleman Barks popularised Rumi to English speakers by reinvigorating dull trots with poetic mysticism. Gary Snyder gave us back Han Shan, Jane Hirshfield resurrected Ono no Komachi, Seamus Heaney breathed fire into Beowulf. The list goes on. In each case, some literal translations existed, but it took a poet to re-imagine and thereby re-animate these works to carry on a new life of their own as quality English-language poems.

To Sing Away the Darkest DaysOver the past five years, poet and physician Norbert Hirschhorn has immersed himself in Yiddish folk song, seeking to likewise free them from "dutiful, stilted" scholarly translations into re-imaginings as English-language poems for his newest collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days (Holland Park Press, 2013). In doing so, Hirschhorn brings much of himself into these pieces, often journeying far from the source text, through his cultural past and personal present, to infuse these poems with immediacy and relevance.

One such poem is "The Quantum Rebbe", which re-imagines "Der Filosof" by substituting Einstein for the song's original figure from the 19th century, who invented steamboats and railroads. Both the song and the poem juxtapose faith-based and science-based "miracles" in a satirical manner, but Hirschhorn's post-atomic version brings modern anxieties to the longstanding questions about religion's moral relevance in light of science's ability to enable mankind to play God.

Hirschhorn meditates upon the theme of lapsing before God in an "alien land" in the short song "Moyde Ani", expanding it into the five-part poem "Confessions". Here a mobile phone is held up to the Western Wall so that the owner's "cousin in Golders Green / can call in a prayer to God". The poem, and indeed this whole collection, bringing a sharp and contemporary focus to the risks inherent both in embracing and in denying one's heritage. As the speaker turns to leave an elderly Jewish couple in Sainsbury's Supermarket, he imagines "the men in boots, guns and thumbs / in their belts" pursuing them.

The second half of this book contains source materials and references valuable to the study of Yiddish song. However, it is Hirschhorn's own re-imaginings that speak most deeply to me, as a Gentile, of the power of song and poetry to address unspeakable hardship. As in the American blues tradition, borne out of slavery, sometimes the saddest songs offer the greatest relief. Re-imagining such songs into vital, present-tense English offers up what is "lost in translation"--the pure poetry of the human spirit--to a broader audience, allowing us each in our own way to raise a glass in that by-turns joyous and poignant toast, "To life!"