Retrieving A.M. Klein

By Allan Nadler
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What qualifies a literary work as "Jewish"? Debates on this subject, once conducted with rigor, have become sillier over the years, descending to the recent call for inducting the African American writer Walter Mosley—whose mother was Jewish, and in whose detective novels the heroes are all black men—into the Jewish literary pantheon.

No such fuzziness will cloud the judgment of anyone fortunate enough to encounter the Montreal poet, essayist, and critic A.M. Klein (1909-1972), whose yahrzeit falls this week. Klein's under-heralded work ranges from a vast collection of poems and the enigmatic Zionist novel, The Second Scroll (1951), to almost a thousand political editorials, literary essays, and book reviews. He was also the first translator of many of the greatest modern Hebrew and Yiddish poets. His erudition in every aspect of the Jewish literary corpus permeates the entire body of his work.

One steely passion runs throughout Klein's oeuvre: his lifelong enthusiasm for his people. The passion is manifest both in his themes and in his poetics, the product of a complete fluency in both Hebrew and Yiddish as well as the English poets from Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens. In the words of the critic Miriam Woodsworth, Klein "knows how to play every note on the Jewish fiddle—the sour, the sweet, the bitter—and if there is any secret to [his] poems it is simply that Klein loves the Jews, and loves them to distraction. But he loves them best through English literature."   

For Klein, love of one's people was the most natural and instinctive of affects. In expressing it, he deliberately created a uniquely Judaized English. Aside from the hundreds of Hebraisms and Yiddishisms that pepper his English, he frequently inverts the position of noun and adjective in a manner conforming to Hebrew rather than English usage. The resultant style earned him the scorn of his modernist Anglo-Canadian peers, who found his language archaic and alienating. By contrast, the American critic and novelist Ludwig Lewisohn had this to say in 1940:

Only the poet who has a substance of his very own will be able to create a style of his very own. . . . Abraham Klein, the most Jewish poet who has ever used the English tongue, is the only Jew who has ever contributed a new note of style, of expression, of creative enlargement to the poetry of that tongue.

The thirty-sixth and final Psalm in Klein's magnificent "Psalter of Avram Haktani," written during the terrible years of the Holocaust, captures his profound attachment to the heritage of his ancestors:

A Psalm Touching Genealogy

Not Sole was I born, but entire genesis;
For, to the fathers that begot me, this
Body is residence. Corpuscular,
They dwell in my veins, they eavesdrop at my ear,
They circle, as the Torahs, around my skull,
In exit and in entrance all day pull
The latches of my heart, descend and rise—
And there look generations through my eyes.

This is not to suggest that Klein shied away from aiming some of his sharpest arrows at his fellow Jews, whether of the deracinated-intellectual or the clerical variety. About the former's neglect of his wickedly satirical The Hitleriad (1944), he wrote to his New York editor, James Laughlin: 

These arbiters of public taste . . . maintained their silence about the Hitleriad not because it was written by a Jew, but by a Jew not of their ilk. A Jew who admits it! A Jew who is . . . defiantly grateful that his lot is with the persecuted and his heritage of the Talmudic, the Prophetic, the Biblic. A Jew I am, and the world knows it. . . . Other cultures, therefore, I meet as an equal, not as an interloper. I travel on my own passport.

As for certain Jewish clerics, Klein's disdain for rabbinical hypocrisy was often expressed in toying wordplay:

Rev Owl

Erudite, Solemn
The pious bird
Sits on a tree,
His Shtreimel furred

The owl, Chief Rabbi
Of the woods,
In moonlight ponders
worldly goods. . . .

Klein's instinctive affections for his ancestral people extended to his parents' adopted land, Quebec. In The Rocking Chair, his final and most celebrated volume of poetry, and the only one with no overt Jewish themes, Klein traveled on his own passport to meet his Québecois neighbors, treating their religion and folk culture with a sense of identification unprecedented in Anglo-Canadian literature. Awed by the sight of disabled French Catholic believers climbing the steep stairs to the great basilica atop Mont Royal, he wrote:

Bundled their bones, upon the ninety-nine stairs—
St. Joseph's ladder—the knobs of penance come;
The folded cripples counting up their prayers . . . . 

They know, they know, that suddenly their cares
and orthopedics will fall from them, and they
will stand whole again.

Roll empty away, wheelchairs,
and crutches without armpits, hop away!

And I who in my own faith once had faith like this,
but now have not, am crippled more than they.

The loss of belief to which Klein here alludes extended to all doctrinal orthodoxies. It underlies some of his most biting polemics, particularly during World War II. In June 1941, the formerly ardent socialist penned a scathing editorial excoriating George Bernard Shaw for defending Stalin:

Those whom the gods love die young.  Mr. Shaw, who has himself stated that every man over forty is a scoundrel, has truly merited the enmity of the deities. And that enmity is being turned into action; for those whom the gods would destroy, they first render mad.

The lines are particularly haunting in light of Klein's own final decades. Stricken by a mysterious emotional breakdown, he was hospitalized in 1954 after a failed suicide attempt and then deteriorated into silence until his death in 1972, leaving generations of Montreal's best poets and lyricists, most famously Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, to revere his memory. Cohen's elegiac ballad, "To a Teacher", was dedicated to Klein:

Hurt once and for all into silence.
A long pain ending without a song to prove it.
Who could stand beside you so close to Eden. . . . 

Let me cry "Help!" beside you, Teacher.
I have entered under this dark roof
As fearlessly as an honored son
Enters his father's house.

There can never be an official yardstick by which to measure the Jewishness of any work of art or literature; nor should there be. But readers of A.M. Klein will never doubt that in the work of this artist, the bar is set at its highest.

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