Klein, A(braham) M(oses) 1909–1972
Klein was a Canadian poet, editor, and novelist. His writing reflects and integrates the three deepest influences on his life: his Jewish environment and heritage including the Bible, the Talmud, and the cabbala; the French-Canadian milieu of his native Montreal; and his wide acquaintance with English literature, specifically Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Marlowe. His novel, The Second Scroll, emphasizes his continuing concern for the fate of Jewry and his strong support of Zionism. The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, which won the Governor-General's Award in 1948, is considered by most critics to be his best work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
[The Second Scroll is] a story of complicated form, in which, on the simple framework of a nephew's search for a long-lost uncle, Klein weaves a moving pattern of contemporary Jewish history seen as the fulfilment of age-old religious and national aspirations. The return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, regarded as a miracle manifested by God, establishes in part the religious theme of the novel. Concurrent with the development of this theme and bearing on it is the question of faith in God and the acceptance of His ways. (p. 37)
It is clear that Uncle Melech is to be taken as the Jew in exile, and his experiences, his divagations from the faith—his enticement to other ways and beliefs—are those of his people, as are his sufferings, the burden of the "galuth", and his eternal quest for truth and justice, and his final ascendance to the Promised Land.
As the role of the Uncle undergoes change, the meaning of the nephew's search, its purpose, becomes clearer. The thread of narrative is the journey of a Jewish-Canadian journalist to the new state of Israel to discover for his publishers the poetry of the re-born people. A second and more important strand of narrative grows out of this as the nephew determines to track down his uncle while in Europe, a search that takes him to three continents. The subtly suggested shift from the literal to the symbolic in the presentation of Uncle Melech shapes and gives new levels of meaning to the external framework. The young Canadian Jew, it is suggested, separated from his European relations, is not sufficiently involved in their fate. Though his concern with their tragedy and their future in Israel is real, one feels that it is also somewhat remote, belonging to the realm of dreams, of abstract fancyings. (p. 40)
[The] religious interpretation of events raises a more profound religious question, one that runs through the entire novel and constitutes its central and most moving motif:...
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[In recent discussions of Klein's work, his radical poems] have either been ignored or else dismissed as having no literary value. On the whole they have been considered as a regrettable and troubling episode in an otherwise virtuous literary life. (p. 31)
My own view is that the radical poems are still fresh, interesting, and alive, not merely as biographical data but as literary works. Although I share many of the values which these poems assert, my interest is not based on a nostalgic hankering after the slogans of the thirties but grows out of genuine curiosity about how Canadian poets responded to the revolutionary temper of that time. I would like to show what Klein's radical poems were like, and how these poems—far from being merely topical expressions—are firmly rooted in Klein's double tradition, Jewish and Canadian. These two traditions were far more important in Klein's development and in the shaping of his radical poems than anything he ever learned from Eliot, Auden, Spender, or Lewis.
The core experience of the radical poems is poverty, and Klein's active, humanist reactions to it. Over and over again the poems assert the necessity for economic and legal equality for the sake of preserving Klein's holy of holies—the integrity of the individual. In the first poem, "The Soirée of Velvel Kleinburger," Klein chronicles the poverty of a worker in Montreal's needle trades. (p. 32)
In "The Diary of Abraham Segal, Poet" the poet is a clerk who wears a white collar. Although he is poor, Abe has read Chaucer and Shakespeare and so is able to see beyond the class-divided world of rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, with insight, self-awareness, and even hope. (p. 35)
In "Soirée," Klein showed that card-playing and sex are not effective antidotes to the poison of the sweatshop. In "Diary," he implies that the games people play through their religious and political affiliations or their cultural pretensions are equally useless as sources of self-renewal. (p. 37)
What then is the solution? There is none for the Abe Segal of this poem, because he is able to see what is false in religion, love, and art—the three great human therapies. The only remaining refuge is nature; it alone has the power to suspend the tyrannical clock which dominates the wage earner's day. (p. 38)
But even this peace was transient. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War abroad, and the increasing unionization and political activity at home, provoked the Duplessis government in Quebec to pass repressive legal measures such as the Padlock Law. Against that background, and that of his own legal training, Klein published a satire in which he aimed to expose the hypocritical legal procedures of the province.
Klein's "Of Daumiers a Portfolio" contains an assortment of portraits and several satiric commentaries. (p. 39)
At about the same time as "Of Daumiers a Portfolio" [appeared] …, Klein published a long anti-war poem, "Blueprint for a Monument of War."… Although it is charged with feeling, this long cumbersome poem of 123 lines with its satirical "Appendix for the Pious" is formless. Klein speaks out with heavy anger, and an equally heavy Latin, against the business interests, the army, the religious orders, the press, and against all poets of a patriotic persuasion. (p. 41)
[In "Barricade Smith: His Speeches"] we see how Klein combines topical industrial images with the more traditional kinds and puts them both at the service of a Marxist ideology. Death is envisioned, not as the traditional boatman, or grim reaper, but as the foreman in a factory, with his emblem a time-clock. There are references to Shakespeare ("What's Hecuba to you?"), and to the laurel leaf, both suggesting...
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["Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,"] coming as it does after nearly twenty years of writing and publishing poetry, appears to present a view on what a poet's role might be in the society in which he finds himself. For this reason alone, if for no other, the poem might be accorded a close reading, an exploration of the idea of the "poet-as-Adam" which seems to have been a personal reflection of the poet. (p. 553)
An attempt at a reconciliation [between belief and disbelief] is dominant in "Portrait of the Poet", and this is done by way of drawing on the Jewish concept of Adam as he appears in both the Old Testament and in the Book of Zohar, a tract which is central to the doctrines of the Jewish Kabbalah. Klein was quite at home with the Kabbalah…. (pp. 553-54)
[For] the modern Jewish Kabbalist, each of Adam's successors is … responsible for the redemption of man. In effect, all men are Adam, possible Messiahs, in exile but capable of redeeming mankind.
It is this exile which is described in the first section of "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape". The poet does not even have the solace of death, since while "It is possible that he is dead", it is equally "also possible that he is alive". Worse than that: he is an exile…. (p. 554)
In the second section, we see the exiled poet living among other men but clearly not one of them, set apart as it were by virtue of his profession as poet.
As was the case with the original Adam, the poet has been "exiled" because of a sin. His was a sin of pride, of trusting his "quintuplet senses" rather than God his creator. Like the original Adam, who knew that the fruit was forbidden but ate in spite of that at Eve's insistence, the poet knew that...
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Klein's best poetry did, evidently, get into his [earlier] books. The lesser work [also included in The Collected Poems of A. M. Klein] is interesting, especially the "Radical Poems, 1932–1938", for the light it throws on Klein's growth. But most readers will return to Hath Not a Jew … (1940) and Poems (1944), and will agree with [the editor] Miriam Waddington that in his last volume, The Rocking Chair (1948), Klein "finally found his true tongue and voice." It is in the late poems that the elaborate rhetoric, personifications, archaisms and stylized ejaculations enter into a more vital tension with the energy of ordinary speech: and Klein's unique poetic style comes into its own....
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Klein is a product of three rich and distinct traditions, all of which formed his mind and imagination, determined his response to time past and present, to place, and to religious and literary forms and values. As a consequence, his contribution to the Canadian mosaic reflects the same elements. His major contribution stems primarily from his presentation of Jewish experience, historic and present, with its inherent ideas and values. It is a unique contribution, reflecting the religio-cultural heritage of his people and his own deep, passionate attachment, his on-going concern. One can readily agree with Ludwig Lewisohn's prefatory comment to Hath Not a Jew that Klein "was the first Jew to contribute authentic...
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"The poetry of Abraham Moses Klein springs from the roots of a consciousness where Hebrew and legal lore have become strangely and exotically intermingled with Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot," Leon Edel remarks. Klein's passion for English literature was second only to his love for Judaism, and in each the feeling was supported by a refined and extensive scholarship. His early work is thronged with Elizabethan locutions, some appropriate in that they fit in with the rhetorical Jewish tradition, others embarrassing or painful. Shelley was an influence on the tone of his radical verse, Eliot and then Auden on its phrasing. Klein was a peculiarly conscious writer, and there can be few indeliberate or accidental...
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In "Political Meeting" A. M. Klein describes an orator addressing an anti-conscription rally in Quebec. The Orator, we are told, is "a country uncle with sunflower seeds in his pockets." The description of the sunflower seeds in the Orator's pockets is the most vivid physical detail in the poem. But it is more than just that. For anyone who knows "Political Meeting," the image of the sunflower seeds has the power to call up the complex mood of the poem, and, in particular, its ambivalent attitude to the Orator. (p. 48)
Klein's ambivalent attitude to the Orator, deep distrust mixed with fascination, even with a kind of admiration, comes through especially in the detail of the sunflower seeds. What are...
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