A(braham) M(oses) Klein Miriam Waddington - Essay

Miriam Waddington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)