A(braham) M(oses) Klein

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Miriam Waddington

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568

[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...

(This entire section contains 1568 words.)

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are references to Shakespeare ("What's Hecuba to you?"), and to the laurel leaf, both suggesting the honoured and traditional role of the poet. But [other] poets mentioned by Klein—Tennyson, Keats, and Wordsworth—have sold out and abandoned their social usefulness for the sake of beauty, money, or a blind devotion to the past.

All this is bad enough; but what is even worse is that, while the poets are worshipping beauty, the life of the common man is being cancelled out by machines; until basic biological needs for food and shelter are met, man will never be able to experience aesthetic pleasure…. (p. 44)

Taken together, the ten poems in "Barricade Smith" are the most openly revolutionary of all Klein's radical poems…. [They] have a consistent political outlook and … their aim is to expose, not only the injustices of a mysterious and abstract society, but the agents who execute its directives In poem after poem, Klein satirizes members of the clergy, businessmen, bosses, foremen, judges, lawyers, professors, and poets. In "Blueprint for a Monument of War," he makes a plea for the value of life itself, and condemns the poet's ivory tower with the same passion with which he inveighs against the soporific effects of the movies. (pp. 46-7)

[The] core experience of Klein's radical poetry is poverty, but the core concept which animates it is justice. The notion of yosher (justice) is central to Judaism, just as the problem of good and evil is central to Christianity. (p. 47)

Justice can only be an issue where men live in societies, and the writers who express this problem in prose or poetry will sooner or later find themselves faced with political, not just moral, choices. The political utopia, which Klein implies in his poetry, is simply a world where the social conditions allow each individual to realize his potential, whether he is a Jew, a French Canadian, or an Indian on a reservation…. (pp. 47-8)

It is certainly likely that [during the thirties] Klein was more influenced by the radical tradition in Yiddish literature … than by either Eliot or Auden. The influence of the English radicals reached him only later…. Knowledgeable as Klein was in both talmudic studies and secular Yiddish literature, it is not surprising that he should have first expressed a specific Jewish reaction to persecution in the poems of Hath Not a Jew—and then gone on to voice a more general reaction to capitalism in "Barricade Smith." (p. 52)

Thus, the theme of Klein's industrial poems was in tune with his personal background and thought. But what should be said about the literary value of these poems, their style and diction? (p. 53)

[Along with] his insistence on the social realities, Klein was always "for the Joker and his jokes" and many of the Barricade Smith poems would have been good, if rather grim fun if they had been sung in music halls. On a literary level, however, the radical poems are more complex than the usual music-hall ballad. Despite their immediate impact, Klein's "bright pendulum of dialectic" … is such that most of the poems work on more than one level; the subjects are boldly topical, but they are also rich in personal and historical associations. Here as elsewhere, Klein introduces archaisms and interlingual puns; he is epigrammatic and witty, and constantly breaks out of … traditional frames to pull the reader right into the poem with him. He not only uses repetitive images to attain rhythm, but even more subtly, he uses repetitive ideas in the same way. (pp. 54-5)

I spoke earlier of the rhythm of ideas…. [The] rhythm of repeated symbols is [already] familiar to us. But the rhythm produced by the use of a group of related metaphors—or, as I like to think of them, as related meanings—is a subtle way of patterning not only form but content. This kind of rhythm of idea is present in most of Klein's radical poems, though it is not always fully developed. In fact, it is the presence of definite meanings and Klein's way of patterning and playing with them that make this group of poems so worth re-reading. (p. 57)

As Klein matured, he became more aware that the relation between ideology and political action is complex and difficult. But he never abandoned his radical outlook, and only gradually moderated his satirical expression of it….

What looks like a change in direction in Klein's later poems is simply a shift in emphasis. Klein's core theme of justice found a topical expression in the speeches of Barricade Smith during the thirties. His hypocritical clergy, ivory tower poets, and frivolous debutantes were transformed into the false prophets of the forties when, just as in biblical times, the professors and religious leaders—those "scriptural inspectors," fed the populace nothing but lies…. (p. 58)

"The Break-Up" in Klein's last collection, The Rocking Chair, is a mature and realistic reassertion of the possibility of radical and revolutionary change. The spring breakup will reveal all the garbage of winter, death, and the old way of life, and at the same time it cannot help but release the tides of new life….

[This is not] the positive, one-sided way of seeing utopia that Klein had in his youth. In those days, he dreamed, "over the green earth, at last emerged,/After the cock-crow of the guns, the cloudless day!"…

For Klein that cloudless day never arrived, but he never relinquished his hope for a just world. It is this hope, despite all temporary obliterations of it, which shines through the darkness of Poems, shows a new intellectual control in The Hitleriad, and subtly illuminates The Rocking Chair. (p. 59)

Miriam Waddington, in her A. M. Klein, Hugo McPherson, Gary Geddes, General Editors (© 1980 Miriam Waddington), The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1970, 147 p. (revised by the author for this publication).


M. W. Steinberg


Sidney J. Stephen