Sidney J. Stephen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733

["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)

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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 he should have trusted in God rather than in his senses, "in whom he put, as he should not have put, his trust", but at the insistence of his Muse (generally represented as female, at least for the male poet) he "ate of the fruit" and was damned….

Section three shows the poet aware that there are others who share his predicament: "pins on a map of a color similar to his". This men find themselves in exile too, and they react to their condition in different ways, "some go mystical, and some go mad." Only other poets can understand the mutual solitude of their kind, yet they "quarrel and surmise/the secret perversions of each other's lives", sharing the knowledge of a common sin and the resulting fall. (p. 555)

In section six of "Portrait", we see for the first time the "poet-Adam" at work. The term "nth Adam" implies an infinity of Adams; and by choosing this metaphor, and that of "Landscape", which itself implies a picture or state of scenery on land which has been captured and recorded by paint, film or memory, but which is involved in a perpetual cycle of change, Klein indicates that the present Adam is but one point on a continual cycle which reaches back to the original Adam and goes forward into infinity. As the present Adam, the poet "seeds illusions", doing what he can to move mankind closer to a return from exile in this world. (p. 556)

Reconciled to his role, the poet is left "alone, and in his secret shines/like phosphorus." This image is very interesting in that it is clearly the poet himself who "shines"…. Klein is indicating that only by embracing "anonymity", rejecting "Fame, the adrenalin", and working "alone" at his craft can the poet come to "shine". The final phrase, "At the bottom of the sea" first strikes the reader as unduly pessimistic, perhaps, in view of the generally positive closing stanza; however, if one takes "the bottom of the sea" as the ultimate destination of the poet, the line forms a connection and summing up for the two central metaphors of the poem, and provides a very hopeful conclusion. The sea-bottom is the eventual resting-place for all "landscape" in the natural cycle as well, but in the same cycle it is also the mother of mountains to come. (pp. 557-58)

Sidney J. Stephen, "Adam in Exile: A. M. Klein's Portrait of the Poet As Landscape," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1971–72, pp. 553-58.

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