William Walsh

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 816

"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 reminiscences in his writing. He was for many years fascinated by Joyce, whose medieval mind was in some ways similar to his own; and Joyce's linguistic psychiatry—and pedantry—have certainly influenced Klein's autobiographical-mythical novel The Second Scroll. Certainly the finest poem in his Poems (1944), "In re Solomon Warshawer," owes much of its form and manner to Browning; and it is in no respect inferior to the liveliest of Browning's production in this mode. Lengths of time and spans of experience are condensed in the poem's two hundred lines, and the whole tradition of the persecuted is concentrated in the single figure of Solomon Warshawer…. Solomon is seen to represent not simply the Jewish but, in his striving and imperfection, the human race. (pp. 85-6)

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And, further, the desperation which screams through the poem is not just for intolerable suffering, but for the horror that it is his merely human life that has been selected for destruction, so that what should have above all been preserved by man is precisely what is selected for abolition. The fear and the horror, in fact, are for a universe revealing itself as fundamentally irrational. It is this fear of an insane world—something unspeakably horrible to a mind like Klein's … which agitates the poem most deeply. (p. 86)

The Rocking Chair, Klein's final appearance as a poet,… was his first volume of poems to be published in Canada (1948). A case could be made for its being the best single book of verse ever to be published in Canada. Not that it is by any means flawless. There is more than a suspicion of molasses in "The Sugaring," as well as too much unassimilated Hopkins, a degree too feverish a nostalgia in "For the Sisters of the Hôtel Dieu," and more than a hint of linguistic intoxication in "Montreal," repeated readings of which leave one irritated at its contrivance and artificiality. But even the spoilt poems have their minor virtues, chippings flung out by the central disturbance of a strong creative faculty. If nothing else they illustrate the range of tone. (pp. 86-7)

Klein's creative generosity … works first to establish the being of the object, event, place, or experience at the center of the poem, and then to enlarge its significance. The essential quality and inward shape sustain the meaning. For example, in "The Rocking Chair," "Grain Elevator," "The Spinning Wheel" the thing becomes an image, the image a symbol, the symbol a style of life and feeling. (p. 87)

[A fine, complex] poem of this kind is "The Rocking Chair," which in the tranquil accuracy of its observation, in its swaying, stopping, returning rhythm, in its cool and weathered structure, its context of family, society, and history, marvelously evokes the reality of the chair and the burden of hallowed experience which it carries…. (p. 88)

The poems in The Rocking Chair demonstrate the new stretch of Klein's sympathies, whether it is for things like the spinning wheel or the rocking chair, worn by time into meaning, or for objects …; or whether for places like Mount Royal or the city streets of Montreal; or for people like the spinsters …; or the cripples…. Here we see detachment telescoped into identity. In none of these poems is the Jew in Klein ousted by the Canadian. Instead a sensibility fed by one of the most ancient sources of human quality shows itself superbly qualified to cope with a new hospitality to experience, and to see in the Canadian example the universal human thing. These poems work by combining distance and intimacy, perspective and grain, and find "the thing that makes them one" in what is common and human…. (p. 89)

The ironic truth of our strange age, enunciated by Klein in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," a poem notable for its wit, strength, and undespairing acceptance of a despairing part—the truth is that the making of these creative connections, the articulation of our human experience, is the business of someone who has been dismissed from real society, the poet. (pp. 89-90)

William Walsh, "The Shape of Canadian Poetry," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. 87, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 73-95.∗

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