(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Using the verse patterns and simple language of traditional Yiddish folk songs, Itzik Manger created a style that brought modern poetic sensibilities to an unsophisticated audience. In style and theme, his poems transform the commonplace into something subtle, wondrous, and beautiful. His subjects are sad—loneliness, disappointment, death, confusion, frustration—but his poems usually evoke smiles.

Manger’s voice changes not only from poem to poem but also often within the same poem. With seeming indiscriminateness, he mixes nursery rhymes, gangster jargon, regional Yiddish dialects, classical mythology, traditional prayers, and burlesque theater with the poetic traditions of Europe. His anachronisms have their own integrity, and the same can be said of his irrationalities and contradictory traits in general. Their coming together feels perfectly natural to a reader, like an intuitive click or a rhyme. In the same moment that one of Manger’s paradoxes hits the reader, it also resolves itself; it is as if the reader has secretly sensed it already, so that all that is left to do is smile at a crumbled convention.

The poetic clichés that Manger enjoyed using would make a novice blush. He loved the moon and brings it in dozens of times: as a big loaf of bread for a hungry family, a crescent twinkling in Hagar’s hair, an earring for Rachel, but usually just as the moon. He went out of his way to use it in rhymes. Equally unoriginal is the form in which he almost always wrote, rhymed quatrains: He meant for his poems to be sung. A list of the poets and other sources he both plagiarized and collaborated with would run as long as the Jewish exile.