A.M. Klein: Portrait of the Poet as Person

Profile

By Ezra Glinter

Published January 08, 2008, issue of January 11, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a 1943 letter to his colleague A.J.M. Smith, Montreal poet A.M. Klein complained of critics’ tendency to identify him primarily as a Jewish poet.

Our Man In Montreal: Klein often complained about critics who identified him primarily as a Jewish poet.
Our Man In Montreal: Klein often complained about critics who identified him primarily as a Jewish poet.

“Why did they… have to go flaunting my circumcision?” he asked. “It’s an adolescent trick — this whimsical opening of another man’s fly.”

Despite his protestations, Klein is still largely remembered as a Jewish poet — and not without justification. As both a person and an artist, he was deeply in love with the heritage he received from his parents and from his teachers, a fact fittingly reflected in his nostalgic recollections of his childhood in the once heavily Jewish Montreal neighborhood surrounding Saint Lawrence Boulevard. His poetry, as he explained in a letter to Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger, dealt with cultural synthesis and the problem of expressing one culture in the language of another. And contrary to his complaints to Smith, he was critical of Jewish artists who disregarded their cultural identity. Klein accused these artists of having “nothing original to contribute.” After all, he reasoned, “one cannot create with another’s genitals.”

But while much of Klein’s writing did, in fact, take Jewish themes as its subject, his quest for general literary acceptance was also fulfilled. As delegates at a recent conference on Klein indicated, his contributions to Canadian and modernist literature went beyond the Jewish content of his poetry. Held at Montreal’s Concordia University and sponsored by Concordia’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, the conference featured such noted Canadian literary scholars as Klein authority Zailig Pollock, of Trent University, and Brian Trehearne, a McGill University expert of Canadian modernism.

While the discussion of Klein included his early work, such as the collection “Hath Not a Jew,” the most enduring part of Klein’s legacy is undoubtedly his 1948 collection, “The Rocking Chair and Other Poems,” which received Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award. The collection dealt not with Jewish subjects but with the province of Quebec and its people. While many of the poems are written in Klein’s frequently complex style, such as the multilingual homage to the city of Montreal, some of the collection’s most powerful pieces are simple and direct, such as Klein’s critical portrayal of Quebec nationalism in “Political Meeting,” or the rural nostalgia of the titular “The Rocking Chair.” The collection also includes what many consider to be Klein’s finest poem, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” a haunting meditation on the fate of the poetic vocation in the face of modernity. Along with his acclaimed novel “The Second Scroll,” the poem represents the zenith of Klein’s literary career, though its allusions to paranoia and madness also foreshadow its author’s mental collapse in the mid-1950s and Klein’s ensuing retreat into silence and solitude for the final decades of his life.

Though Klein is celebrated today primarily for his foundational role in Canadian letters (The Quebec Writers’ Federation Prize for Poetry is named in his honor), he was a man of many talents, many interests and many occupations. By profession he was a lawyer, having studied law at the Université de Montréal, and for a few years he lived in the small Quebec mining town of Rouyn, where he opened a modest legal practice. For two-and-a-half decades he was also the editor of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, the English counterpart to the seminal Yiddish newspaper Der Kanader Adler. In his weekly editorials, Klein commented on such topics as antisemitism both at home and abroad, Canada’s involvement in the Second World War and Zionism, of which he was a life-long supporter. Though Klein’s artistic aspirations remained primarily poetic, the editorial position served as an important creative outlet for him and as a channel for his essays, reviews and translations of Yiddish and Hebrew works. His career also included a three-year stint teaching poetry at McGill University, two unsuccessful forays into federal politics under the banner of the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (later to develop into the New Democratic Party) and speaking engagements all over North America on behalf of the fledgling State of Israel.

While for the most part, Klein was able to reconcile his multiple activities and obligations, they eventually took a toll on his personal life as well as on his artistic sensibilities. In addition to his literary work, Klein was a longtime speechwriter and public relations consultant for business magnate Samuel Bronfman, head of the Seagram Company, and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1962. In a 1942 journal entry, Klein lamented his role writing souvenir programs for philanthropic banquets. “Poor me!” he wrote. “Poet parsleyate to a menu… it is a humiliation only a philanthropic world makes possible.”

Despite his self-disgust, Klein remained an employee and personal friend of Bronfman’s for decades. He continued to send him birthday greetings long after he had ceased to communicate with most others. According to his son Colman, who spoke at the Concordia University conference, Klein was fascinated by power and by those who wield it.

But despite his affiliation with Bronfman, it was not just commercial or political power that interested Klein. As a socialist candidate he believed in the power of the people, and as a young rabbinical student in the power of God. But it was the power of language that fascinated him most of all, a power to which he gave lasting expression through his true vocation — poetry.

Ezra Glinter is a Montreal-based writer and an editor of The McGill Tribune.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.