A Poet Passes: Stanley Siegelman, 87

Appreciation

By Daniel Treiman

Published April 18, 2011, issue of April 29, 2011.
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Stanley Siegelman was never at a loss for words — and they always rhymed.

Over the past decade, Stanley, who died of cancer on April 11 at the age of 87, regaled Forward readers with his light verse, first as a contributor to this newspaper’s “Der Yiddish Vinkl” column, more recently with his online “Siegelmania” column and occasionally on our opinion page.

Bilingual Bard: Stanley Siegelman was ‘addicted to versification.’
Courtesy of Karen Steinfeld
Bilingual Bard: Stanley Siegelman was ‘addicted to versification.’

His typewritten poems, in Yiddish and English, poured in via snail mail, often several times a week, on whatever news item struck his fancy: the downfall of Eliot Spitzer (“He couldn’t shun the calls-and-becks, / Enticements to illicit sex!”); a shuttle mission to repair the international space station’s toilet (“Inspiring it is to see / A NASA flush with victory!”); Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme (“Did partners share his ill-got gains? / Gelt by association stains!”); and the fraudulent sale of non-kosher shofars (“If this distressing problem grows / Let’s hope that Jews won’t come to blows!”).

Each and every poem was densely packed with wit and wordplay, puns and double entendres. They were occasionally a bit racy, always more than a bit silly and drew accolades like “sheer genius” from online commenters. For the past three years, I had the honor of calling myself his editor.

Stanley grew up in the Bronx, the third of four brothers born to Yiddish-speaking immigrant parents. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army, surviving five campaigns and the Battle of the Bulge. (One of his older brothers was killed in action.) After the war, Stanley graduated from Rutgers and got a master’s degree in 18th-century English literature from Columbia University. (The satirical English poet Alexander Pope became a lifelong literary hero.)

He went on to a successful career in journalism, working at Women’s Wear Daily, where he covered corsets and brassieres, rose to assistant managing editor and met his wife, Shirley, who worked in the advertising sales department. Later he would serve as editor in chief of American Druggist magazine, where he wrote an award-winning editorial series on a wave of murders of pharmacists.

Through it all, he left behind a trail of verse. At the age of about 20, during his wartime service in France, he penned a wry poem apologizing to an earthworm he displaced as he dug his foxhole. Wherever Stanley worked he was the office bard. In a letter he sent me before undergoing major surgery, he explained that he was “so addicted to versification that I’ll probably be thinking up some rhymes as they wheel me into the operating room.”

Stanley began writing for the Forward late in life. As his younger brother, Philip, noted in his eulogy, Stanley’s poems often addressed the absurdities of Jewish life. There was the one about a new Brooklyn eatery called Traif (“Should we salute, should we decry / This monument to khazzerei?”) and another riffing on a rabbinic determination that giraffe milk is kosher (“Di milkh iz yetst derklert nit treyf, / Der rebbe zogt der sheid iz safe.”). A poem about an ultra-Orthodox newspaper’s refusal to publish photos of women featured one of my favorite lines: “A ship’s referred to as a ‘she’: / Would showing ships breach modesty?”

When a writer for the Yiddish Forverts criticized his Yiddish verse, pointing to its admixture with English words, Stanley responded with characteristic good humor. In a letter, he acknowledged the shortcomings of his Yiddish, which he had learned as a child, and his consequent reliance on “Yinglish.” “Your criticism of me is salutary, and I welcome it,” he wrote. “If I were able to write Yiddish with the expertise you display, I’d be a purist too! (Maybe!)”

I regret that I never met Stanley face-to-face, but we developed a genuine friendship via phone. He was unfailingly modest, and quick to offer a compliment. I looked forward to receiving his latest poems in the mail, though he would frequently write them at a more rapid clip than I could transcribe and publish them. Each poem was accompanied by a typewritten cover letter, itself usually written in verse, sometimes playfully pressing for a response regarding a previous submission that had gone unanswered.

Stanley knew for many months that his condition was terminal and showed great bravery in the face of this fate. He continued writing poetry even as it became difficult for him to physically press the keys on his typewriter. Only a week before his death, I received a typically ebullient poem that he wrote in anticipation of a possible shutdown of the federal government. (“Who Gets the blame — the final fault — / as government grinds to a halt / Unbalanced though our budget be / So too is Congress, mentally!”) From a purely poetic perspective, I half-regretted that a shutdown had been averted.

On the phone, Stanley was calm and matter-of-fact about his condition, as he was in his writing. He penned poems — both in his trademark light verse and in searing sonnets — that were unflinching in confronting his own impending death.

In addition to his brother, Stanley is survived by two daughters, Susan Plean and Karen Steinfeld, and four grandchildren. He is also survived by his countless readers. He will be greatly missed.

Daniel Treiman is the opinion editor of the Forward.


Read Stanley Siegelman’s collected poems for the Forward as well as a personal remembrance by his longtime friend Bob Brody.


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