A Poem of One’s Own

A.M. Klein Laid Groundwork for Jewish Poetry in English

By Ezra Glinter

Published April 20, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
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A.M. Klein: The Letters
By A.M. Klein
Edited by Elizabeth A. Popham
University of Toronto Press, 504 pages, $85

A.M. Klein
Courtesy of the Montreal Jewish Public Library
A.M. Klein

Those of us involved with Jewish life and culture in the Diaspora must often ask ourselves a fundamental question: Do we view ourselves as one among many minority cultures that comprise our larger society? Or do we think of ourselves as heirs to a separate, millennia-old tradition that travels along its own trajectory?

These are broad designations, and not mutually exclusive. The problem could be phrased 100 different ways, as it has been for 100 years. In the American context, we might ask it like this: Are we the American wing of the Jewish people, or are we the Jewish wing of the American people? The answer is not either/or, and it inevitably involves qualifications, explications and exceptions.

Yet the question confronts us today as strongly as ever. While it applies to all Diaspora Jews, it is especially difficult for artists and writers who don’t just situate themselves within a culture, but contribute to that culture’s creation. To whose culture do they contribute? And to whose should they? Among Jewish writers of the past century, no one was more sensitive to this question than A.M. Klein.

Klein was a Canadian-Jewish poet best known for his foundational role in Canadian modernism as well as in the creation of Jewish poetry in English. Though he is barely remembered today outside of Canada, there he is celebrated for both achievements and has been honored with a series of collected works covering his poetry, journalism, criticism and fiction. The final volume, “A.M. Klein: The Letters,” was published late in 2011 by the University of Toronto Press.

Literature was only one of Klein’s pursuits. By profession he was a lawyer, and from 1938 to 1955 he served as editor of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. He was a speechwriter and publicity consultant for whiskey magnate Samuel Bronfman, and for three years he was a lecturer in poetry at McGill University. After visiting Israel in 1949, Klein became a popular speaker on the Jewish lecture circuit, addressing audiences across the continent about the newly created state. He was even a political candidate on two occasions for the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a forerunner of today’s New Democratic Party.

Klein’s letters reflect all these activities and give the impression of a conscientious, busy, talented writer. His correspondents included fellow poets like A.J.M. Smith and Karl Shapiro, and longtime friends like Henry James biographer Leon Edel. He wrote to employers like Bronfman and to editors and publishers at the Jewish Publication Society, New Directions press and Poetry magazine. He was often compelled to defend his professional and creative interests, and sometimes he took on the peeved tone of a writer not being given his due. He was also, frequently, very funny.

“As to my book — may my publisher be drowned in ink, may he be crushed between presses, may the printer’s devil take him — he is giving me the runaround.” So he wrote in 1938 to Joseph Frank, an old friend from his days in Canadian Young Judea. To Solomon Grayzel, his editor at JPS, he directed a similar complaint: “Is there anything new, or does your committee insist that the book be published posthumously?” Advised by James Laughlin at New Directions to turn the other cheek to a hostile reviewer, he replied, “I turn him all four.”


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