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The Leftmost Poets Sing Songs of Love

Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets

Edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub. Translated by Amelia Glaser. Illustrations by Dana Craft.

University of Wisconsin Press,

192 pages, $45.

* * *|

Proletpen, a new anthology of American Communist Yiddish poets, is a book divided against itself. Dovid Katz’s introduction, by turns eloquent, tongue-tied, hortatory and disingenuous, nicely illustrates the book’s internal conflicts. On the one hand is the insistence of Katz that the work of these poets is a valuable instance of Yiddish cultural diversity, prevented by cultural McCarthyism from coming into public view in the 1950s, when Yiddish literature in translation was just becoming fashionable in America; the work of the American Communist Yiddish poets, he continues, should now be rediscovered because of their difference from their anti-Soviet (but socialist) counterparts, the victors who have written the history of American Yiddish literature. On the other hand, Katz also claims that the “leftmost” [sic] American Yiddish poets were not so very different from their anti-Soviet counterparts; after all, the “overwhelming majority” of these Communist writers had “little interest in party politics.” In other words, these socialist poets are pretty much interchangeable.

There’s a problem with this tack. The pro-Soviet, American Yiddish poets, called in Yiddish Di Linke (The Left), behaved quite differently than the anti-Soviets, called Di Rekhte (The Right), in the one realm that mattered to both groups as much as their poetry: politics. When push came to shove, and when the Soviets took off the gloves, Di Linke chose to stay leftmost.

When describing these inconvenient historical facts, Katz’s prose — normally supple and expressive — seems to fail him. On the occasion of the Hebron pogroms in 1929, which the American Communist paper Di Frayhayt described (following Soviet orders) as a heroic Arab uprising against capitalist Zionism, many of Di Linke did not extract themselves from the Soviet embrace. (Katz’s characterization of the “anti-Soviet” response, which condemned the riots, is tortured: “[T]he need to support the Jewish cause in these circumstances was metamorphosing the whole attitude toward Zionism from positive to negative.”) Again, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, some of the poets in this anthology still didn’t distance themselves from Soviet diktat. Katz wonders, in a faux-naive vein, why anyone would criticize a poet for leaving Di Linke (i.e., the Communists) at a later rather than a earlier point — that is, for admitting later rather than earlier exactly what Soviet ideology entailed. But isn’t this just the political decision that defined these Communist poets? And if political affiliations mean anything at all, isn’t it because they are at the foundation of actions that we can discuss and (whisper it) even judge after the fact? In avoiding an explicit analysis of the politics of Di Linke, this book tries to de-emphasize what these Communist poets found important about their lives: communism.

From an aesthetic standpoint, it’s reasonable to choose nonpolitical, lyric poetry for a literary anthology. This seems to be the strategy of such works as “A Shpigl Af a Shteyn,” the foremost anthology of Soviet Yiddish literature, and “The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse,” by now a classic collection that this anthology seems determined to supplement, not to say supplant. Unfortunately, though, the lyric in “Proletpen” is often caught between the trivial and the maudlin:

Once she was a beauty

but that was in Sicilia.

Now she is a miner’s wife,

mother of a big famiglia.

In contrast to such unfortunate inclusions, there are shining exceptions that make the volume worth leafing though. The sensitive, assured translations of Amelia Glaser (in contrast to her over-ideological, stilted introductions to the book’s chapters) make the poetry even better than it might otherwise have been. Most successful are the simplest, “least Left” attempts at lyricism (in the same way, the best work of the Soviet Yiddish poets is the least Soviet). Moyshe Nadir writes:

Between life and death, I lie

Like a third

Between man and wife.

I keep them

From coming together

In love.

Both of them groan,

Toss about,

Want to get their hands

Across me.

I lie awake and cold

Between them

And divide them!

Thus the more strident, “leftmost” poems here will be forgotten, while the satirical and lyrical work of Nadir, Menke Katz and Yosl Cutler will be more widely read and studied as a result of this volume.

It’s a pity that this anthology did not make another, stronger argument for reading Di Linke — or, rather, for teaching and studying those few Communist poets whose work is worth reading. These poets were not merely “more left” in an incremental way than their anti-Soviet counterparts, nor were their political allegiances morally neutral; they bound themselves to the Soviet Union. But at the same time (as hard to digest as this contradiction might be), this poetry must be read for a complete understanding of Yiddish literary history. Even those who make grave political mistakes can achieve the occasional aesthetic success.

Yiddish poetry also has its geniuses on the right-wing end of the spectrum of political mistakes: The work of Uri Zvi Greenberg is both hateful and virtuosic. While “Proletpen” does not acquaint the reading public with a genius on the level of Greenberg, among the work it rediscovers is a small number of worthwhile poems by three or four poets who should be more carefully considered as part of the Yiddish canon. It is unfortunate, though, that this volume did not present Di Linke as they were: committed poets and proud Communists, writers whose politics we must recognize even as we read and appreciate the best of their work.

Zackary Sholem Berger is a Yiddish and English poet, and a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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