Page 175 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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KATHRYN HELLERSTEIN
Double-Bind of Desire:
a Centennial Appreciation
of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern
O
n e
h u n d r e d
y e a r s
after his birth, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern still
speaks to the reader of Yiddish poetry, and, through translation,
to the English reader, as a daring, passionate, witty, ironic, some­
times shocking poet. His poems sound new to the current reader
in a different way than they did to Halpern’s contemporaries, for
their shock value and power lie not so much in their bold combi­
nation of uncensored vulgarity and lyricism, as in their clear re­
cording of images and sensations of life in the Yiddish language
in the first decades of this century. Their strength lies in the
unpredictable nature of Halpern’s imagination and voice.
Throughout Halpern’s poetry, we find a tendency to redefine
many of the accepted forms and ideas about poetry, according to
which the previous generation of writers had composed. These
ideas of the Labor poets, such as Morris Rosenfeld and Dovid
Edelshtat, made poetry the implement for popularizing and ex­
emp lify ing political ideologies. H a lpern jo in ed his con ­
temporaries,
di Yunge
(the Young Upstarts), in a reaction against
such pragmatism in poetry, but he restrained his work from the
other extreme of pure aestheticism, to which Mani Leyb and
Zishe Landau went. On the one hand, Halpern’s poetry main­
tains a dual obligation to the survival of a kind of culturally and
linguistically defined Jewishness, and, on the other, to the strict
limitations of “art for art’s sake.” This dual obligation requires
Halpern to balance ideology against technique, resulting in a
kind of skeptical irony about the hopes inherent in an ideology
and in a self-consciousness about poetic form. The ironic
embracing of ideals and the self-conscious form of the poem pro­
duce as one of Halpern’s central themes a powerful ambivalence
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