Page 29 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 46

Basic HTML Version

2 1
in Montreal was in a state of ferment. A young generation of
writers, centered in McGill University, Klein’s
alma mater,
begun, in their little magazines, to assert the entry of modernist
voices into the musty halls of Victorian gentility and traditional
poetics which still dominated Canadian literary values. Klein’s
friends — fellow poets and editors, such as A. J. M. Smith,
F. R. Scott, Leo Kennedy, Leon Edel, Irving Layton and Ralph
Gustafson — were among the earliest voices to draw attention
to his work in their essays, reviews, and anthologies of new
Canadian poetry. Their praise was fulsome but so was their
perception that Klein was a special case. For here was a con­
temporary urban poet whose voice evoked an ancient world
in a diction laden with antique words and phrases, whose sen­
sibility reflected an attachment to the pre-modern culture of
East European custom and folkway so strongly that it appeared
to displace the tangible scenes of his actual environment.
From the beginning two distinctive qualities in Klein’s writing
aroused critical excitement: the brilliant verbal dexterity and
the all-pervasive Judaic universe which served as both the source
and subject of his imaginative life. Together, these elements
set Klein apart from his fellow-writers. While he shared with
them the modern temper’s intellectual scepticism and ironic at­
titude to knowledge and authority, he remained stubbornly pre­
modern in his demands that poetic expression convey a reality
beyond the range of the vernacular and, at the same time, con­
tend with the condition of being Jewish in the modern world.
For unlike the typical stance of North American Jewish poets
of the pre-war period who rarely addressed the question of
ethnic or cultural particularity — e.g. Delmore Schwartz, Karl
Shapiro, Muriel Rukeyser — he sought to transmute the dense
timeless/historical world of Judaic idiom and belief into the very
substance of his work. This was the challenge he set for himself
and to which he remained loyal throughout his life. He was
(and to my mind, remains) the only poet to bring the full range
of traditional Jewish learning and practices to the secular mode
of modern poetry, thus earning from Ludwig Lewisohn the
commendation as “the first contributor of authentic Jewish po-