Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Montreal's Jewish poets

I was genuinely upset to read about Leonard Cohen's financial troubles. The 70-year-old poet is effectively broke, after millions were (allegedly) stolen from him by his own manager of 17 years after he went to live in a Buddhist retreat. Apparently he retreated a little too far and didn't notice the money flowing out of his account. He has now had to remortgage his house and is, understandably, "devestated."
I have a special place in my heart for Leonard Cohen, one of whose poems directly inspired me to major in English Literature. In many ways, he was the embodiment of a very creative, soulful and sexy post-war Montreal, and his spirit was still keenly felt at McGill (where he took the same degree as me) decades after he graduated. Whether you love or hate his music and his voice, his poetry is worth reading, on paper. I hope his troubles end soon.
Cohen was, in fact, one of a triumvirate of Jewish poets from Montreal who achieved national fame, although only Cohen is a household name outside of Canada. The other two were Irving Layton, who I never found very interesting, and AM Klein, who some consider one of the foremost Jewish poets in English of the last century. He was a sad figure who spent long periods in deep depression over the Holocaust, and who attempted suicide in the early 50s for the same reason (he died in his sleep in the '70s). In addition to his poetry, his major work is the brilliant and complex The Second Scroll (1951), an early attempt to grapple with the meaning of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. Its structure deliberately paralleled the five books of the Torah.
By sheer coincidence, I had occasion to think of AM Klein tonight. Watching The Producers, I suddenly remembered that AM Klein had written a long poem in 1944 also -- as I recall? -- mocking Hitler (more subtly), called The Hitleriad. He was a man deeply troubled by what was going on in Europe and this was his genuine attempt to come to grips with events. Unfortunately, it was too soon, and the poem was very badly received (although others say it was just a bad poem...). Who would have thought then a few decades later, a play parodying Hitler would be selling to full houses around the English-speaking world.
Strangely, I can't find the poem on the Internet (I thought you could find everything on the Internet nowdays), and indeed, can find very little about Klein himself online. It's a shame so few know about him today -- one of the few Jewish poets writing in English who's actually worth reading.


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