Thursday, March 16, 2017

Words take on sadder and purer tones - Jacob Glatstein and Moishe-Leib Halpern, American poets

I needed to refresh myself in the other great line of Modernist American poets, the ones who did not write in English.  So I poked around in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986), which has substantial selections from Jacob Glatstein, Moishe-Leib Halpern, H. Leivick, and four other interesting but lesser poets.  I was really just looking for Leivick, but the book was too interesting.  The poets – the ones I named – all published their first books circa 1920; they’re all immigrants (from Poland, Galicia, and Russia, respectively); they’re all New Yorkers; they’re all secularists but deeply Jewish, working millennia of traditions, stories, and Hebrew literature into their poems.

Glatstein was the language Modernist, writing poems like “If Joyce Had Written in Yiddish,” not included here because it is all multi-language puns, and hardly translatable.

from “We the Wordproletariat” (1937)

The sky, the blue hazard, went out.
You still sit and seek the shadows of a word
And scrape the mold off meanings.
Words take on sadder and purer tones.

The cursed night has got into your bones.

Soon this would become all too true, and events in Europe worsened Glatstein moved to a more directly expressive language suitable for mourning, anger, and despair:

from “Without Jews” (1946)

Without Jews there will be no Jewish God.
If we go away from the world,
The light will go out in your poor tent…
The last Jewish hour flickers.
Jewish God, soon you are no more.

I would love to read more of this later poem – only Part I is in this anthology:

from “Dostoevksy” (1953)

Dostoevsky put God
on his table
Like a bottle of vodka
And guzzled.
He retched and vomited,
Sobered up
And was drawn again to God
As to the bottle.

Moishe-Leib Halpern had more of a journalistic spirit.  His poems are full of characters, slang, politics, and New York.  Energy.

from “My Restlessness Is of a Wolf” (1919)

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.

The poem just continues as a list, with no resolution.  Any finish, any settled point, would go against his restlessness.

Halpern’s posthumous poems, published in 1934, include a number of poems – rants – addressed to his son.  They are a perfect form for him – conversational, emotional, digressive.

from “My Only Son”

I tell him: Son,
Nowadays even a prince
Has to learn how to do something.
And you – touch wood – you’re already a year-and-a-half
And what will become of you?

The world-weary baby, asked to say the Kaddish for his dead father, says “To hel vit it – dats right.”  In another poem, Halpern worries his son will not have a choice of profession:

from “This I Said to My Only Son at Play – and to Nobody Else”

But it’s not to send you a crate of chocolate
That they register your birthday with precision!
Somewhere a tailorboy – one of the Thirty-Six Just, like you –
Already bends over your soldier’s tunic –
And may his hump accuse him for singing at his work!
Anyway, they are already melting lead for rifles…

Maybe I’ll save H. Leivick for tomorrow.

About a third of Moishe-Leib Halpern’s first book has been translated as In New York: A Selection (1982), which is why I did not think I would revisit him here, but he is so much fun in the later poems.  Halpern is also one of the dual subjects of Ruth Wisse’s Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), a real plunge into the world of these poets, and a great book.  There are a couple of collections of Glatstein in translation, too.  Maybe I will come across one someday.  In the presence of their poems, these seem to be vital American poets, worthy of far more attention than they get, but the Yiddish, their dying language, has kept them in another, minor, category.  They could use new collections.  I doubt they’ll get them.


  1. Wow, those are wonderful bits of poetry! So much wonderful poetry in the world...

  2. The more minor poets in the anthology all have some fine moments, too.