Mr. Klein's poems are academic, semi-religious.
These are not Psalms
by A. M. Klein.
Philadelphia, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1944. 82 pp. $2.00.
Mr. Klein’s poems are academic, semi-religious verse about (1) representative experiences of the moderately religious life and (2) the persecution of the Jews during the present quantitatively unique intensification of the Diaspora. Let me consider them first as poetry; second, as religious poetry; third, as responses to, expressions of, the Third Reich’s systematic liquidation of the Jews of Europe.
In the first place, pieces like these are not poetry but verse; even a glance at their language is enough to bring this home to the reader. The language has none of the exact immediacy, the particular reality of the language of a successful poem; it has instead the voluntary repetition of the typical mannerisms of poetry in general—mannerisms that become a generalized, lifeless, and magical ritual without the spirit of which they were once the peculiar expression. Mr. Klein uses forms and metres, epithets and rhetoric, with the innocent freedom of the born writer of verse—who is always, willing or unwilling, at ease in Zion. If he were to make himself into a poet he would be appalled to see everything suddenly difficult beyond hope, to find himself without even the illusion of freedom.
Mr. Klein uses a form, writes about a subject, simply because he wants to; but this, for a poet, is as impossible as it is for you to love your enemies, to dream virtuous dreams, or to have “lots of will-power” simply because you want to. The general lack of freedom of the poet is grotesquely intensified in the specific lack of freedom of the poem—in which each part is determined not only by the demands of the incomplete tentative mass of the already existing parts, but by the overriding demands of the obscurely divined, problematic, and unique whole. These demands are grounded in the demands of the subject itself. Mr. Klein, in writing about the mass slaughters of Jewish populations, has retained so much freedom that he can regularly use little jokes or satirical remarks, in the style of the light verse that is perhaps most congenial to him, in order to make the slaughterers ludicrous in our eyes; the poet who could treat this subject would be so possessed and dominated by it that such thoughts would not even occur for him to reject.
Thus one can say of Mr. Klein’s verse that some of the jokes are possible, some of the rhetoric is effective, some of the emotion is felt—but all these works are useless without Grace. This is a typical enough quotation, about an adulterous generation that not only seeks but provides itself with signs:
Sir Aries Virgo, astrology-professor,
Regards the stars, and prophesies five truces.
Herr Otto Shprinzen, of the same guild, a
From the same stars the contrary deduces.
. . . Ides is foretold, and doomsday, and
January greets the unseen with a seer.
Augurs prognosticate, from signs and won-
Many a cradle, yea, and many a bier.
Here are rhymes and metre and images and allusions and jokes and rhetoric, as thick as suet in plum-pudding. The rhymes are mechanical, those of a reasonably perfunctory writer of light verse; the metre is, paradoxically, at once sloppy and banging; most of the metaphors are dead, most of the jokes are embarrassingly obvious; and the most hopeful effect, the parody of Browning’s “greet the unseen with a cheer” is ineffective because Browning’s phrase has so much more rhetorical shock than Mr. Klein’s. (Greeting the unseen with a cheer—a pathological response—is incomparably odder than greeting it with a seer, a normal procedure among the majority of mankind; Browning’s phrase reads like a parody of Mr. Klein’s.) In the approximate, stagey air of such verse everything seems manufactured, nothing born; and Mr. Klein’s serious poems, though full of feeling, blunder to us from the same industrial, confused, perpetually smoky realm of being. Contrast with Mr. Klein’s verse this passage without rhymes, metre, allusions, or “poetic” effects—a real poetry on which it would be difficult to base any verse:
. . . How he follow’d with them and tack’d
with them and would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d
when boated from the side of their pre-
How the silent old-faced infants and the
lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d un-
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it
well, it becomes mine,
I was the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
The exactness of epithet is only a little less notable than the wonderful evocative rightness of movement; the change from the slow, nightmarishly fixed rocking of the swells into the rush of the poet’s enveloping, intent acceptance of, merging with, this edged fragment of his universe. And notice how seriously he produces its exact reality, how seen and felt each atom of it is. We learn from Mr. Klein’s passage much about the devices of verse, from Whitman’s much about the nature of poetry.
It was a mistake to call most of these poems psalms, and to number them as psalms, since this device keeps too sharply before us those real Psalms which Mr. Klein’s resemble only externally. He has borrowed a little of their letter; but their whole spirit—the terrible immediacy, reality, seriousness, and personalness that make them read like some extraordinarily sublimated case history of the religious life—is alien to Mr. Klein, a pleasant, “well-adjusted,” civilized man, as unconsciously secular as he is consciously religious. He often seems less to represent a religious culture than to reproduce it, with something of the outsider’s conscious, objective, relishing appreciation of the picturesque: the events of life are given form by religion, but are not themselves religious in content. (Compare the saint who, asked what he would do if he had only an hour to live, replied that he would go on with his game of chess, since it was as much worship as anything else he had ever done.) In Mr. Klein’s conscious mind there are no “doubts”—the religious triumphs over the secular with almost unseeing ease; he asks, in one of his best passages:
O Lord, in this my thirtieth year
What clever answer shall I bear
To those slick persons amongst whom
I sat, but was not in their room?
He answers, turning Milton upside-down, that the Lord will justify his ways to them. Yet in another poem he proposes to break into heaven, “seek out the abominable scales on which the heavenly justice is mis-weighed,” and “leave those scales gloriously broken, that ever thereafter justice shall be done.” That a religious poet should say it and not even notice that he has said it, not even attempt to mediate between it and the absolutely contradictory sayings that form the substance of his work, is more than extraordinary. When the world judges those leagued against it, the soul and its God, and the soul obliviously consents to that judgment as its own, who can fail to see the significance of so Freudian an error? In a real psalm this judgment against His justice would be recognized as suffering, only to be condemned, cancelled out, and sublimated into an acceptance incapable of any judgment; the structure of such religious poems has its ground in the structure of such religious experiences—in their irrational, almost physiological dialectic of suffering, with its opposites struggling into a final reconciled, accepting ecstasy.
But this guaranteeing particularity, personalness, is what Mr. Klein’s work always lacks; everything he writes about seems bookish, unimmediate, not at all out of his own personal experience. He writes about tortures, mass executions, concentration camps, the cattle cars in which men die standing in quicklime, so that the first thing one thinks is, “He was never there, either in the flesh or in the spirit.” One picture or one quoted speech tells more about them than everything in his poems; his knowledge is a knowledge he possesses like any other, but is not possessed by. Mr. Klein—speaking, rather extraordinarily, through the mouth of the Emperor Solomon, surrounded by SS men—predicts that his oppressors will perish:
Tomorrow no bright sun may rise to throw
Rays of inductive reason on Judaeophobic
How reasonable and inductive a conclusion! A Pangloss come to judgment! Contrast with this the Psalm beginning “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”—and ending, as people so often forget: “O daughter of Babylon who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” This appalling ferocity is the other side of the passive longing sadness that people remember; both are so, the poet has hidden neither. Can anyone imagine the writer of this Psalm making fun of his oppressors as ludicrous lunatics and scoundrels? We permit the peasant of the Middle Ages to present Herod as a comic bogeyman; but such an attitude, besides being historically jejune, is fantastically inappropriate to those whose crimes make Herod’s real or imagined ones seem mere personal failings. Maidanek, Birkenau, Dachau—all those names that are more terrible for the living than any others will ever be—stand for the most forbidding, inexorable, and compulsive subject of our century. Mr. Klein, understandably and even laudably, has been drawn to a type of writing and a subject that are not only uncongenial to but completely beyond the scope of his gentler talents. But which of us, swallowed up in the sackcloth of the prophet, can by his own doing give more than a few brave and wooden squeaks?
If the reader wishes to see and to feel what happened at Maidanek or in the Warsaw ghetto, he should read the twenty-ninth and thirtieth chapters of Jan Karski’s Story of a Secret State. Mr. Karski (if I may judge from the rest of his book) is a man without any literary talents, worth mentioning; but in these chapters what he saw and heard and felt has made for itself an expression independent of either Mr. Karski or his readers—an expression that will force from the dullest or most heartless reader a helpless I was the man, I suffered, I was there. When one reads the terrible words of the Zionist leader and the head of the Jewish Socialist Alliance—spoken in the darkness of a ruined house at the edge of the Warsaw ghetto—one realizes that there have been men living in our time who were not the epigoni but the true heirs of the men who wrote the Psalms.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Poems, by A. M. Klein
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?