Poems by A. M. Klein, 1974
Montreal poet A. M. Klein began writing and publishing poems in his late teens while an undergraduate at McGill University. In his mid-40s Klein contracted a disabling illness that effectively ended his career as a poet. In the course of that career he had published four books of poetry and a large number of occasional poems, scattered in various Canadian and American poetry magazines.
After Klein's death in 1972 a Canadian scholar, Miriam Waddington, gathered together all of his published poetry in a single volume, which appeared in 1974 as Collected Poems. The great value of this compilation is that it presents, as nearly as possible in their order of composition, all of the poems Klein chose to publish in his lifetime, thus affording the reader a privileged insight into his development and evolution as a creative artist.
What strikes the reader first, upon opening Collected Poems, is that so many of the earliest poems are concerned with death. Sometimes the tone is droll or ironic, as in "Epitaph Forensic," a lawyer's amusing recital of what he wants on his tombstone, or "Threnody," a mock lament for the demise of Klein's student literary magazine, The McGilliad. Other times the tone is ominously foreboding, as in the sequence of seven short stanzas herded together under the title "Obituary Notices" or the group of five sonnets entitled "Five Weapons against Death."
Why this early preoccupation with death is not known, but in many of Klein's later poems he returns obsessively to the same theme, often in connection with historic mass murders of Jews, such as the slaughters committed by the Crusaders or the pogroms that occurred in Slavic countries. References to the pogroms are especially frequent, probably because in his youth Klein had heard firsthand accounts of pogroms from his parents and other relatives. It is also possible that his memory was permanently haunted by his personal experience of trauma in his infancy, namely the death of his twin brother when he was one year old. That trauma, Klein knew, was what precipitated his parents' decision to flee the pogrom-prone Ukrainian village of Ratno and settle in Montreal. Whatever the origin, we do know that the theme of death is a persistent leitmotiv in Klein's poetry, and it is not without significance that when Klein turned his attention to the Holocaust, in the late 1940s, he tended to speak of it as "the great death."
Klein's recurrent invocation of the themes of death and destruction, though fundamental to him, are by no means the whole man. A man of many parts, Klein had an engaging sense of humor, even on the subject of death, as in his poem "Invocation to Death," in which young lovers ponder the grotesqueries of old age that await them and conclude, "O let us die before we will be old." He had an evident delight in language and its infinite possibilities for creative expression. Ingenious wordplay is the hallmark of all his many comic and satiric poems, even the angry polemic The Hitleriad (1944), in which he rings joyful changes on Hitler's family name, Schicklgruber, observing that "no poet's nor mob's tongue/Could shake from shekel-shackle-gruber-song!"
Klein seems quite simply to have fallen in love with English, especially the rich expressiveness and elegant diction of the Elizabethan-era writers like Shakespeare, and he made it his own medium, believing that the dignity of poetry required nothing less. The most striking feature of Klein's poetry is that he never wrote a line, regardless of subject matter, that did not meet the requirements of elevation of tone and refinement of language proper to poetic diction. Even on so coarse-grained a subject as his caustic poem "Public Utility," about pimps and prostitutes, he is careful to preserve the propriety of poetic diction throughout.
Finally one may note that Klein was a masterful prosodist, both knowledgeable and skillful in the use of meter and rhyme. A superb example of his mastery is the much admired "Design for Medieval Tapestry," in Hath Not a Jew (1940), in which he expertly adapts Dante's terza rima to his depiction of the inferno-like relationship between medieval Jewry and medieval Christianity.
To peruse Collected Poems is to journey through the mind and spirit of a richly gifted poet, steeped in the traditions to which he was born, imbued with the English and French traditions among which he lived, and determined to develop his expressive powers to their maximum, in order to preserve and honor all the traditions that gave meaning to his own life.