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Katz, Menke


KATZ, MENKE (1906–1991), Yiddish and English poet. Known as Menke (Méyn-keh) in Yiddish literature, he was born in Svintsyan (now Švenčionys, Lithuania) and spent World War i in Micháleshik (Michalishki, Belarus) before immigrating to New York in 1920. He made his poetic debut with "Bowery" in the avant-garde Sparták, coedited by A. *Pomerantz and Russian poet V. Mayakovsky, and joined the leftist writers' group that coalesced into Proletpen, from which he was expelled (1932) for publishing his first book, Dray Shvester ("Three Sisters"), a mystical and erotic poetic drama in four acts. His two-volume World War i epic, Brenendik Shtetl ("Burning Village," 1938) brought a new storm for its longing, lyrical descriptions of shtetl life and its failure to indulge socialist realism. Katz replied with "Der Braver Pakhdn" ("The Brave Coward"), a manifesto for a Yiddish poetry free of the shackles of politics, including the line "I will not lead by poem into battle." His book, S'hot dos Vort mayn Bobe Moyne ("Grandmother Mona Takes the Floor," 1939), is written in the voice of his shtetl grandmother who mercilessly takes on the New York Yiddish literary-political establishment. In 1944, he coedited the literary journal Mir. In midlife he turned to universal themes, particularly in the book Inmitn Tog ("Midday," 1954). Due to political squabbling in the Yiddish literary establishment, he turned to writing English as well, and made his debut with "A Patched Window" (Commentary, Feb. 1956), and soon began to publish in the Atlantic, The New York Times, Midwest Quarterly, Poet Lore, and other English outlets. His first English book, Land of Manna (1965), synthesized motifs from the Lithuanian shtetl and the American metropolis. In English he became known for his opposition to rhyme and his experimentation with novel forms, including the twin narrative chant royal; the unrhymed unrefrained chant royal; and most famously, the "Menke Sonnet," whose increasing or decreasing number of syllables per line forms graphic triangles. Major works in English include Rockrose (1970), Burning Village (1972; not a translation of the 1938 text), A Chair for Elijah (1985), and Nearby Eden (1990). In all, he published 18 books of verse, nine in each language. His "World of Old Abe" won the 1974 Stephen Vincent Benet Award and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Burning Village. He edited the poetry magazine Bitterroot (1962–91), which became known for seeking out unknown talent and inspiring poetic experimentation. His collection of folktales from Micháleshik, Forever and Ever and a Wednesday, appeared in 1980. Translations of his work have appeared in book form in French (1972), Greek (1968), Hebrew (1973), Italian (1972), Japanese (1967), Kannada (1968) and Lithuanian (2006). A compendium of translations in 21 languages of "On the Death of a Day Old Child" appeared in 1973. A near-complete collection of his Yiddish works in English translation by Benjamin and Barbara *Harshav appeared in 2005. He worked as a Yiddish teacher for much of his life. In 1985 he completed a collection of Yiddish folksongs, including many unknown variants from his native Lithuanian villages (unpublished, as is his 1951–2 diary to his brother Yeiske). He is the father of Dovid Katz and Troim Katz Handler.


B.Z. Goldberg, Tog (April 29, 1932); A. Reisen, Feder Zamlbukh (1936); I. Bashevis [Singer], Tsukunft (March 1940); M. Shtarkman, Hemshekh Antologye (1945), 259–68; H. Leivik, Tog (Nov. 14, 1953); Y. Varshavski [I. Bashevis [Singer]], Forverts (Dec. 9, 1956); M. Ravitsh, Mayn Leksikon, 3 (1958), 360–1; J. Glatstein, Tsukunft (Feb. 1963); lnyl, 8 (1981), 110–11; A. Evory and L. Metzger, Contemporary Authors, 11 (1984), 285–8; 110–11; B. Kagan, Leksikon fun Yidish Shraybers (1986), 551–2; M. Zadrozny (ed), Contemporary Authors, 9 (1989), 49–71 (autobiography); D. Katz, Di Goldene Keyt, 132 (1991), 98–123; B. Harshav, Jerusalem Review, 1 (1997), 137–9; H. Smith and D. Katz, Menke: The Complete Yiddish Poems of Menke Katz (2005), v–cxxxv. website: > Menke Katz.

[Dovid Katz (2nd ed.)]

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