A Great Knowledge of Hebrew Tradition

Solomon J. Spiro, Tapestry for Designs: Judaic Allusions in The Second Scroll and The Collected Poems of A.M. Klein. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984.

Tapestry for Designs is essentially a collection of notes and mini-articles explicating Judaic allusions in A.M. Klein's Collected Poems and The Second Scroll.   It explains foreign terms (Hebrew and Yiddish, Aramaic and Latin), traces classical Jewish literary allusions (mainly from the Bible and Talmud), and provides necessary background information on historical and cultural matters.  Occasionally — and rather inconsistently — the scope of the commentary is broadened to include remarks on non-Judaic points as well.

     The author, Solomon Spiro, seems ideally suited to the task he has undertaken.  As a rabbi (with an Orthodox congregation in a suburb of Montreal), he is well-versed in Judaica.  His interest in Klein dates back at least to 1971, when he completed an "exegesis" of The Second Scroll for his M.A. at Concordia (Sir George Williams) University.

     On the whole, there are many good things in Rabbi Spiro's book.  Certainly, students of Klein's poetry, and especially those without any great knowledge of Judaica, will discover many useful items of information in it.  For the moment, it is the only reference work of its type on Klein. As for its shortcomings, Tapestry for Designs has already been so thoroughly picked apart by Mark Finkelstein in the recent Klein number of the Journal of Canadian Studies (Summer 1984) that it seems unnecessary to add to the list of his complaints.  What is most unfortunate is that Spiro was so limited in his aims.  By focussing almost exclusively on Judaic allusions he usually left the most important things unsaid.   And by relying on the Waddington edition of Klein's poems while overlooking the Klein papers at the Public Archives of Canada, he not only ignored a large body of unpublished poetry but also ended up working with faulty versions of many poems.  It is a pity that the publisher did not have the good sense to hold out for something more ambitious — a far-ranging commentary on all of Klein's poetry, written from multiple points of view, and probably requiring several contributors in addition to Spiro.

     The very need to annotate Klein's Judaic allusions, as Spiro has done, points to some interesting questions.  When Klein's first book of poems, Hath Not a Jew . . ., appeared in 1940, an American Yiddish critic, Shmuel Niger, wrote to him:  "Won't your English readers need a Yiddish and Hebrew dictionary, just as I need an English one?  Even more — for me the dictionary is sufficient; I doubt if it would be enough for them. . . .  In order to really penetrate most of your poetry, it isn't enough to have the explanation of a particular word or name; it is necessary to have lived in the atmosphere which nurtures your outlook and gives it life.  Here no dictionaries will help.  One needs to have breathed the air of learning Gemara, of Chassidism, of Jewish folklore. . . ."   In his lengthy response, Klein remarked:  "You are right when you say my book presupposes on the part of the reader a great knowledge of Hebrew tradition.   Apart from being written because I wished to write it, the book is addressed precisely to those who have that knowledge or those who may acquire it."

     Early in his writing career, in the 1920s and '30s, Klein could have assumed that a fair number of Jewish readers in Canada and the United States had sufficient if not great knowledge of the sort needed to read his poems.  It was not a bookish knowledge that was required, but rather something that came with growing up in a traditional Jewish milieu, hearing and speaking Yiddish, and being among Jews who in one way or another still retained at least the memory of a full-bodied culture.  One "breathed the air."  In his own lifetime, Klein witnessed a sharp decline in the number of Jewish readers who could respond to his poetry out of such a background.  At the same time, he began to notice an interest in his Jewish poetry among a small number of non-Jewish readers.  Here was something esoteric and quaint; it required erudite commentary; and pedant that he was, he found he actually enjoyed explaining his allusions to anyone interested.

     Klein wrote the first footnotes to his own works in a letter to A.J.M. Smith in 1943, explaining some of the Jewish terms in poems that Smith had selected for the Book of Canadian Poetry.  Just after The Second Scroll was published in 1951, he provided an elaborate commentary in letters to Smith and Leon Edel and in conversations with friends.  In public readings that he gave in the early '50s,he introduced his poems with brief explanations, paying special attention to Jewish expressions.  (Some examples can be heard in a recording of a reading Klein gave at McGill in 1955, and others can be reconstituted from note cards that were found among his papers.  Spiro does not seem to have been aware of these items.)

     What is most interesting, however, is that throughout his life, Klein knew better than to publish explanations of the Judaica in his poems.  Perhaps it was his realization that just as a poem loses something vital in translation, so too does it lose something in having to be annotated.  As he admitted to Niger, his Jewish poems presuppose some knowledge on the part of the reader.  Of course, many of them can be appreciated on various levels without that prior knowledge.  But then what is lost, for one thing, is a certain pleasure of recognition, bordering often on sheer amusement, at seeing familiar elements of Jewish culture in English guise.  There may even be an element of flattery towards the knowledgeable reader who has caught the allusion, whose knowledge has been confirmed.   Explaining Klein's Jewish poetry to someone who does not understand it is, unfortunately, somewhat deflating, like explaining a joke.

     Hence the inert, mechanical quality of a commentary such as Spiro's.  One comes away from it with a fine sense of the commentator's erudition, but with a rather limited sense of what makes any given poem come alive.  For the most part, Klein's art begins where Spiro's commentary leaves off.

Usher Caplan