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Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal 11.2 (2006) 158-161

Sweet and Functional
Reviewed by
Dror Abend-David
Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub, editors; Amelia Glaser, translator; Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets, (The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005)

Horace's reference to poetry in his Ars Poetica (18 BCE) as "dulce et utile [sweet and functional]" pulls together the two fractions of what remains an eternal debate about the function of art in general and poetry in particular: Should poetry be written in the service of ethical, social and political ideals? Or should it be written and evaluated only according to an aesthetic and/or "literary" criteria? On the one hand, this timeless debate seems essential to the representation of American Left-Wing Yiddish Poets of the 1920s and '30s in the collection, Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets. The selection of poets in this collection; the division of poems into chapters of contrasting themes such as "Urban Landscape" vs. "Encounters with the Elements," "United in Struggle" vs. "Matters of the Heart" and "The Poet on Poetry" vs. "Wars to End All Wars;" and the fascinating introduction by Dovid Katz that both contextualizes and gives unique information about the poets in this collection; all place the tension between the political and the aesthetic function of poetry as central to the debate among left-wing (or rather, far-left wing) poets in writers' unions such as the "Young Workers Writers Union," "Union Square" and "Proletpen." On the other hand, the very same features of this collection serve to demonstrate that the dulce vs. utile debate might have had very little to do with the political divisions among New York Yiddish poets in the first half of the twentieth century. The poets in this collection, who were [End Page 158] often neglected and dismissed as "party-line poets," poets who care more for the "message" of their poetry then for its literary merit, are shown to have written love poems, poems of nature, personal poems and poetry that is often taken out of bounds of political interests, sometime in direct opposition to "official" guidelines. The introduction to the collection is written by Dovid Katz, one of the great authorities on Yiddish literature, who has a personal stake in retelling the stories of the poets in this collection. Among these poets is Katz's father, Menke Katz, a poet who struggled and succeeded in achieving complete artistic freedom within the Proletpen organization. In fact, as Katz writes, these "left-wing" poets were "much the same as all the other [poets]… American Yiddish leftist writers walked, loved, worked, and did all the other things that other writers did" (p. 14).

And yet, under the guise of literary criteria, and under the pressures of cold war politics and McCarthyism, these poets were ostracized in the 1940s and '50s, never translated into English, and referred to, if at all, as "bad writers" whose poetry has been corrupted by ideological zeal. But the poetry in Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets is perhaps closest to the ancient ideal of "dulce et utile," incorporating both a sharp critical social outlook and a personal touch that covers the entire spectrum of human feelings from a celebration of life in the chapter, "Encounters with the Elements," to "decadent" suicide poems in the last chapter of the collection, "Matters of Life and Death." In a touching and silent gesture, Menke Katz's poem, "To a Butterfly," is translated on page 209 with particular attention to form: The poem, a double-sonnet, is made up of lines of varying length: first short, then long, and then short again. As a result, the poem has the shape of a wing. And when the poem is mirrored by its translation on the next page, the shape of a butterfly flutters off the leaf. Metaphorically, this collection is releasing poetic butterflies which, for a period of over fifty years, have been dismissed as literary caterpillars unworthy of attention.

The collection itself can also be described as "dulce et utile." It is...