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NOREEN GOLFMAN Semantics and Semitics: The Early Poetry of A.M. Klein In 1934, in an essay written for the Judean, Abraham Moses Klein included the following paragraph to illustrate the special relationship that exists between the Jew and his God: Estranged everywhere, an alien and a foreigner, theJew has felt himselfbut kin to deity. His familiarity is both a compliment and a satire. Prays a Jew: God, in their business you help perfect strangers, why not help me? It was probably the same tradesman, who, taking foUl' weeks to mend a pair of trousers, was reprimanded by his customer in the following language: 'Why take so longwith so simple a job: God made the world in seven days and you take a month to make a seam.' 'Ah,' replied the tailor, 'look at the world, and look at these pants.''l The joke of the tradesman and his customer points to two common features of what Klein would call the 'Jewish mentality': a familiarity with God that both frustrates and comforts the worshipper and an almost obsessive interest in the subject of creation. So it is that one recognizes in the work of A.M. Klein a continued preoccupation with man's relationship to God in a world increasingly burdened by religious and cultural assimilation, as well as a profound interest in the topic of creation. David Lewis, Klein's life-long friend, recalls that in 1925, while they were walking home from Baron Byng High School, Klein removed from his shirtpocket a folded sheet of paper on which was written a poem in celebration of the approaching Jewish New Year.2 Thus, at sixteen years old, Klein first announced his intention to be a poet. In 1925 this young Montreal boy was already familiar with the intricate requirements of Talmudic exegesis, with several ofthe magicalinterpretations ofthe Torah that form the basis ofKabbalistic literature, and was in fact being groomed for rabbinical life. Klein seemed to possess the kind of sensibility which absorbed, rather than rejected, the various influences of his early life into a comfortable working aesthetic. Moreover, itis not thatKlein ever turned his back completely on his religious inheritance; his interests, his work, his major preoccupations were shaped by such a legacy and almost all of the written work in the Klein canon indicates what Frye once termed 'an elaborate Rabbinical apparatus.'3 UNIVERSI1Y OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 5t, NUMBER 2, WINTER 198112 176 NOREEN GOLFMAN The direction of Klein's professional and private interests can be gleaned from the collection of his papers currently held by Public Archives Canada, a collection that spans thirty-five volumes of material. The portrait of a poet is fleshed out when it is realized how intensely ordered, perhaps even fastidious, was the way in which Klein pursued his interests. One thing seems certain: Klein was addicted to words. One folder, for example, contains unfinished crossword puzzles and Bible quizzes clipped from magazines; and everywhere there are vocabulary lists - private lex;cons in Hebrew, Yiddish, Old English, contemporary idioms, French phrases - collected words destined to find their way into some future poem or essay. Klein seemed to be addicted to language in some way that corresponded with his religious training, demonstrating working habits remarkably similar to Joyce's. Such an attraction to the magical qualities of nouns would have evolved quite naturally out of Klein's familiarity with Midrash, the explication and interpretation of the words of Holy Writ; with Talmudic scholarship, which rests on the collective belief that 'By the word of the Lord were the heavens made' (Ps 33:6); and with Kabbala, the mystical tradition that acknowledges language as the prescription for creation. I The period of his life between 1925 and '935 was an exceptionally active time for Klein. During these years he wrote most of the poems that first came to public attention in '940 with the publication ofhis first volume of poetry, Hath Not A Jew ..., and, as well, he was writing a kind of private poetry, private because much ofit was an experimental testing of his own creative abilities and because it still remains unavailable to the reading public.4 That Klein considered these...


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