American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Songs of the Diaspora (part two)

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Back in August I was definitely fooling myself, thinking I could write about Yiddish poetry while trying to pack an apartment — and without sustained access to a library. Now I am probably fooling myself again, thinking I can pick up where I left off . It’s tempting, in fact, to say, “the hell with it”; “let it all hang.” This blog was meant to be a record of distraction. When distraction becomes obligation, it’s time to play hooky, right? Hooky from hooky, as it were … or maybe not, since that would mean going back to school.

Anyway, for good reason or bad — or just because — I’ve gone ahead with part two, half a conclusion to my reading of  Alice Stone Blackwell’s Songs of Russia (1906), focusing now on the first of the two Yiddish poets.

Part one is here. Part three to follow.

representing-190Since abandoning these notes in August, I’ve acquired Marc Miller’s Representing the Immigrant Experience (2007), a study of Morris Rosenfeld (I’m still looking for good source material on David Edelstadt). Miller’s book doesn’t mention Blackstone’s anthology, so I don’t feel entirely superseded … but I do feel superseded a little. My one consolation: Miller answers a question dogging me while I wrote part one. “Did Rosenfeld write either of his two poems in Russia?” The answer, I now know, is nyet. His earliest poems date from after his arrival in the U.S. (heretofore, the best I’d been able to ascertain was that his first publications came after his arrival, not quite the same thing).

Rosenfeld was already in his twenties when he left the Russian empire for good, so it’s not surprising that both of his poems, though written in the U.S., retain a Russian perspective, which certainly invites a reader to see them as Old World creations (and nothing in Blackwell’s anthology suggests otherwise). The first, “The Jewish Soldier,” recalls the 1877 Siege of Plevna; the second, “On Ocean’s Bosom,” concerns the flight of Jews across the Atlantic … but with a twist. This twist — reverse emigration — is not revealed until the 20th and 21st stanzas.

The poem divides roughly into three sections. The first (stanzas 1-9) gives the setup: a ship at sea, in terrible danger from storm (1-4); awful noise from the passengers (5-6); inexplicable calm from two men in steerage (7-9). Next comes the speaker’s questioning of the two men (stanzas 10-14). Finally, after a pause in which the setting is again described (stanza 15), the men explain themselves tearfully (16-24): they are Jews, and though they have nothing to look forward to in Russia, save pogroms, they are leaving America; not of their own free will, as with the speaker, but from poverty.

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)There is, perhaps, an autobiographical element in this encounter: Rosenfeld came to America for six months in 1882, returning briefly to Russia before the draft forced him to flee for good. When he made his own reverse voyage, it may well be that he met men like those in the poem. Does it make a difference, then, that he only wrote the poem after reversing his reversal? Only if we take his speaker’s voluntary return to Russia as a sincere preference for the Old World on the part of the poet. A reading of that sort (especially in the context of Songs of Russia ) might well admit an inference of Russian patriotism — an inference turned ironic when we learn more about the poet.

Ironies notwithstanding, the poem is indeed a song of Russia, also of America. And also, emphatically, of the diaspora: a protest against dispersal, international in its address. A reader’s appreciation of all this requires, however, a little context. Blackwell’s sophisticated readers no doubt brought that context to their reading. But as the book and its historical moment receded into memory (and then out of memory, into the archive), this preparation for understanding became less likely. I take my own rough understanding as typical: I get the general idea, but the fine points escape me. I did not know, for example, that the two Jews are not returning to Russia (as I at first presumed) because they find poverty more threatening than the pogroms. Their departure is involuntary for a more concrete reason. As explained by Abraham J. Karp, “The two Jews were turned back by the March 3, 1891, immigration law which barred entry to ‘paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.’” The poem, then, has complexities, but they’re frangible. Our care for them is a direct function of how much we know. Read the rest of this entry »

Songs of the Diaspora (part one)

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How two Yiddish poems about the class struggle in America became songs of Russia.


"Mrs. William B. Owen standing between Miss Alice Stone Blackwell, and Mrs. James Lees Laidlaw," 1915 (Library of Congress)

In her self-published Songs of Russia (1906), Alice Stone Blackwell includes four Yiddish poems, two each by David Edelstadt and Morris Rosenfeld, the latter versified from prose versions by Leo Wiener. The former are also versified, but no individual collaborator is given. Since no dates of composition are given either, it is left to the reader to imagine which of the four, if any, were written before the poets fled Russia — assuming the reader is aware that the poets did flee; there are no biographical notes to prompt curiosity on the point. This was surely purposeful. Blackwell was an officer of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, a group originally organized by Julia Ward Howe (its founding members also included several other old soldiers of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, John Greenleaf Whittier). Her anthology was designed to aid the Society in its work. That is, “to give a glimpse into the thoughts and aspirations of some Russian lovers of freedom, as revealed in their poetry.” I’m inclined, then, to see the presentation of Edelstadt and Rosenfeld as a deliberate obscuring, especially in the case of Edelstadt, in order to emphasize the Russianness of the two American Jews. Yet the very fact that their work was rendered into English — without facing text — only serves to re-Americanize it: an American impersonation of a Russian song, albeit one that performed its Americanness in a very different manner than Edelstadt or Rosenfeld.


Alice Stone Blackwell, sometime between 1905 and 1917 (Library of Congress)

But I don’t mean to be criticizing Blackwell. Her accomplishments are every bit as deserving of celebration as those of the two poets. Born in 1857, she was an editor as well as writer and translator, and also a lifelong political activist, as befits a daughter of Lucy Stone. Her career stretched, amazingly, from the end of Reconstruction to the dawn of the Atomic Age, a longevity beautifully illustrated in the photograph above, which shows her in a plain cloth dress and shawl, looking like a character out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin — an effect heightened by the two women beside her; their silk dresses and fancy hats seem to shine forth from a different century altogether. Not that Blackwell was a relic, not even in her attire: her fashion could be as radical as her politics, witness the second photograph, which shows her in a tweed suit, holding up a copy of the Woman’s Journal, which she edited from 1909 to 1917. And since I’m harping on fashion here, let me also cite one of Blackwell’s last appearances in the press, a New York Times story from 1947: Read the rest of this entry »

A Monster Woe Lies in My Breast

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Since the images are so small in the post below, here’s E. M. Lilien’s strange creature in the web, feeding on the heart of the poor:


And here’s a Rosenfeld poem, as rendered by Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank, chosen, of course, for its leeches: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 6, 2009 at 4:26 pm

The Ghetto through a Spiderweb

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I’ve been taking notes on Yiddish poetry, as time permits, hampered by limited access to a library — the one near at hand is not, alas, rich in relevant materials — but I’ve managed to find a few useful leads online. As well as a few things that are truly incredible. one of which I thought to share right away: Berthold Feiwel’s German translation of Morris Rosenfeld’s poetry, Lieder des Ghetto (Benjamin Harz Verlag, 1902),  which features breathtaking graphic work by E. M. Lilien. Truly, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen, starting with the colophon, which is printed in the shape of a Star of David:

The colophon appears on the verso of the title page, to the left of the following illustration, I guess a combination frontispiece/half title, which shows a drooping, leafless tree twined with barbed wire, holding up a harp with torn stings. An image of despair, though the carved-dove corner of the harp gives an illusion of escape, as it seems to be alighting from the branches, its head poking out from under the gate that reads Songs of the Ghetto:


The book includes a number of other full-page illustrations. I’ll show only a sample. This one opens the section “Lieder der Arbeit” (Songs of Work):


And this one, which makes plainer Lilien’s debts to Jugendstil, opens the section “An der Nähmaschine” (On the Sewing Machine): Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

August 6, 2009 at 2:29 pm