Saturday, March 03, 2007

Glatshteyn's "Mozart"

Listening to Merle Bachman on Yiddish poetry last week at the Jewish modernism panel in Louisville put me in mind of one my favorite poems by Yankev Glatshteyn. I have only the smallest smattering of Yiddish, and I’ve written about Glatshteyn and his fellow Inzikhists only once, in Not One of the Them In Place, when I compared their work to that of Zukofsky and the Objectivists. Merle’s talk, drawn from her forthcoming book on the Yiddish American poets, was solid literary history, reminding her audience (or informing them for the first time) of the tremendous vitality and diversity of styles to be found among the Yiddish poets of the cafes and tenements below Fourteenth Street during the first half of the twentieth century. Glatshteyn (1896-1971), perhaps the greatest of these poets, emigrated from Poland in 1914. He published his first collection, simply and defiantly titled Yankev Glatshteyn in 1921, and in 1922, with N. B. Minkov and Arn Glantz-Leyeles, produced the astonishing Inzikhist manifesto, which can be found, along with other important documents of the movement, in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s great anthology, American Yiddish Poetry.

All this by way of introduction to Glatshteyn’s “Mozart,” from his 1946 collection Radiant Jews:

I dreamt that the goyim
had crucified Mozart
and buried him
in Potter’s Field.
Only the Jews
revered him as holy
and blessed his memory.

And I have roamed the world
as his apostle
haranguing every man
I chanced to meet.
Whenever I caught a Christian
I converted him
to a Mozartian.

How marvelous this godly man’s
musical testament;
how radiant with song
his nail-pierced hands.
lit the fingers
of the crucified singer.
In deepest despair,
in sadness most bitter,
he loved more than himself
the ear of his neighbor.

How meager a thing, how scant,
compared with Mozart’s testament,
is the Sermon on the Mount.[i]

One hears a good deal of talk these days about transgression in literature, and a lot of it is overinflated or silly. But this is one of the most genuinely transgressive—indeed, profoundly offensive—poems I know. In this poem, Glatshteyn, writing while the Shoah is taking place, literally goes on the offensive in the cultural struggle for Jewish life. As Western (i.e. goyish) civilization descends into barbarism, Glatshteyn claims a pinnacle of that civilization for the Jews, some of whom were being herded to their death while hearing the very music that the poet deifies. Part of the poem’s manifold irony and transgressive force lies in its gentle sadness, especially in the third stanza. The figure of Mozart as Christ attains an uncanny sort of comic pathos rarely found in lyric poetry. It is a pathos and divine beauty that the poet claims is recognized only by the Jews. Just as the Christians claimed that Jesus was killed by his own people, so too Glatshteyn, turning the tables, claims that the Christians have denied and murdered their own godlike son. Thus the notion of Christians being “converted” to Mozartians—and by a Yiddish-speaking Jew!—is truly outrageous.

Of course, the poem is also disturbing for Jewish readers, given that an appreciation for German kultur, including the music of Mozart (along with that of Beethoven—and Wagner!) was regarded by assimilated European Jews as de rigeur for full acceptance into mainstream bourgeois society. The fact that this acceptance never came to pass, the fact that many of these people ended up as “Cloud-Jews” (to borrow the title of another Glatshteyn poem) along with the more devout members of their “race,” is undoubtedly a fact of which Glatshteyn was equally aware. In the end, assimilated European Jewry’s worship of Mozart, however much that faith needed to be spread among good Christians, helped them not at all. And these were the same Jews who tended to turn up their noses at Yiddish and its literature, who regarded the language as mere zhargon.

The remarkable complexity of Glatshteyn’s ironic vision marks him as one of the most important modernist poets. Both American and international in his vision, he remains undervalued and underread. As far as I know, he is included in none of the prominent anthologies of modern American poetry. He and his colleagues remain ghettoized, a predicament about which they were already complaining in the nineteen-twenties, when they were immersed in and responding to modernist literature in a number of different languages. But then, the author of a poem like “Mozart” would fully understand this historical irony too.

[i] from Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn, trans. Richard J. Fein (Jewish Publication Society, 1987). This one of a number of poems in the volume which Fein translated with the help of Henry Weinfield.

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