The Yiddish Sonnet and the Art of Compromise

Last week for our poetry group meeting I departed from my initial idea that I would relax and dial the expectations down, and we could all just read a poem or two together. We were scheduled to read Mani Leyb. I just had to pick out a couple of poems in advance I thought we would enjoy and be able to handle. Instead, I ended up giving a lecture on sonnets.

First, I wanted to read a well-known sonnet in English: Yet Do I Marvel, by Countee Cullen, important member of the 1920s literary movement, the Harlem Renaissance.

Yet Do I Marvel

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

I liked this as a comparison poem for two reasons. First, in class we’ve been reading Sholem Aleichem’s story Chava. That story takes place after Tevye has already suffered through the matches of three older daughters. It begins with (roughly) these opening words:

Hodu l’Adonai Ki Tov. The way God runs the world, that way is good. Which is to say, it has to be good. Why don’t you test it, go ahead and be a wise man and do it better…”

Though Cullen is being grandiloquent and Sholem Aleichem (via the voice of his character, Tevye) is being folksy, they are stating more or less the same idea, in more or less the same way. “God, we must believe, is good, and therefore all the suffering in the world must somehow make sense in some way we are not smart enough to understand. Nevertheless, let me tell you about my particular case which, you see, is tough, even for God.”

Second, I think that some of the aims of Harlem Renaissance poets, and the challenges they faced, were similar to those of the Yiddish poets in that same city the decade before, who called themselves Di Yunge (The Young Ones). One possible stance of an artist from a lower-status minority group is to take on the values of the high culture of their ‘hosts’ head on and say, “Look, we can write in your high classical forms as well as you can.” Jews writing in Yiddish at that time were still transforming the language of the common people into a literary language. Just before WWI, the Di Yunge group, to which Mani Leyb belonged, drew a contrast between themselves and the sweatshop poets. They would not limit themselves to writing about social justice and the Jews, but took it upon themselves to make beautiful poems about anything they felt like. Nevertheless, their speech having being long despised as ‘jargon’, simply making it sound beautiful was a political act.

Black poets too, differed among themselves in how rough or refined the voice in their poems was to be, about how crafted and traditional or free the form, and about how overtly political their work must be. In that regard it’s also worth reading (though we didn’t have time) this poem by Claude McKay, called “If We Must Die” This poem is also skillfully crafted in traditional sonnet form, but much angrier in voice and more radical in intent. It’s easy to see why McKay became less of a household name among white people than Langston Hughes did. Particularly in the 30s and 40s, there were a number of active communist Yiddish poets in New York who were written out of the cannon after that political stance became anathema.

It’s funny, you get all ready to tell the story you want to tell, and then look up the details, and it’s not always as neat as that. Although in the nineteen-teens as a member of Di Yunge, Mani Leyb did write beautiful, lyrical poetry with fixed meters and rhyme schemes, the sonnets he was best known for were written much later, after WWII, towards the end of his life, and a generation after the Harlem Renaissance.

While I pondered this, I was skimming through a book I just got and saw an interesting note. It was the caption to a picture of a woman, Fradel Shtok, whose poems I didn’t know. In the caption, she is credited with being the first person to write sonnets in Yiddish. Upon further research, it turns out that this was not, in fact true. Nevertheless, she did write accomplished sonnets in Yiddish, one of which you can find in English in a translation by Kathryn Hellerstein here.

Shtok was associated with Di Yunge, and published in their journals. Sadly, she never published her poems in book form— her only book was a collection of short stories. She was, however, widely anthologized. It was from the bio in one of those anthologies, Bassin’s 500 Years of Yiddish Poetry, that people got the idea that she was the first Yiddish sonneteer.

In any event, her poems were personal, daring in their subject matter, and well crafted. In the poem above, from approximately 1910, a scorned lover compares the man she’d wanted to Saint John the Baptist, casting herself, the speaker of the poem, as analogous to Salomé. Whether she drew that theme from the Christian Bible or from Oscar Wilde, she was clearly pushing beyond the limits that Yiddish poetry had drawn for itself up to that time. It was also notable for being one of a group of thematically linked poems, all in sonnet form. This was an ambitious undertaking for a young poet (she was 22 when it was published), and successfully so. Her work was praised widely in her time.

After talking about all that, and a quick overview of the Italian vs. English sonnet forms, we only had time to read and discuss one of Mani Leyb’s sonnets in detail. I picked this one, titled, “To Whom?.”

Screen Shot Tsu Vemen

(click for full size. Sorry, Yiddish word processing is still giving me fits, so rather than insert the text, I took a picture of it)

Here’s a rough paraphrase of the first stanza:

“We have long awaited your coming with prayers,
a quiet congregation of Jews with pious beards–
oh, redeemer, good redeemer on your white horse!
and our waiting wasn’t long enough. We’ve all been killed,…”

In the last couplet the speaker of the poem describes himself not as a survivor, but as “a memory– to remind and shame” and asks the redeemer, “To whom will you come?” D pointed out that the poem does not say, “They have all been killed,” but “we.” The speaker of the poem is not waiting to be redeemed, but exists now only as an idea, as a trace. This idea of a non-survivor survivor is powerful, and was the more so as we read it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the newspapers are full of Auschwitz. The poets after the war knew that their culture had been killed, that the present and future generations of their readers had been killed.

I wonder to what extent the theme, that the time for redemption had passed, reflects Leyb’s own situation, as he approached the end of his life. Many poems contain, consciously or not, a layer parallel to their subject matter about the act of making meaning through writing itself. Without being so grandiose as to think themselves Messiahs, poets like to think there is something redemptive about their work. But without anyone to whom one can witness, a witness is not even a witness.

None of that gives anything more than the basic subject matter. I wish I could read the poem out loud to you. I wish I could read it to my own satisfaction, for that matter, but after practicing a few times, I’m almost there. Poems in general should be heard out loud. But a poem like this in particular was not built around a rich pattern of end rhymes and alliteration as an empty display of virtuosity. It needs to be sounded out loud to have its full emotional impact.

For this reason it sometimes seems that the best translation for a sonnet should have as many of the formal features of a sonnet as possible, without doing violence to the meaning. That’s why I described what I wrote above as “a rough paraphrase,” rather than as “a translation,” of the first stanza. Nevertheless, a translation  of a different Mani Leyb sonnet by John Hollander dissatisfies me precisely because, in writing an English sonnet, Hollander gets the sound better, but both adds to and misses too much of the meaning of the Yiddish. Getting the sound and sense both right turns out to be more or less impossible, but every attempt teaches something. Go ahead and be a khokhm and try to do it better.

It seems that making literature accessible is always a compromising act. We are reading a slightly abridged and simplified version of Sholem Aleichem’s Chava together in class. Of course, abridgements by definition leave something out. The success of such an endeavor is a matter of degree, of the intelligence of the redactor, and of how many people will be able to gain access to the abridged text who otherwise might have given up. I’m enjoying the version we’re reading. However, I note with interest that instead of beginning the story the way I translated it above “Hodu l’Adonai Ki Tov. The way God runs the world, that way is good. Which is to say, it has to be good…” our abridged version leaves the quotation off. Instead, it begins simply, “The way God runs the world, that way is good.”

I’m not complaining. We’re working about at our capacity as it is, and I wouldn’t have known the difference if I hadn’t looked up the original story in order to write this blog post. It changes the flavor of that opening, though, doesn’t it? It says something about Tevye’s character, to lead with a scripture quote, and a basic one that is repeated in the prayer book, and so, known to all Jews. Then he turns the quote so that it is meant ironically.

I’ve been reading about my Zeyde’s role in the controversies over religious content in the secular Yiddish schools. In the curriculum debates, one of the arguments that the anti-religion faction made in trying to exclude the study of Chumash (the Torah in any form other than the original scroll) in the schools was something like this: “We already give our children the most important Torah stories because they are referred to so often in Yiddish literature.” But here, editors of Yiddish literature are taking out the Torah content to make the story more accessible. I have no doubt that many translations do the same thing. On the other hand, the secularists who criticized him for putting too much religious content in the curriculum were nothing compared to the fury of the Orthodox when he published an abridged Chumesh for children. How dare he leave anything out?

It is interesting, too, because an article was just published in the Forverts last month arguing that Sholem Aleichem reveals important things about his character through the use of Tevye’s frequent religious quotations. We can analyze, says the article, whether the quotes were commonly known basic quotations or religious quotes that only scholars might know, note how often Tevye’s interpretation matches the original intent and use of the words, and finally, when it deviates from that, decide whether we think Tevye is doing it playfully or whether he is making a mistake. Taken together this can tell us whether the author is condescending or sympathetic to his character who is, after all, a man from the sticks, with little formal education. But the religious quotations, in Hebrew, are systematically stripped out of our abridged version, as likely to slow the beginning reader down.

Just as with the sonnets, there’s nothing like the original, if you can get at it. Which, gives us talmidim another reason to keep aspiring to more.

Picture and bio of Fradel Shtok, from Bassin's "Anthologie Finf Hundert Yor Yiddishe Poesiye

Picture and bio of Fradel Shtok, from Bassin’s “Anthologie Finf Hundert Yor Yiddishe Poesiye”

4 thoughts on “The Yiddish Sonnet and the Art of Compromise

  1. Yes, there’s an awful lot in this one. But it can be taken a bit at a time, and I’m sure there will be lean weeks later for catch-up, if you’re determined. Or pick the part you like, and just enjoy that. Thanks, as always, for reading.


  2. Pingback: Oykh a Fish | Tongue's Memory

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