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The Poetry of A.M. Klein

For the week of Monday June 6, 2011

On June 11, 1949, Abraham Moses Klein won the Governor General’s Award for his volume of poetry The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, published in 1948. Throughout his career Klein chronicled the traditions of Canada’s Jewish population and inspired young artists such as Leonard Cohen to write poetry.

A. M. Klein
© Garcia Studios / Library and Archives Canada / PA-125749

Soon after his birth in 1909, Klein’s family had moved from the Ukraine to one of Montréal’s Jewish neighbourhoods, a setting that would later influence his poetry. He was educated at an English-speaking high school, where he read the works of English poets, and then contrasted their techniques against the Yiddish poetry he read at home. (Yiddish is a Germanic language that is written in the Hebrew alphabet and was spoken mainly in eastern and central Europe).

From 1926 to 1930, he studied classics and political science at McGill University, and began publishing his poetry and prose in Canadian and American journals. At that time, Jewish poetry was typically written in Yiddish, but Klein chose to write in English, making Jewish poetry available to non-Yiddish speaking Canadians for the first time. After graduating from the Université de Montréal in 1933, Klein practiced law until his retirement in 1956, was editor and principal columnist of the weekly Canadian Jewish Chronicle (1938-55), a visiting lecturer in poetry at McGill (1944-48), and a member of the Preview group of Montréal poets, while he continued to publish own his works.

Klein meeting with members of the Canadian Jewish Congress
© Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives

Klein’s verse was often imbued with Jewish images and ideas, particularly in his first volume of poetry, Hath Not a Jew, which was published in 1940. While other poems eloquently described Canadian landmarks such as Montréal’s Mount Royal in “The Mountain”:

In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood —
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass—
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

Klein’s final and finest book of poems, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, is a satirical depiction of the Province of Quebec. In this work, Klein leaves Jewish themes behind and takes an interest in comparing his experience as a Montréal Jew with that of French Canadians. For Klein, they “have many things in common: a minority position; ancient memories.” Klein died in Montréal, on August 20, 1972.

Known as one of Canada’s greatest poets and a leading figure in Jewish-Canadian culture, Abraham Moses Klein was designated a national historic person in 2007.

For more stories about Canadian poets, please visit: The Birth of a Pioneer in Canadian Poetry, A French-Canadian Romantic, Émile Nelligan, a poet with a tragic destiny, Songs of a Sourdough and The "Poet of the Rocky Mountains" is Born in the This Week in History archives.

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