A.M. (Abraham Moses) Klein (1909-1972) was one of Canada’s major poets and a leading figure in Canadian Jewish culture. Today, his work is often anthologized and still studied in classrooms across the country, especially poems from The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, published by Ryerson Press in 1948.
Raised in Montreal by working-class Jewish parents, Klein attended McGill University, where he studied classics and political science. As an undergraduate student (from 1926 to 1930), he began to publish poetry and prose in Canadian and American journals. He also became an active member of Young Judaea, a Zionist youth organization. Klein went on to practice law after graduating from Université de Montréal in 1933. He edited the Canadian Jewish Chronicle from 1938 to 1955, was a visiting lecturer in poetry at McGill from 1944 to 1948, and was involved with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the New Democratic Party). In the 1950s, he began suffering from a mental breakdown, which led to his withdrawal from public life and the end of his literary career.
As a member of the Montreal Group (a group of modernist poets influenced by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound), Klein broke with the tradition of romantic nature poetry popular among Canadian poets and infused his work with Jewish imagery and cultural experiences. The verse in Hath Not a Jew … (1940), Poems (1944), and The Hitleriad (1944) explore the persecution of Jews by the Russians and the Nazis. In Klein’s only novel, The Second Scroll (1951), the protagonist is sent on a symbolic modern-day quest for a Messiah who would lead the Jews to the Promised Land.
In The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, his final volume of verse, Klein deviates from his usual focus on Jewish cultural experiences. Here, in poems that draw on his experience as a Montrealer, Klein examines Québécois life, especially after the extreme changes brought on by the industrialization of the province. The poems reflect his understanding of French-Canadian culture and community, the latter a theme that can be traced throughout his writing.
The poems in The Rocking Chair respond to persons, places, and things, in particular French-Canadian people and culture. Klein’s own minority status as a Jewish Anglophone gave him a deep understanding of the unique position of les Canadiens and their struggle to preserve their culture, language, and religion. At the same time, a number of poems address the limitations of Québécois society. The titular poem, for example, reflects on Quebec’s “movement without progress” and a clinging to the past that “may have prevented the mid-twentieth-century canadien from playing his full role in Canadian society, but Klein, with a strong sense of his own people’s heritage, is not unsympathetic to this nostalgic insistence on the old virtues and inherited values.”1
Several poems reflect Klein’s technical virtuosity and wide-ranging interests. They are written in Klein’s complex style (his multilingual homage to Montreal, for example), while others are simpler and more direct, such as “Political Meeting,” in which Klein critiques Quebec nationalism. In “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” the volume’s final and often anthologized poem, the theme of the neglected artist is explored, especially in the context of a society that can be either corrupting of, or indifferent to, art.
The poems featured in The Rocking Chair were composed over a period of three years. Nine poems were composed circa 1945/1946 – “Air Map,” “The Break-up,” “The Cripples,” “For the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu,” “Frigidaire,” “Grain Elevator,” “M. Bertrand,” “The Snowshoers,” and “The Sugaring” – while the others were written in 1947 and 1948. Klein worked on his manuscript under the title “Poems of Quebec.” In fact, when he signed his contract with Ryerson Press on 27 April 1948, this was the title he gave to his work-in-progress. Klein submitted the manuscript on 24 July 1948, but when it was published later that year in an edition of 750 copies, it appeared under the title we know today. The original title, though, is a clearer reflection of the contents of the volume, as the Quebec landscape and the French language are at the heart of many of the poems in The Rocking Chair.
It could be speculated that one of the reasons why The Rocking Chair departs so strongly from his Jewish-centred verse is that Klein, ironically, did not want to be identified solely as a Jewish poet. In 1943, Klein wrote to fellow Montreal poet A.J.M. Smith, complaining of critics’ tendency to classify him primarily as a Jewish poet: “‘Why did they … have to go flaunting my circumcision?’ he asked. ‘It’s an adolescent trick – this whimsical opening of another man’s fly.’”2 In fact, since The Rocking Chair offers Klein’s own observations and interactions with Quebec – he does not attempt to represent all of Quebec culture – it could be read as an “alternate” self-portrait in verse.
The Rocking Chair and Other Poems was the best received of all of Klein’s books. Not only did it win praise in Quebec for its sensitivity to and depiction of les Canadiens, it earned Klein the Governor General’s Literary Award. A later dust jacket, citing the Literary History of Canada, proclaimed Klein a “clear-eyed and patient observer” who “has caught the look and feel of Quebec, the province and the mind.”3
Even before they were published collectively, several of Klein’s French-Canadian poems received praise. In 1946, A.J.M. Smith published an article in Les Gants du Ciel, in which he explained why Klein’s French-Canadian poems worked so well: “Dans l’entité patriarchale, traditionelle et ecclésiastique qu’est le Canada français, Klein a trouvé un univers que sa sensibilité juive lui permet de comprendre et d’aimer” (In the patriarchal, traditional and ecclesiastic entity that is French Canada, Klein found a universe that his Jewish sensibility permitted him to understand and love).”4 In July 1947, seven of the poems appeared in Poetry (Chicago) and were awarded the Edward Bland Memorial Fellowship Prize.
In all likelihood, it was Klein’s sensitivity that caught the attention of Ryerson Press. In fact, with the exception of three pamphlets of poetry issued by the Canadian Jewish Congress in Montreal – Poems of French Canada (1947), Seven Poems (1947), and Huit Poèmes Canadiens (1948) – Klein’s earlier volumes of poetry, as well as his novel, were all brought out by American publishers. The Rocking Chair and Other Poems was the only book Klein published with a Canadian press.
The Rocking Chair garnered enough public attention and praise to merit a second issue in 1951 of 750 copies, this time with drawings by Thoreau MacDonald, who worked primarily in black and white and whose images were characterized by specific technical mannerisms: “skies are always a series of parallel horizontal lines; clouds are simplified amoeboid shapes; [and] trees look like the skeletons of conch shells.”5
Ryerson Press decided that MacDonald’s simple landscape illustrations complemented Klein’s portrait of Quebec. Thus, the small black and white illustrations that appear at the end of a poem – not all the poems are illustrated – often relate to its content. Depicting “For the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu,” for example, are two nuns walking, with trees and a building in the backdrop, while “The Mountain” is paired with an illustration of a black mountain. The success of The Rocking Chair led to a third reprinting of 1001 copies in 1966.
Although Klein’s career was halted by mental illness, The Rocking Chair has not ceased to gain recognition for its author. The first reviewers who wrote in the wake of its publication, as well as the scholars writing in 1980s, 1990s, and well into the twenty-first century,6 all regard The Rocking Chair and Other Poems as one of Klein’s greatest poetic achievements.
1 M.W. Steinberg, “A(braham) M(oses) Klein,” Canadian Writers, 1920-1959: First Series, 1988. http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&u=rpu_main&id=GALE|H1200005623&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon.
2 Quoted in Ezra Glinter, “A.M. Klein: Portrait of the Poet as Person,” Forward 2008. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/367928247?accountid=13631. At the same time, Klein heavily criticized Jewish artists who disregarded their identity.
3 A.M. Klein, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1948) dust jacket.
4 Quoted in Steinberg.
5 Joan Murray, “Thoreau MacDonald,” Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/thoreau-macdonald/.
6 See Neil Weiss, Review of Poems 1928-1948, by Edouard Roditi; The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, by A.M. Klein; and Poems, by David Ignatow,” Commentary 1949. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/poems-1928-1948-by-edouard-roditi-the-rocking-chair-and-other-poems-by-a-m-klein-poems-by-david-ignatow; Linda Luft Ferguson, “‘The Rocking Chair’: Portrait of the Poet as Province,” Journal of Canadian Studies 1984. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1300015805?accountid=13631; Louis Dudek, “Poetic Licence or Poetic Justice? Studying Klein,” Review of Complete Poems, by A.M. Klein, ed. Zailig Pollock, Ottawa Citizen 1991. http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/239609110?accountid=13631; and Glinter.