Scraping the Mold off Meanings.

It’s high time I gave a shoutout to Amateur Reader (Tom) and his literary blog Wuthering Expectations. What impelled me to post at this particular time was his series on Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986), which I now want a copy of; in this post he focuses on Jacob Glatstein and Moishe-Leib Halpern, and in this one on H. Leivick (“the Russian among the American Yiddish poets”). I was barely aware of these poets (really just their names), but look at these snippets! From Glatstein’s “We the Wordproletariat” (1937):

The sky, the blue hazard, went out.
You still sit and seek the shadows of a word
And scrape the mold off meanings.
Words take on sadder and purer tones.

The cursed night has got into your bones.

From Moishe-Leib Halpern’s “My Restlessness Is of a Wolf” (1919):

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.

And from Leivick’s “Yiddish Poets” (1930s?):

Sometimes, like frazzled cats, dragging
Their kittens around, distraught,
We drag our poems between our teeth
By the neck through the streets of New York.

In all of these excerpts, the poetry shines through the translations and makes me want to delve deeper. But this is just a side journey; he’s been reading late-nineteenth-century prose and early-twentieth-century Russian poetry, among other things, and no matter what he writes about I always find my understanding deepened. I first realized his excellence when reading his posts on Flaubert; I think the one that hooked me was this one from 2015, about the framework of metaphors in Sentimental Education, but this one is also amazing:

Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through. Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface. They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.

But hell, just scan down the list of “Labels” in the right margin and click on anything that piques your interest. Then subscribe to the RSS feed. Your time will not be wasted.


  1. I tried to find the original of the Halpern poem, but no luck. I haven’t plowed yet through his books. These must be nice rhyming couplets, which if I can find them, will make up for the fact that I don’t know Yiddish.

    The Yiddish Book Center has scans of everything.

  2. Transcribing Leivick, with some errors, no doubt:

    Un amol, vi ketz mit oyfgereytste glider,
    Shlepn zeyere ketslekh farvirt fun zorg,—
    Azoy shlepn mir farn haldz undzere lider
    tsvishn di tseyn, iber gasn fun New York.

  3. I find it interesting that the translation only renders half of the rhyme pairs (and that only with an impure rhyme “distraught – New York”) – this, plus the fact that it doesn’t seem to try (or to succeed) to render the rythm everywhere, gives the translation a quite different feel from the original. It seems much more modern than the original with its conventional abab rhymes. But the image comes through, beautifully.

  4. @Y The Halpern poem is in the bilingual anthology and Halpern’s book “in nyu-york”.

  5. The rhymes were one of the few ways the facing-page Hebrew / Yiddish helped me – I could see the rhymes.

    I did not mention another feature that recommends this anthology – it is heavily illustrated with works by Jewish-American contemporaries of the poets, like Ben Shahn. The “world” of the poets is instantly enriched. The introductory material is substantial. The notes are helpful.

    As your this post, thanks so much. What a pleasure to see myself here. I remember that I discovered Languagehat when we all supplied blurbs, inadvertently, for a Clay Sanskrit Library newsletter. There was a graduate student in Sanskrit; you, a real linguist; and me, a random internet nobody. I have been learning from Languagehat ever since. Thanks for all of that, too.

  6. Thanks, halpern!

    Meyn umru fun a volf un fun a ber meyn ru,
    Di vildkeyt shreyt in mir, di langveyl hert zikh tsu.
    Ikh bin nit vos ikh trakht, ikh bin nit vos ikh vil,
    Ikh bin der tsoyberer un bin dos tsoyber-shpil.

  7. Glatshteyn:

    Der himel, der bloyer azart, hot zikh farloshn.
    Du zitst un zukhst nokh alts di shotns fun vort
    Un reynikst dem shimel fun meynen.
    S’vern verter troyeriker un reyner.

    Di farsholtene nakht iz dir arayn in di beyner.

  8. Thanks for those transliterations!

  9. The perfect anthology would have the original, a transliteration, and the English, in some kind of imaginary three-paged book.

  10. I would recommend “The Glatstein Chronicles”, a travel book in which Glatstein, an American writer who grew up in Poland, goes back to his home town to see his mother who is dying. He then goes back home. The boat trip is very well written as well as other bits that I remember. Great stuff, at least in the translation that I read in Hebrew.

  11. Thanks!

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