Some of the greatest works of English literature are not found in survey anthologies.
They are never taught in courses, though if you consulted them, you could add depth to your understanding of a given author. They record the daily tribulations of the saints we call canonical writers. More useful than poems, but more lyrical than narrative, they are flashes of insight into the lives of the bards of Britain, the United States, and Canada.
They are letters.
We tend to call poets ‘men of letters.’ But rarely do we pause to understand what that could mean, if we mean by letters the epistolary variety.
Letters are a dying art. Nowadays, our letters are literally letters. OMG, LOL, OMFG, ROFL. These cabalistic expressions enable us to keep our interlocutors at arm’s length while we communicate through thumb and keypad. People text rather than e-mail, rather then send a paper-and-pen letter through the post. Gradually, our communication is being disembodied from its material forms, transferred into 1s and 0s in binary code, words floating through the air like so much insubstantial ether.
But take a poet like A.M. Klein (1909-1972). A Montreal writer, one of the leading poets in Canada in his day, Klein is author of Hath Not A Jew and a mock-epic satire on the Third Reich called The Hitleriad. His poem “The Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” is a profound reflection of what it was like to be a Canadian poet in the ’40s, a solitary calling devoid of much recognition. A strongly felt love of language suffuses all his work.
What were letters from him like, back in the day? A.M. Klein: The Letters, edited by Elizabeth Popham preserves these artifacts from being lost to history. Take the following sample:
* * * *
To Leon Edel
July 25, 1951
Mr Dear Leon,
Many thanks for the reprint of the Henry James article. It makes fascinating reading—the kind I like since it combines literary knowledge and taste with acute cerebration. Twenty-three! It shall henceforward be a number mystical to me, undreamed of by Pythagoras.
(Aside: Can it be that James had in mind a current vulgarism: twenty-three, skiddo! —Impossible, by definition.)
And I must not leave unmentioned the fine turn of phrase which throughout your essay adds urbanity to detection.
—When do you propose to come this way? It is now many years since you have visited dear Hochelaga. Come—I can’t give you the key to the city, it’s been stolen—but many welcome signs, I am sure, will greet you.
Please remember me to Mrs. Edel
* * * *
Now here is a man who respects you in his letters, who isn’t afraid to burst out in exclamations, but keeps it all wrapped up with a nice closure at the end. Classical references, multiple syllable words, and even a reference to Montreal as Hochelaga—the name of the Native American settlement that was built on the grounds of McGill University, but disappeared by the late 16th century. All in a few lines.
A.M. Klein was also a man of character. Take the following excerpt from a letter to Robert M. MacGregor from New Directions Press, concerning the anti-Semitic remarks of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a novelist. Klein worked as a lawyer and at one point was asked to represent Céline. It is dated November 16th 1953:
* * * *
[…] It seems to me … that if I did so, you would be putting Mr. Céline in a most embarrassing position, if not committing him a downright injustice.
Mr. Céline’s opinions touching Jews are notorious; during the war nobody was more rabid in his anti-Semitism than he, and he would resent it, I am sure, if you tainted his right of property with the name, or even the intervention, of a Jew. Despite my admiration for his extraordinary talent – ‘Satan, too’ is no mediocrity – to me the notion of ‘Céline –Klein’s client’ – is, to say the least, an absurdity. I am accordingly returning your documents. […]
* * * *
Remember that World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust are but 8 years past at this point. I can picture Klein at his desk, not wanting to have anything to do with this Mr. Céline, but penning his letter nonetheless. Rare is the person who has the humility to consider the dignity of his enemy. And he does it incredibly well, diplomatically. Sometimes, the letters of an author can be like small golden nuggets, revelatory.
Letters were once the main vehicles for communication. They took a long time, but you could make it worth your while by penning pages of stories to relate to your distant friends and family. They were even a literary form. I don’t know if in the age of texting and e-mail, something of this art form might be salvaged, but it is good to take a pause once in a while to admire some finely written letters. The twentieth century was not the only century of great letter writing. Check out the great letters of the eighteenth century here: http://www.history1700s.com/etext/blletters.shtml
To close on a lighter note, consider the following letter of a poet to a poet: A.M. Klein to Irving Layton, considering the ‘Margolian affair’ the summary of which is that Klein owes Layton some mullah for an incident whose details are not mentioned—perhaps with good reason—in the letter.
* * * *
Nov. 21, 1951
Now that the checks in re the famous Margolian affair have gone through, and despite your waiver, expressed some time ago, of all rights and emoluments therein, I feel that my battle – witnessed by St. Goldberg – would have been in vain, causeless, purposeless, did I not now turn over to you the fifty dollars La Margolian wanted for herself.
I enclose, therefore, two checks – one for yourself in the sum of $35.00, being the exact price paid for certain Margolian habilments – so runs my sense of justice! – and one for fifteen dollars payable to the T. Eaton Co. Ltd., wherewith Betty is to buy herself that pressure cooker. (And don’t you, Irving, go using it for books!)
It is expressly understood, of course, that though the temptation may be great, La Margolian is not to be the first dish softened in the said cooker.
Moral: There is some good, even in relatives!
With all good wishes