With Zishe Landau

Translated by Gerald Marcus

Written by:
Reuben Iceland
Fall 2010 / 5771
Part of issue number:

First Meeting
I don’t remember what year I met Zishe Landau. It is also unclear to me whether it was late in autumn or early in spring. But I well remember that it was in the evening on Canal Street in front of the old Drukerman’s bookstore, that the evening was cold, misty and muddy, and that I wore a heavy winter coat. All the passersby wore heavy winter coats, and everyone in the little group of young writers who stood in front of the bookstore, waiting for a new periodical that was supposed to have been brought from the printers, wore heavy coats. But the thin, blond boy with the big blue eyes, who was introduced to me as Zishe Landau, wore a light, narrow, leather-colored summer topcoat buttoned tightly over a pointy belly.

For those who knew the later broad and hefty Landau, it might be hard to imagine that in his nineteenth or twentieth year he was a thin, almost sickly boy, just as they might be unable to imagine that Landau used to go dressed as a dandy, in tight clothes, a stiff collar and a derby. In this last respect, though, he was not an “only child.” All of us in those years had notched rings on our foreheads from the hard round hats we wore. […]

Like a lot of beginners who have not yet found their own voice, I sang, perhaps without realizing it, with an alien voice, and used poetic expressions that others before me had coined. Like a lot of beginners, I did not yet know that even the most powerful experiences and the deepest feelings do not in themselves make a good poem. Only later, when one becomes richer artistically, one discovers – often through great pain – the secret: that much more than impressions, experience, and sensitivity, one has to have expression. The best words in the best order, as Coleridge required. This means tone, rhythm, and form, valid only for a given poem and not for any other.

Between Landau and me, it was not “love at first sight.” We immediately began to speak the truth, and the truth hurts, especially when one is young. Landau was five years younger than I. In my eyes, I was the younger, with all the possibilities and hopes that shine upon the youngest, but also with all the pain and self-doubt that hurl you from one abyss to another. To be young means to be hopeful, because if a young poet has not achieved everything he dreams of today, he will certainly achieve it tomorrow, next year, or even years later. What difference does it make? To be young, though, also means to be morbidly sensitive, and I was oversensitive. At that time, the smallest blow to one’s honor struck like a stone. The slightest unkind word pierced like a dart and wounded deeply. And at our first meeting, Landau said a lot of unkind things to me. And I, for my part, did not spare him. And perhaps what I said also met its mark. But in retrospect Landau was the more skillful, and he always remained so. To speak that way, like a knife between the ribs – none of us could do it.

That night I tossed and turned. I felt so deeply hurt from my first meeting with Landau that I could not sleep. I spent all of the next day standing at work, empty inside, and when I got home I could not eat a bite. Until then, I had written all my unpublished poems painstakingly in a clean notebook and pasted the published poems in a second one. A few days after my meeting with Landau, I took the notebook with the published poems and the notebook in which I had entered the unpublished ones, tore them in half and threw them into a burning oven. That was not the first and not the last time that I tore up my things, and it was always curative.

That particular trait of telling the truth, especially about poetry and in such a sharp and biting way that it would go deep into the bones, Landau kept his whole life. The closer someone was to him, the more Landau permitted himself this openness. Very often it was the test of whether a friendship could form between him and another poet. The moment Landau felt that a poet could not hear the truth about himself or his verse, he became a stranger. He could still meet with him often, play cards with him, brag about the preserves he made or what a connoisseur of drinks he was, but he no longer talked about poetry with that man.

Landau was not always correct in his judgments. That wouldn’t have mattered, because who, after all, is always right? But the worst thing about Landau was that, in his eyes, he could never be wrong. Moreover, he would often redeem a mistake with a second and worse one. This, it seems to me – just like the habit of telling someone the truth right to his face – he inherited from the Chasidic court of the Strikover Rebbe, his grandfather, where he grew up. Children and grandchildren of rebbes became accustomed from childhood on to speaking bluntly. In the households of rebbes, as in all households that live in state and constantly play politics, one is never wrong. It’s always the other side that’s wrong, the party with which one has an open or hidden quarrel. The quarrels may be for the sake of Heaven, because of one or another nuance in worship. The methods, though, weren’t always heavenly. Even a petty intrigue was justified if it was necessary, or when one thought it necessary. Landau’s quarrels were always for the sake of Heaven. In essence, even his unfairness – or malice, as his targets called it – did not come from a desire to hurt or wantonly cause pain, but from the fact that, like every poet, he could not always be an objective critic. Hippolyte Taine remarked that every true poet who has his own method must by nature be one-sided and even believe fanatically that only his way is the correct one. Naturally he cannot appreciate the value of another poet, especially when he is going in a different direction.

A closer acquaintanceship between Zishe Landau and me began at the meetings of the organization “Literatur,” which published the two anthologies also called Literatur. We began to be even closer in the summer of 1910, when we were preparing the second Literatur anthology. […]

The meetings of “Literatur” were attended by 60 or 70 young people who from time to time published a poem or a sketch in one of the daily or weekly newspapers. Most of them did not remain writers. Some of them went to work for newspapers after a while. Others became union leaders, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, or even successful businessmen. At the meetings, from the start, the group began to emerge that would later make history with the Shriftn anthologies. The group also split into smaller groups, and the smallest, which consisted of Mani Leyb, Landau, and me, over time inherited the name Yunge. Later, David Kazansky grew closer to us and became one of us. Because of its approach to literature and because of its poetic nature, the group also had to include Rolnik and Raboy. But they never completely identified themselves with us.

The name Yunge began as a way to deride a group of young writers who in 1907 had the chutzpa to declare that the little bit of Yiddish literary strength that existed in America must be freed from the influence of the newspapers and who tried to create their own literary corner in the slim numbers of the monthly journal Di yugend. Later, the name came to signify all young writers who had pretensions to being different, though artistically they really had no relation to us. Only with the crystallization of our group did the name take on a definite meaning. Now it became the name of a unified school – the first literary school among Jews. A school that never came out with a written program and yet had a recognizable countenance that distinguished it from all of its surroundings and put such a stamp on Yiddish poetry that it was no longer possible to keep writing as one had written before it appeared.

Three people, fundamentally different in temperament and character – in those first childish impressions, so important for a poet, of home, landscape, and environment, and early snatches of melody, song, and story; fundamentally different in education, encounters, dreams, aspirations, and the influences (ethical, aesthetic, and literary) of their formative years; fundamentally different in their way of writing – became nonetheless the creators of a unified school with a definite method, a definite viewpoint, and a definite standard. How this happened is a mystery to me, to this very day. In part, I explain it by the fact that, for all our differences, we had one trait in common: acuteness of the senses.

This, incidentally, is a trait that all artists have, and we were, if not the first artists, the first conscious artist-group in Yiddish verse. Our outlook, our worldview, and our approach to man and world were artistic. Our demands on all Jewish poets, and principally on ourselves, were purely artistic. One of our cardinal requirements was not to rely on what one knows just because it’s accepted, because one heard it, or because one “read it in books,” but to approach every phenomenon with open eyes and an open mind and try to know it anew, to know it in one’s own way. Not so much with the intelligence as through the senses. Not logic, but intuition: psychologically.

This requirement was itself the result of a discovery. A discovery to which we came gradually, after much searching, reading, and comparing; after long days and nights that we spent in deep conversations about only one thing – poetry, which was dearer than everything and for which we could sacrifice everything, even the self-love and vanity that is for the poet exactly as sharp, if not sharper, than it is in women. We never spared each other. All the defects that we saw in one another, we pointed out. And not just tapped with velvet gloves, God forbid, but in the sharpest and most biting way. Flogged so as to hurt, and it did hurt. Hurt until blood flowed. But it had the necessary effect.

When we arrived, Yiddish poetry was in the service of ideas and movements, social and national. The poets stood tall, took an honored place. But the poetry was, as always in such circumstances, dead and buried. We proclaimed its freedom and its right to an independent life. We maintained that poetry should not exist by reason of whatever ideas it promotes, but because it lives for its own sake. It has its own place and its own function in life. Therefore, poetry is not obliged, indeed, it must not take upon itself other functions, because then it would betray itself. And our literature sounded foreign then and sounds even more foreign today, when parties and movements rule life more than ever and put their dictatorial paws on everything and everything must serve them.

When we arrived, our poetry, especially here in America, was grating-shouting-bombastic and melo-declamatory when it dealt with social themes; soaked in Jewishness with an aroma of tsholnt and mikva when it involved itself with national themes; and scattered with spangles of poetic Germanisms when it wanted to express individual, lyric experiences. Only in their satirical poems did the poets of the past write in a good, intimate, authentic Yiddish, when they wanted to laugh at something. Because nothing, in their eyes, was as ridiculous as authentic Yiddish. In retrospect, they were blood brothers of the authors of our old shund novels. In those novels too, only the moldy, spent, “funny” characters spoke good Yiddish. The heroes and heroines, though, who had the authors’ fullest sympathies because they were modern, up-to-date people and knew such modern things as love, spoke with a “poetic” Germanized Yiddish.

As a reaction to all this, and to all the clichés that our poetry was then full of, we Yunge impoverished it both in themes and in language. So that we ourselves would not become tempted and fall into bombast, we threw out social themes; to protect ourselves from all cloying, flowery language, we avoided national motifs. In order to properly express intimate, lyrical feelings, we realized we must do two things: on the one hand search within ourselves for understanding so that we could better comprehend the world, and on the other hand clean out all the garbage, all the absurd words that immature little poets and half-baked newspaper writers had gathered in various alien places, and from which had spread that florid gushing that passed for poetry.

Reduced to ordinary, common themes, our poetry became richer, because in striving to know ourselves we opened so many gates and doors to the inner, individual life.

In impoverishing the language, we made it richer. For now, without the foreign, absurd overgrowth, Yiddish began to sound different: more natural and inherently more beautiful. This alone was a great achievement. But we did not stop there. The artistic instinct told us that our language did not lack words for the deepest experiences and finest moods. One must but go and look for them in the right places. If we don’t find available words for everything that we need, we will surely find words that can evolve, bend, be rebuilt and re-created, so that they will serve our purposes and will be in the spirit and sound of our language. Mani Leyb went out and found what he sought in the mouths of the folk; Landau and I, in the accumulated folk treasury: in the Tsenarena, the Tkhine, the folksong, the storybook, and the Chasidic story. […]

I don’t mean to write here the history of the Yunge. Still less to do what we have never done – set forth the program of the Yunge.

An artistic school is in general no more than an exit, from which the artists that belong to it separate, each going his own way, searching for his own multifaceted education and perfection. Only the followers and imitators remain stuck in the doorway. On the way, every artist arrives, through experience and maturity, at new realizations, in the light of which the school and most of what it stands for become insignificant, often even comical or completely false. Through the years, everyone from the Yunge went through a whole series of transformations, each in his own way, according to his character and to his new experiences in life and art. […] But however much we diverged in later years, in essence we remained the same. Only the branches grew apart in different directions. The trunk remained rooted in the same artistic convictions.

Gerald Marcus is a painter and printmaker. He lives in New York City.