To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Outsider Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (26): Merle Bachman, “Who Was Mikhl Likht?”

[Excerpted from Chapter 5, “Modernist Visions: Mikhl Likht at the Threshold,” in Recovering ‘Yiddishland’: Threshold Moments in American Literature (Syracuse University Press 2008) pages 187-190. More of/by Likht appeared earlier on Poems and Poetics, as an attempt, along with this, to recover a New York based experimental poet, whose work from the 20s & 30s was far more radical in structure & content than that of all but a handful of his American counterparts & to some degree predated most of them.  With this in mind Merle Bachman & I are engaging in an effort to bring his long poem, Processions, into English.  (J.R.)]

Yitskhok Libman, the editor of the avant-garde, New York City-based literary journal Unzer Bukh, called Mikhl Likht “[t]he most solid Yiddish verse-and-word-virtuoso of the twentieth century ...” (1954, 25), while renowned Yiddish literary critic Sh. Niger described him as an “... incomprehensible ‘babbler’ and mere ‘scribbler’” (qted in Libman, 26).

Other critics debated him as follows: Emanuel Fershleyser depicted Likht as an “individualistic rebel, [creeping] all the deeper into the extremes of modernism,” (1958, 102), while Sh. Tenenboym saw him as someone who “doesn’t go in the well-trod paths of most poets” (1949, 480).

The modernist poet Yankev Glatshteyn simply wrote: “There lived a Yiddish poet Mikhl Likht, who chose for himself the path of loneliness and aloneness.” (1953).

Who was Mikhl Likht?

Even if all you know about Yiddish is that it’s written in Hebrew letters from right to left (which is more knowledge than most people might have), you notice something different about many of Likht’s poems: there are blank spaces in the middle of lines; lines scatter across a page; some poems look like prose, others like an indented list. English words, citations, quotations, pop up here and there. No other Yiddish poets, no matter how “modern” their style, have poems that look quite like his.

Likht died in 1953 at the age of sixty. I am looking through his “collection” at the YIVO Institute in New York City, which consists of two boxes, filled with twenty-odd modest files -- a small archive, compared to those of his colleagues Glatshteyn, Leyeles, and Minkov, whose papers measure up to nine feet thick. At the time of his death, he hadn’t been productive as a writer for nearly twenty years, because of a degenerative heart condition. His best work, according to Libman, appeared in Unzer Bukh (Our Book), 1925-1930, a modernist “little magazine” similar to Inzikh, to which Likht was a frequent contributor.Glatshteyn called him the “most forgotten” of Yiddish writers, yet at his death he received “poetic justice”: an obituary in the New York Times, detailing his entire oeuvre (1953).

Who was Mikhl Likht? -- among a group of scarcely remembered writers, the “most forgotten”...

He was born in Plisk, a village in the Ukraine, in 1893, but was raised by his aunt and uncle, who lived in Bilizerke. He was educated at home by both secular and religious (Jewish) teachers. At eight years of age, he started writing poetry in Russian. In 1913, at the age of twenty, he came to New York with his family, where he had planned to stay only a short time before returning to Europe to study -- but World War I broke out, altering his course (as it did for so many others). Likht studied at the City College of New York and the New School for Social Research, becoming fluent in English and also a scholar of philosophy, history, sociology, and economics, as well as music (about which he was passionate). He published poems in English, under the pseudonyms of M. Likht-Sonin and M. Sonin in “avant-garde” magazines like Pagan, Playboy [?], and Smart Set (Kagan 1986, 138)

Likht’s colleague and close friend N. B. Minkov wrote in his foreword to Likht’stranslations of American poetry:

American English poetry was very close to Likht. As a poet, he himself ripened during its renaissance. He began his poetic journey with poems in English, published in the most modern avant-garde journals....Even after crossing over completely into Yiddish poetry, he still took a deep interest in every publication of American English poetry. ... [H]e read everything that was published in American poetry. What he liked, he translated. (Likht 1954, 9).

Likht “began” in English--was it his third, fourth, or fifth language? Russian, German, French, and Italian rumble around in his poems. He “crossed over completely” into Yiddish. It was his choice, as it was the choice of his colleagues from Inzikh, who had also attended college in New York and knew English quite well. Did he feel most at-home in Yiddish? “His poems read as if he’s thinking in English and writing in Yiddish,” a professor of Yiddish literature once told me. What does “home” mean, in a poetry like Likht’s?

where does the Jew go
goy, where
somewhere     echo     nowhere

(somewhere) with 36 righteous volumes
crammed with hints one and zeroes in
with astrological sign-shrouds
the whole kit-and-kaboodle     in-the-
     beginning things
with pure reason thoroughly explicated
with history      (the Rebbe with his leather
with samovars     ships
telephone and radio ...
        (From section B(1) in “Procession Three”; trans. Bachman)

Likht’s words “somewhere echo nowhere”: the poet who wrote Yiddish in a force-field of English, who translated T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, who best represents a threshold poetics, is also the “most forgotten.” His poetic practice, his enthusiastic and dense essays on American literature, his translations, all bring him so close to the American word. Why aren’t his poems found in English translation? Why is he so unknown, on both sides of the threshold?

Works Cited in this Excerpt

Fershlayser, Emanuel.“Leynendik Mikhl Likhtn,”(Reading
Mikhl Likht). In Oyf  Shrayberishe Shliyakhn (On Writerly
Paths), by Emanuel Fershlayser, 100-106. New York: Farlag
haSoyfer, 1958.
Glatshteyn, Yankev. Column, Prost un Poshet. “Poetishe
Gerekhtikayt” (Poetic Justice). Tog-Morgn-Zhurnal, Sunday,
June 21, 1953. Mikhl Likht Archive, YIVO Institute for Jewish
Libman, Yitskhok (Yitschok Liebman). Column: Boyer un
Shafer fun Mayn Dor (Builders and Creators of My
Generation). “Mikhl Likht.” Nyu-Yorker Vokhnblat (undated;
probably 1954). Mikhl Likht Archive at YIVO Institute for
Jewish Research.
Likht, Mikhl. Moderne Amerikaner Poeziye. Lider Ibergezetst
fun Mikhl Likht (Modern American Poetry. Poems Translated
by Mikhl Likht). Edited with introduction by N. B. Minkov.
Buenos Aires: Farlag Geliye, 1954.


Ed Baker said...

the name Merle Bachman 'rang a bell"

but I was mistaken

it was / is

Ingeborg Bachmann's Darkness Spoken

that I have on my shelf...


"Who was Mikhl Likht?"

I WANT TO SEE THESE PIECES that are in the boxes :

he thought in English (from let-to-right)
wrote ('em down) in Yiddish (from right-to-left)

as you have the sample piece

"the whole kit-and-kaboodle"


i, too, had a "Rebbe with a leather whip"

cept Reb Bogner's "whip" was a wooden ruler...

not too many of them left here in D.C.

(leather whips OR Ortodox Rabbi's)


Ed Baker said...

so far on The Net
only your blog-post


as I am more into the poemsastheyare (via a decent translation into English

as I yet can read the Hebrew/Yiddish

then-as-now it is all "Greek to me"


as he dropped out for over 2wenty plus years
I am assuming
that he did not know Charles Reznikoff

(who of whom my nowdeadmother once said of:

"the Reznikoff boys always dressed nice and THAT Charles was handsome and a good dancer)

and those other's in that group who are now called The Objectivists

otherwise his work would have been translated into English

&, perhap

saved us a lot of grief via all of the present Academic crap-trap ?

Ed Baker said...

I did find this by Merle Bachman: