Review: Complete Poems by Jon Silkin and Portraits by Elaine Feinstein

British Jewish sensibility


Jon Silkin's death in 1997 marked a huge loss to poetry. Silkin was a substantial literary presence, from his first volume The Peaceable Kingdom (1954) to his posthumously published Making a Republic (2002). He was central in bringing his British Jewish forebear Isaac Rosenberg to the public's attention, particularly in his critical work, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War (1972), and his brilliant introduction to the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1979).

Silkin wrote as a self-aware English Jew - penning such poems as Astringencies, A Prayer Cup and The Jews of England - while also practising a non-parochial universalism. In Israel in 1967 for a writers' symposium, Silkin explained: "My awareness of being a Jew has forced me, not into saying to myself, I will learn Hebrew and have bifocal judgments, but I will read omnivorously and form my consciousness from as many cultures, humanistically speaking, as possible. Thus, my Jewish self-awareness has forced me into humanism and into a cosmopolitanism, cautioned, as it were, by English and Jewish specifics." A useful definition for a confident, diasporic Jewishness.

Some of Silkin's poems appeared in the Jewish Chronicle in the 1980s and 1990s. Others were published in the Jewish Quarterly and European Judaism.

From the 1950s onwards, Silkin allied his vision of a fair and just republic with Judaism: "The animals in my poems go into the ark/ There are two scrolls on the doors as they go". He also produced subtle and sensitive work about the Shoah: "As if steel, but a silvery/ tar creeps upon Isaac/ in Abraham's hand./ Our Bible// is clasped in darkness. And for wine/ three inches of the blood/ of six million".

Two superb poems about the medieval York massacre feature here, with the haunting lines: "All Europe is touched/ With some of frigid York,/ As York is now by Europe".

Regarding Israel, Silkin memorably writes: "We're Jewish Pharaohs/ flicking water, whipping it". Clearly, he wanted Israelis to behave like his idea for diaspora Jews: peaceably, and without violence born from the trauma of antisemitism.

Jon Glover has done a magnificent job in editing Jon Silkin's Complete Poems. Together with Kathryn Jenner, archivist at Leeds University Library, Glover has not merely brought together Silkin's 11 volumes of poetry but also collected much of his impressive unpublished poetry. At 915 pages, the Complete Poems is a worthy monument to Silkin's poetic oeuvre.

Elaine Feinstein is another major British Jewish poet. Her latest collection, Portraits, is a delightful series of potted biographies in verse. Her subjects include writers Isaac Rosenberg ("We remember:/ the iron honey gold, his cosmopolitan rat"); Emanuel Litvinoff ("that lean body women knew at once/ would give them pleasure") and Feinstein herself, through the eyes of her Polish cleaner ("A puzzle, this old woman in her nightie/ standing at a computer before breakfast").

Feinstein also imagines the "flamboyance" of Benjamin Disraeli, "baptised Jew" and Conservative Party leader whose "courage trumps all and demands tribute./ You flattered, entertained, but never cringed./ And that, dear Earl of Beaconsfield, I salute".

Jews like Disraeli, living on their wits, form a perennial theme of Feinstein's verse, and are sometimes given shape in the romantic and melancholy figure of the Luftmensch.

She concludes her portrait of the Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth ("Luftmensch and wanderer") with the wise words: "'I'm always at home,' he said/ 'Wherever I feel unhappy.'"

Like Silkin, Feinstein offers recognisably Anglo-Jewish poetry with a humanistic and cosmopolitan ethos.

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