Born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1909, A.M. Klein came to Montreal with his family the next year and went on to become Canada’s most important poet. He was also a prolific author who, in Carmine Starnino’s words, “reeled off plays, lectures, speeches, editorials, book reviews, short stories, and novellas” and “even took a stab at a spy thriller.” Yet during the 1950s, Klein—who had once commented that he was living proof “of the error of the idea that to be a poet you must be somewhat cracked”—began to sink into a rapid mental and emotional decline. He stopped producing and barely spoke to friends and colleagues. Clues in Klein’s work suggest that he had lost faith in the role of the poet in the modern West. Starnino explains:
Klein . . . tried, in his own way, to diagnose his condition. Indeed, if there is a primer for decoding him—and for appreciating what might have brought him to the edge of the precipice, and pushed him over—it would be “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” his moving, 164-line examination of the poet’s isolation, [published in a 1948 anthology]. Klein worried constantly about poetry’s decline as a civilizing force. He believed poets had a principal role in shaping the culture at large, and, because that role was public, he believed public recognition was crucial to their influence.
Poetry, for Klein, was the highest of high callings, the apex art. Thus elected, the poet’s duty was to furnish readers with a vision of coherence.
Horrified by revelations of the Holocaust, Klein’s editorials began to evince a pessimism. Klein started to write about the resurgence of totalitarianism, the rise of anti-Semitism, the threat of nuclear war. We can track this rising distress in his letters and notebooks, too. Believing in poetry as a form of action, he rejected the “effete aestheticism” that turned the poet into nothing more than “a sort of inspired chronicler” and instead endorsed poets as “part of the fighting forces, as much so, indeed, as is the trumpeter, marching into the fray.”