The Life and Poetry of Hyam Plutzik
THE CONNECTICUT YEARS
“I have seen the pageantry of the leaves falling—
Their sere, brown frames descending brokenly.”
—from “Connecticut Autumn”
Hyam Plutzik lived more than half his life in Connecticut. He was born in Brooklyn on July 13, 1911, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the United States in 1908. A year after his birth, his family moved to Southbury, Connecticut, where they had bought a small farm. In their home, Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew were spoken. Plutzik himself did not learn English until he began grammar school at the age of seven in a one-room schoolhouse. These were formative years for the young Plutzik, who developed a deep understanding of nature while living and working on his family’s farm.
At age twelve, Plutzik moved with his family to Bristol, a manufacturing city near Hartford, where his father headed a Jewish community school and synagogue. There he had greater access to libraries and became an avid reader. Upon completion of high school in 1928, he won a Holland Scholarship from Trinity College, where he majored in English and studied closely with Professor Odell Shepard, who later in 1938 received a Pulitzer for his biography, The Life of Bronson Alcott. In his senior year at Trinity, Plutzik was associate editor of the college’s literary magazine, The Trinity Tablet, which printed his short story “The Golus” and a group of poems titled “Three Paintings.” He also contributed to the school newspaper, The Trinity Tripod, using the pen name “Wozzenheim.”
Plutzik graduated from Trinity College, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1932. He continued his study of literature and poetry with a two-year fellowship from Trinity College to Yale University Graduate School. The first significant recognition of his talent in writing poetry came in 1933 when he won the Yale Poetry Award (then known as the Cooke Prize) for “The Three.” The poet Stephen Vincent Benét, a previous recipient of the award, sat on the judging committee. Benét and Plutzik continued to correspond with each other through the 1940s.
Ambitious intellectually, but uncomfortable with the pro forma discipline of academic life, and perhaps uncertain about it as a context for his writing ambitions, Plutzik left Yale at the end of his two-year fellowship, his degree unfinished. For the next six years, he worked at various jobs, taking one year off to explore his writing abilities. After a year in Brooklyn, he lived a Thoreauvian existence in the Connecticut countryside, trying his hand at a satirical novel on a timely subject for the 1930s—dictatorship.
Plutzik wrote his poem “My Sister” in 1937, when he was twenty-six years old. In it, he expressed his loss at the death of a sister fifteen years earlier. At some other point during this period, Plutzik composed “Death at The Purple Rim.” Both these poems were eventually published in his first poetry collection, Aspects of Proteus (1949). The name “Purple Rim” had been given to a Connecticut valley by the people with whom Plutzik stayed during his year in the countryside, and the long narrative poem, addressing a confrontation between human and animal, was prompted by his experiences during outdoor labor there.
In 1940, after living and working in Brooklyn for a few years, he returned to Yale to complete his master’s degree. That year, he submitted “Seventh Avenue Express,” a poem about the variegated characters he observed while riding the New York City subways. Although the poem did not win the award, one of the committee members, the poet Arthur Davidson Ficke, praised Plutzik’s second-choice submission, “Death at The Purple Rim.” Plutzik resubmitted this poem as his first choice the following year and won the Yale Poetry Award (Cooke Prize) a second time. The award included a private edition of the poem, and Plutzik sent copies to other poets and writers. Letters of response came from Van Wyck Brooks, Howard Mumford Jones, Theodore Spencer, Henry S. Canby of the Saturday Review, Thomas Mann, and others. Arthur Davison Ficke corresponded with the poet about another of his poems, “Mythos,” which Plutzik had written during this period.
BACK IN BROOKLYN
“In the streets of the city, the lines of an intricate crystal,
Geometric, far flung, and gleaming in the darkness.”
—from “The Seventh Avenue Express”
Leaving Yale after two years, Hyam Plutzik returned to Brooklyn in 1934, where he had been born twenty-three years earlier and where his parents still lived. He worked as a feature writer and secretary to the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which Walt Whitman had edited nearly a century earlier. During this period, 1934-1935, he wrote the poem “Seventh Avenue Express,” based on his keen observation of the human characters on the New York subways. The following year, he became an editorial writer for the Newark Ledger in New Jersey.
In December 1941, in a 72-page letter dated just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Plutzik wrote to his mentor at Trinity, Odell Shepard, in which he described his intellectual and moral growth since graduating in 1932. Though he described the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as “once an important molder of American opinion but lately fallen on parlous days,” he relished the opportunities the newspaper gave him to discover the “intricate crystal” of city life. Various assignments to write human-interest stories about ordinary Brooklynites gave the fledgling poet an opportunity to probe the human spirit in all its complexity, whereas graduate study, he felt, had hindered such human exploration: “The more I did this, the more I loved my fellow-man,“ he wrote, “and I found myself becoming a free man. Was not this retired saloonkeeper more interesting to me than the researches on the Ur-Hamlet? Was not this old German cigar-maker, with his gentility, better for the soul than 50 papers on Swinburne?”
Still, his brief time in Brooklyn convinced Plutzik that he was not temperamentally suited for the life of an urban reporter. “In brief,” he wrote to Shepard, “the city just doesn’t allow one to think.” Plutzik made the acquaintance of a Mrs. Wolfe, who wrote the advice-to-the-lovelorn column at the Eagle under the pseudonym of “Helen Worth.” It was Mrs. Wolfe who recommended Hyam Plutzik take up residence on their Connecticut farm as a gardener, where Plutzik then spent his Thoreauvian year “isolated in our little valley of ‘The Purple Rim.’”
Concluding his letter on December 11, 1941, as the Depression-weary United States was entering World War II, Plutzik wrote: “I must confess that I have always been a sentimentalist about democracy. I must confess that, at times during the despairs of unemployment, I have grumbled…[but the] more I see how all over the world the Utopians are making asses of themselves, ruthlessly steeping their hands in injustice in order that— paradoxically—justice may triumph, the more convinced I am that the middle path and the middle human fallible hopeful progressive democracy we have here are the best hope of the world, and of culture.”
THE WAR YEARS
The machines are quiet before the day’s struggle,
Geometric lines subtend the air at random.
—from “Bomber Base”
In 1942, Hyam Plutzik enlisted in the U.S. Army, becoming first a drill sergeant then first and second lieutenant. During the war, he married Tanya Roth, who worked for the War Information Bureau in New York City. Numerous moves—twelve different cities and twenty different houses before going overseas—and the lack of private time in army life made it difficult for Plutzik to continue to write poetry. The only poem he was able to complete was “Elegy.” But he did create an outline for and composed the first twenty lines of the long poem, Horatio, that was finally published to much acclaim in 1961.
Before going abroad, he was stationed at many bases throughout the American South, where he witnessed first-hand the institutional racism of segregation and Jim Crow. His experiences in Louisiana and Mississippi inspired him to write a number of poems that expressed his disgust for the way the Negro was being treated, such as “To Abraham Lincoln, That He Walk By Day,” and “The Road.” After his deployment in the South, he was stationed in Norwich, England, where he became ordinance and army education officer for the 2nd Air Division, United States Army Air Corps. Even in wartime Britain, Plutzik found time to attend Shakespearean plays and visit literary landmarks. He also collected impressions that later led to the composition of some of his notable “war poems” such as “Bomber Base,” “The Airfield at Shipdham,” and “The Airman Who Flew Over Shakespeare’s England.” Like many servicemen, he wrote letters to his wife, parents, siblings and friends nearly every day, in which he described the experiences of wartime and the lives of ordinary soldiers. He also kept a journal; an entry dated June 5, 1944, the eve of D-Day, describes the uncertainty felt by men who were fighting a war as the English tried to carry on their everyday activities: “The invasion of France began after all the years of preparation and all the wrongs suffered at the hand of the evil one…How cold it must be in the sky now, and on the coasts of France…On a bomber base in England, with a farmer harrowing an adjacent field behind a plodding horse, I pass the D-day of this war.”
Plutzik continued his tour of duty in England for several months after the cessation of hostilities in the summer of 1945. He helped establish a library in Norwich and regularly gave informal lectures on American life and culture to local residents. Though his superiors encouraged him to re-enlist, Plutzik, like millions of other G.I.’s, was eager to resume his stateside life and career that had been interrupted by World War II. He rejoined his wife, Tanya, in New York. Soon afterwards, he was hired by the University of Rochester to teach in its English department.
THE UNIVERSITY YEARS
“The scene is as follows: my book is open
On thirty desks; the teacher expounds my life.”
—from “On Hearing That My Poems
Were Being Studied in a Distant Place”
Upon discharge from the Army, Plutzik became an instructor in the English Department at the University of Rochester. That same year, 1945-46, he submitted “House of Gorya and Other Poems” to Scribner’s, which turned down the manuscript. Plutzik composed an additional fifty-two poems within the next several years. These were included in his first published collection, Aspects of Proteus (Harpers, 1949). His second collection, Apples from Shinar (Wesleyan University Press, 1959) contained thirty-two lyric poems and “The Shepherd,” a section of Horatio.
Throughout his career, Plutzik published poems in journals and magazines such as Poetry, Yale Review, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Accent, and The Nation. In 1950, he received, for Aspects of Proteus, one of six awards given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1951, he shared the California Borestone Mountain Poetry Award with Rolfe Humphries, and in 1959, received the University of Rochester’s Lillian P. Fairchild Award for Apples from Shinar. In 1954, Plutzik returned to Yale for a year when he received a Ford Foundation Faculty Fellowship to explore the relationship between poetry, science and philosophy.
Important themes throughout Plutzik’s poetry are the relationship between poetry and science as modes of expression, the paradoxes of historical time and eternity, and questions of Jewish identity. He also translated and wrote selections for prayer books that were used in Jewish worship. Plutzik also wrote short stories, science fiction, fantasy and children’s literature. Ideas for this latter genre came from stories created in play with his children Roberta, Alan, Jonathan and Deborah. He was unable to find a publisher for his children’s stories, although a trip to New York City for that purpose did instead yield a publisher for Aspects of Proteus. Of his science fiction, “Outcasts of Venus” was published in 1952 under the pseudonym Anaximander Powell.
Plutzik’s last published work was Horatio (1961). A “Plan for Work” written in October 1960 outlined what Plutzik hoped to bring to fruition in the coming years. These included a long poem on the Holocaust, and a play in verse on the fall of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. In the poem on the Holocaust, he planned to include a section on Anne Frank, and another on Lapichi, the Russian town in the Czarist province of Minsk, where has family had originated. Unable to begin either of these projects because of illness, Plutzik died of cancer at the age of fifty, on January 8, 1962.
Since his death, his poems have appeared in many anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1961, Sylvia Plath included one of his poems in American Poetry Now, and two years later, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn chose several for Five American Poets (1963). Plutzik's poems also appear in The Voice That Is Great Within Us (1970), Beginnings in Poetry (1973), Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets (1980), Telling and Remembering: A Century of Jewish Poetry (1998), American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Vol. 2 (2000), What Poetry Brings to Business (2010), and others. In 1987, Hyam Plutzik: The Collected Poems was published by BOA Editions, and in 2011, his second collection Apples from Shinar was reissued by Wesleyan University Press, honoring the centennial of the poet’s birth.
As a teacher, Plutzik created a solid place for poetry in the English Department of the University of Rochester and in Upstate New York, where he remained all his professional life. He taught poetry workshops and gave weekly poetry readings, composing poems for special occasions. In 1961, he was appointed to the newly created position, Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry. In 1962, the U of R established the Plutzik Poetry Series, which in its 50- year history has welcomed nearly 300 readers, including four winners of the Nobel Prize for literature, 32 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, four winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 31 winners of the National Book Award, and 22 Poets Laureate of the United States. In 1999, the Plutzik Library for Contemporary Writing was dedicated, and in 2004, Plutzik was recognized in a campus publication as one of the four most outstanding teachers in the University’s history. In 2002, the City of Rochester proclaimed “Hyam Plutzik Day” and designated “Sprig of Lilac” as the official poem of the Lilac Festival there.
Hyam Plutzik died on January 8, 1962 in Rochester. He was survived by his wife, Tanya Roth Plutzik, and their four children: Roberta, Alan, Jonathan, and Deborah. Mrs. Plutzik still resides in the family home in Henrietta, New York, a suburb of Rochester.
“I am troubled by the blank fields, the speechless graves.”
—from “After Looking Into a Book Belonging
to my Great Grandfather, Eli E. Plutzik
Hyam Plutzik was born of Jewish immigrants who joined thousands of their compatriots in fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Soon after his birth in 1911, the family settled in Connecticut, where Hyam’s father Samuel became a leader in the local Jewish community. Like many American Jews of this period, Hyam Plutzik endured his share of conventional antiSemitism while trying to assimilate into the American mainstream. He was one of the few Jewish students at Trinity College and Yale during the 1930s. Indeed, even his cherished Trinity mentor Odell Shepard unfortunately saw fit, in his recommendation of Plutzik to Yale, to remind the admissions officers that “Due allowance, whatever that may be, should be made for the fact that Mr. Plutzik is a Jew. I have never seen in him any of the unpleasant traits that are commonly attributed to men of his race.” When, in 1946, Plutzik began his teaching duties at the University of Rochester, he was the first Jew to join the English Department faculty.
While Hyam Plutzik did not always follow the outward religious observances of his parents’ generation, he always maintained a deep and abiding connection to his Jewish roots, expressing himself in such poems as “After Looking into a Book Belonging to My GreatGrandfather, Eli Eliakim Plutzik” and “Portrait.” In the latter, he disdains those who “[try] to be a Jew casually, / To ignore the monster, the mountain– / A few thousand years of history.”
During the 1950s, when anti-Semitic passages in T. S. Eliot’s poems galvanized the Jewish community to take responsive action, Plutzik wrote “For T.S.E. Only,” a poem both corrosive and conciliatory: one that condemned Eliot’s mean-spirited attitudes but that also invited Eliot to dialogue and reconciliation. The refrain “O brother Thomas, / Come let us weep together for our exile” seeks to find common ground by reminding his tormentor that Jews and writers share a common reality.
Plutzik has been described as a humanist, one who would regularly visit the education director of his synagogue to engage in spirited discussion about the issues of the day and how Jewish ethical traditions applied to new situations. In the late 1950s, he was asked by the Prayer Book Committee of Conservative Judaism to write new translations of prayers familiar to many generations of Jews: “Magen Avot,” “L’Cho Dodi,” “El Anon Al Kol,” and—the traditional prayer of mourning—“Kaddish.”
COLD WAR POET
“The man who gave the signal sleeps well—
So he says.”
When World War II ended in 1945, the geopolitical map of the world became divided along an uneasy fault line separating the United States and the Soviet Union. For the next four decades, the two superpowers engaged in what came to be called the Cold War: a period in which both tried to prevail economically, culturally and militarily under an uneasy “balance of terror” created by the nuclear arsenals that each nation had accumulated. The two powers never went to war with each other during this period, but engaged in a short-term strategy of bluffing and brinksmanship that came to a head at such flash points as Cuba and West Berlin.
In the United States, anxiety over Cold War issues led to the intellectual backlash of the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, which tried to ferret out “Communists” and “fellow-travelers” from positions of prominence in universities, government and cultural institutions. The shift in national purpose from all-out mobilization against fascism during the 1941-1945 period to an uneasy post-war malaise was aptly characterized by Edward Brunner in his 2001 book, Cold War Poetry, when he wrote “World War II as a defining instance has been replaced by the Cold War as a perpetual condition.”
Like other poets and writers of the 1950s, Hyam Plutzik created works that addressed the anxieties experienced by Americans over the Bomb, which symbolized the uneasy reality of the nation’s new role in world affairs. In such poems as “Hiroshima” and “And in the 51st Year of That Century, While My Brother Cried in the Trench, While My Enemy Glared from the Cave,” Plutzik expressed the existential terror of life at mid-century. Referring to the latter poem, Brunner writes that “the beauty of the moment is the last thing that holds Plutzik’s interest. He wants to know why things that should be as universal as starlight, as the wind, as calm sleep, should now be deemed rare and precious gifts.”
Plutzik’s long poem Horatio can also be read as a Cold War epic, suggests Brunner. Though set in seventeenth-century post-Shakespearean times, it grapples with issues all too familiar to thinkers of the Cold War era: how to achieve authenticity in the face of annihilation and how to speak truth to power when powerful demagogues were distorting and concealing truth to their own ends. Brunner writes of the forceful way in which the poem “disinters issues that were, in the 1950s, awkward to confront.” Indeed, he adds, “The three long poems [in Horatio] are reports from the underclass that, in the keen sympathy they reveal Plutzik extending to the poor, go unmatched by any other postwar poetry except that of Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks.”
Letter from a Young Poet
In 2016, a never-before-published set of letters between Plutzik and his mentor will be published in a special edition.
Written on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, this remarkable Letter From a Young Poet discloses a young Jewish American man’s spiritual and literary odyssey through rural Connecticut and urban Brooklyn during the turbulent 1930s. In an epic letter to trusted teacher Odell Shepard, Plutzik challenges the growing menace of Nazism that he views looming from afar.