ON ITS 75TH ANNIVERSARY,
LETTER FROM A YOUNG POET
STRIKES A CONTEMPORARY CHORD
As mid-century poet Hyam Plutzik struggles with adulthood,
he reveals that the creative process remains unchanged

March, 2016 - “In Hyam’s fervid letter he addresses the concerns of an artist coming to terms with the world he’s inherited. The prose is filled with determination, philosophic wonderings, thoughts on the nature of the artistic endeavor, enveloped throughout with a youthful ambition, a hopefulness, an admixture of self-confidence and self-doubt that in Hyam’s voice never rings contradictory… Hyam’s letter is a song of the self and the soul.” –from the foreword by Daniel Halpern

Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962) was a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and anthologized alongside contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Muriel Rukeyser.  But at the age of 29, he was grappling with the precarious world situation and the ups and downs of being an artist.  Fortunately for us, he worked through his struggle by writing about it in a recently discovered letter to a mentor.

Now to be published as LETTER FROM A YOUNG POET (The Watkinson Library at Trinity College/Books & Books Press, March 1, 2016, $24.95 limited edition hardcover, $15.95 trade paperback), this 72-page work was discovered in the library’s archives among the papers of Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar Professor Odell Shepard, Plutzik’s collegiate mentor in the 1930’s. It was featured in a 2011 exhibition at Trinity commemorating the Plutzik centenary.  
 
“It was such an expressive and full literary endeavor—from a young poet to his former teacher—that we decided to publish it,” writes the library’s head curator Richard Ring in the book’s preface.  “We hope this will stand as an encouragement to young writers.”

Written right before America’s entry into World War II, this remarkable letter reveals a young Jewish-American man’s spiritual and literary odyssey through rural Connecticut and urban Brooklyn during the turbulent 1930s. 

LETTER FROM A YOUNG POET can be described as an early example of Holocaust literature for the way Plutzik challenges the growing menace of Nazism that he sees looming from afar. 

Plutzik wrote the letter at the age of 29 in 1941, seven years after he had last seen Shepard.  At that time, the President of Trinity had called Plutzik “a disgrace to Trinity College” because his post-graduate studies at Yale were incomplete.  In the course of the letter, Plutzik comes to terms with this admonishment, put it in the greater context of his life, and moves on---sometimes successfully, sometimes not. 

LETTER FROM A YOUNG POET follows him through work as a writer for hire, a newspaperman, radio commentator, and, of course, as a poet.  Along the way, he ruminates on such topics as:

Reflection, procrastination, and life’s purpose:

“My reasons for not writing you?  They are complex.  But perhaps first has been the feeling of uncertainty—the feeling that what I was doing was passing and inconsequential, an interlude in life rather than part and parcel of life itself.  It is as if I had been riding on a railroad train, with the idea that as soon as I reached my destination I should write a letter to my friends and let them know what I was doing.  I should have time to turn around; to breathe; to think over what has happened to me en route; and to put it down lucidly and without struggle on paper.  In the meantime, while the train was in motion, the best that one might do was to dash off a postcard to be dropped at some way-station, and this was not only a superficial thing by would work a deep injustice upon all the important things one had to write about.  Besides, the destination or at least an important overnight stop was almost in sight.”

The world situation:

“I must confess that I have always been a sentimentalist about democracy…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.” 

Moving forward:

“If an angel of the Lord were to come up to me now and offer me 10,000 years in paradise in the most pleasant and enjoyable setting, proving that I admitted my mistake in the attitude I adopted toward the mechanics of scholarship, I should tell him to go to hell. The decisions of a certain period of one’s life cannot justly be called wrong from the vantage point of later years, for each decision is based on the experience which preceded it, not those that are yet to come.”

The creative process:

“…in the realm of poetry the work of a few hours may sometimes win prizes, and the work of two weeks may contain more of labor than of art.”

Books:

“…the outstanding aspect of my life at this period was the way I turned to books after a long period of indifference and even detestation.  It is no exaggeration to say that for a year after leaving Yale I couldn’t bear to look at a book—except perhaps a bit of poetry…I was discovering that books were not spectres at all, but friends: that, indeed, I was a bookman at heart…were I to simplify and epitomize the events of these years that have intervened since you heard from me last, I should say that they were spent solely in the making of this discovery about myself:  that I was a man of books; that though men were of primary interest to me, books also were men—men relieved of their cumbering impermanencies.” 

Hitler and the Jews:

“It is no wonder that the Jews have always been Hitler’s main enemy.  We are the people of the book; we are a symbol of the continuity he would break; we (with all our admitted faults) represent that element of conscience that he must eradicate entirely from mankind before he can implant his odious philosophy of brutality and selfishness in humanity.” 

“Other people however will be wooed to the new doctrine; they will be accepted; they will be given the privilege of corrupting themselves; they will be given material bribes (ultimately more apparent than real) in order to make them accomplice to it all. And since the flesh is weak, many will yield, to their own final doom and that of their children. But of course all this will never happen. A thousand books may go up in smoke on the Alexanderplatz, but there is one Book that is too heavy and too solid to become vapor. That and the infinite meanings that radiate from it and the associations with which it is tied will confront the destroyers when their fire turns upon themselves.”

Shepard never replied to Plutzik’s letter during his lifetime—but an unsent response was also discovered in the archives and is published here for the first time.

Plutzik went on to complete his masters at Yale, in the process becoming the only two-time winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize.  He served in the military and raised a family as a professor at the University of Rochester.  He died at age 50 in 1962.

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About the contributors:

Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962) was the author of three poetry books, all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: Aspects of Proteus (1949), Apples from Shinar (1959), and Horatio (1961). His Collected Poems were published in 1987, with an introduction by Anthony Hecht. Wesleyan Press republished Apples from Shinar in 2011 in connection with the Plutzik centennial with an afterword by Yale’s David Scott Kastan.  At the time of his death, Plutzik was John H. Deane Professor of Rhetoric and Poetry at the University of Rochester. To celebrate Plutzik’s commitment to the regular public reading of Poetry, the University established, the Plutzik Memorial Poetry Series, now the country’s longest continuous collegiate poetry series. The University is also home to the Plutzik Library for Contemporary Writing. 

Odell Shepard (1884–1967) was professor of English at Trinity College from 1917 to 1946 and served as Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut from 1941 to 1943. A renowned scholar of American Transcendentalism and an admirer of Henry David Thoreau, Shepard won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1938 for Pedlar’s Progress, about the life of Bronson Alcott, a book that Plutzik alludes to in his letter. Shepard, like Thoreau, appreciated the virtues of rural simplicity and quiet living. In 1930, when Plutzik was a student at Trinity, Shepard published Thy Rod and Thy Creel, a literary tribute to the angler’s art, which undoubtedly inspired Plutzik’s own lifelong appreciation of fly-fishing. During the 1930s, Shepard was outspoken in his criticism of the growing Nazi menace. In November, 1938, he was one of the Christian leaders who spoke at a mass rally in Hartford protesting Kristallnacht.

Daniel Halpern, the distinguished poet, editor, publisher, and winner of the 2015 Maxwell E. Perkins Award authored the book’s Foreword. He is the publisher and president of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, and for 25 years edited the international literary magazine Antaeus. 

Edward Moran wrote the book’s biographical and contextual information. He will be a US visiting scholar on a project in England, in summer 2016, presenting on Hyam Plutzik’s legacy as a soldier poet who was stationed there in Norwich, UK, during World War II.  Moran was also literary advisor for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christine Choy’s documentary, Hyam Plutzik: American Poet (2006).