Hyam Plutzik -
Letter from a Young Poet
May 22, 2016
A Review by Anthony Costello
Plutzik's Letter from a Young Poet should not be confused with Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Whereas Rilke's book works on the principal of a literary exchange, an interplay, an addressee, a recipient, Hyam's book is more a portrait of the artist as a young man, a literary memoir for the universal reader, a monologue, the sole recipient (in this case Odell Shepard, Plutzik's erstwhile Professor at Yale), seems as notional as Shepard's reply was redundant (he wrote a two page unsent reply to Plutzik's 70 page missive). There is never any advice asked of Shepard (Shepard notes this in his reply, published here as an afterword), which further removes it from any parallel with Rilke's book. It does, however, conform to a theory expounded by Rilke that a writer should always live in the question, in Plutzik's case a seven year self-questioning.
Plutzik writes his letter to his former professor after a seven year hiatus. The letter itself indicates a journey in the composition, written over a seven month period in 1941 and looking back to 1934 and an era dominated by Depression. As a piece of literature the letter exhibits the best aspects of the bildungsroman, the harsh, often demoralising struggle of the writer in 1930s America. The young writer (aged 22-29) trying to make retrospective sense of his (unfinished) studies at Yale, and his early attempts at writing poetry, whilst holding down a stream of hand-to-mouth jobs, including unedifyng work on East Coast newspapers of the day (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Newark Ledger, The New Haven Courier Journal).
Plutzik is a great and memorable phraseologist. About his long literary letter he can write: "One has seven years' thought on the edge of one's mind" and can say that the letter is "the story of my silence". Plutzik's reasoning can be epigrammatic - "vulgarity is only a superficial thing, an armour against the impact of the world" - and about war, profound: "yet of this I am certain, I am not afraid of death or the danger of death". On human nature, given that the letter was posted after the attacks on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the rise of Nazism, Plutzik can write:
"The barbarian arises in every age. Sometimes he can be destroyed by laughter, sometimes by ridicule, sometimes by indifference, sometimes by legislation".
In this sense the letter to Shepard is a letter of its age, starting as it does with the reality of post-Depression America and ending with a disquisition on religion and politics and a befuddled avowal of peace despite a prescience about antisemiticism leading to the Holocaust. Elsewhere, Plutzik writes about a range of subject matter including family, environment and ecology, which includes opinions on farming and (literary) gravedigging. The letter is most fascinating when it details the reality of living in New York. Plutzik wrote a poem called 'The Seventh Avenue Express' and he was fascinated by trains and the notion of journey, feeling the destination and the journey were the same.
Plutzik was morbidly fascinated by the subway and felt the travellers there were of another species. His vision is of time and the city, of the ancient dead and apocalypse. On the subways he sees "row on row of the damned, the smug-faced, the cadaverous, the tired, the distorted". It is a vision of living and working in New York and Brooklyn opposite to that of Lorca's in Poet in New York, and symbolically representative of Plutzik's early struggle as an academic and a writer.
Ultimately, the letter to Shepard is an affirmation of Plutzik's talent as a poet. He quotes quite liberally brilliant chunks of his own work in this long, honest, self-justification; his emerging talent later to be realised as a finalist in three Pulitzer prizes and in his professorship of Rhetoric and Poetry at the University of Rochester in later life. This letter, importantly, is a gateway to Plutzik's poetry which is something the reader can hold on to given the poet's tragically untimely death aged 50 in 1962
The publishers, Watkinson Library at Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut), have assembled a notable team of writers and academics to work on this elgantly produced publication. In addition to the extant response by Odell Shepard, there are several photographs, a preface by Richard Ring, a foreword by David Halpern and an afterword by Edward Moran. This act of scholarship allows for some degree of clarity about the life and work of Hyam Plutzik and in some way counter one of Plutzik's downbeat pensees he includes in one of his poems referenced in the letter...
A world is haloed forth, to clash, and pass
Each other world in silence in the dark