Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Moral Voice in an Amoral World

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A Moral Voice in an Amoral World

There’s a wonderful millinery on the north side of College Street, just west of Bathurst. (Readers of my blogs this month may have come to the conclusion that I never leave the vicinity of College Street. They are correct.) Inside the charmingly decorated Lilliput Hats, you will find a fanciful array of pillboxes, cloches, Bergeres and berets. Feathered, flowered, beaded, braided. All of the hats are designed and fabricated on the premises by an all-women team led by the shop’s talented proprietor, Karyn Gingras.

The location of Lilliput Hats seems apt. The atelier inhabits a storefront that was occupied for many a decade by an old-fashioned men's tailor shop, one of the neighbourhood's longest-standing premises founded by the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who once thrived here. Until it closed in the late 1980s, Sherman Tailors--with its scuffed hardwood floor; bolts of cloth, scissors, shears, snaking lengths of measuring tape--evoked that older Toronto New World to which my grandparents and great grandparents had made their way, in their scrappy struggle to survive. It evoked, too, something of the shtetl, that redolent lost world of Sholem Aleichem that they had left behind.

But even if you never set foot near the corner of College and Bathurst, you may be well familiar with Sherman Tailors. It was opened by the paternal grandfather of the poet, Kenneth Sherman. Ken lived for the first five years of his life in the apartment above the shop, and he delicately conjured its ancient world-within-a-world (as well as drew a memorable portrait of his father), in his anthologized, signature poem My Father Kept His Cats Well Fed.

...

The cats,
they sang my father's praise
in the fishbone throat of the coldest nights
where their lives, once lean, curled fat and secure

and dreamt their gifted names:
No Neck, Schvartz Kaatz, Rabinovitz…
a regular minyan
to greet his early mornings
when snow outside
dropped soft as padded paws
and the shop was a museum hush.

...

Ken returned once again to his early childhood home to write the opening of his most recent book. What the Furies Bring (The Porcupine's Quill, 2009) is a magnificent collection of critical essays that serves to answer the questions: What help is writing to the writer? What help to the reader? And, more specifically, what help is literature to the writer and\or the reader who have lived through a season of excruciating suffering and duress? The book was launched last month in Toronto at Ben McNally Books on Bay Street to an intimate gathering of Ken's family and friends. (Kenneth Sherman does not play much part in Toronto's lively poetry scene. He avoids scenes. He lives in the suburbs and, when he's not teaching or enjoying family life, he's quietly holed up in his finished basement, writing. He has 12 books of poetry to his name, including his most recent and highly acclaimed Black River, The Porcupine's Quill, 2007).

At the launch of What the Furies Bring, Ken humbly read aloud from its opening essay, "Who Knows You Here." He painted for us a vivid portrait of his grandfather who had established Sherman Tailors: "He was a man of medium height with black hair and a dark complexion that set off his Baltic blue eyes. His ears were overly large. As a child, I likened them to an elephant's, but years later I heard a woman describe them as Clark Gable ears. He liked the occasional drink and kept a bottle of Seagram and Sons whisky behind a bolt of cloth in the back of the store. 'It's good for the blood and the balls,' he told me when I was older."

He described his great grandfather, too:

"In 1936 my grandfather, who had been in Canada for thirty years, brought his father over from Poland. It was hoped that the old man would take to the New World and send for his wife, but it was not be. According to my father, my great-grandfather walked out to the corner of College and Euclid, stared at the traffic, and uttered one word--the Yiddish word for 'zombies'. He was a devout Jew, and with that one word, he pronounced his unequivocal judgement of North American culture. It is reported that he spent the next three weeks in a state of taciturn disgruntlement, until a ship carried him back to Europe. Unfortunately, that single utterance not only described his feelings about the soulless materialism of North American society; it also sealed his fate. Three years later war broke out in Europe and a year after that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were shot dead by members of an Einsatzgruppe."

It's not surprising to me that Ken would begin a book of essays on literature with a deeply personal account of his own familial connection to the Holocaust. He states, in his preface, that it was the terrorist attacks of September 11th that first set him off on a course of reading that ultimately led to the writing of What the Furies Bring; I think, however, it is the horror of the Holocaust that underpins all of his critical writing, poems, and world view. And the cries of those murdered by Hitler helped in part to determine which writers Ken would focus upon in his book (which includes a chapter on Yiddish and the modern Jewish canon), such as Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Chaim Kaplan, Vasily Grossman, Anthony Hecht, Zbigniew Herbert, and Czeslaw Milosz. (To be fair, he also discusses the lives and works of Rupert Brooke, H.G Wells, Varlam Shalamov, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, among others.)

When I first had the idea for this blog, I thought of calling Ken up and arranging an interview. But I decided, instead, to quote him directly from What the Furies Bring. Here, therefore, is a tiny sampling of what he has to say on the broad purpose and meaning of literature. His voice is quiet, concise, lyrical, and completely devoid of jargon. It is moral in an amoral world. Listen:

"Writing is alchemy that transforms pain into something we value."

"In the classical world, art sought truth, knowledge, justice and love. Self-expression as an end in itself is a recent notion, and the shift in sensibility accounts for the current deluge of inconsequential art."

"Poetry is not journalism. Literalism diminishes the poet's effectiveness. A subject stared at directly will have the Medusa effect of paralyzing the artist."

"The essayist analyzes the experience and the memoirist recalls it, the artist re-creates it..."

"Poetry is both a shield and a sword. It not only protects us from those inimical forces arrayed against us, it counterattacks as well."

"Writing, in its completion, in its artistic rightness, is 'a finality' that counters the finality of dying. Yet writing differs from music, from dance, painting and sculpture, for the inescapable reason that language is fated to have meaning."

"[Writing] comes to us as a balm, a comfort, even as it awakens us to discomfiting truths."

5 comments

I first met Ken in Irving Layton's poetry workshop at York U. back in the early 70's. I was drawn to Ken's dry wit and evident talent for poetry. Later, he was responsible for getting me started teaching English at community colleges when he explained "you just go in and do your classes. There's no need for research, so it leaves time for poetry." Obviously, he's put that time to better use than I have with his dozen poetry books and now essay collection. I'm looking forward to reading it.
John Oughton

Hi John,

I'd forgotten that you had met Ken in Irving Layton's wonderful workshop. I'm sure you will enjoy his new book... But hey, don't put yourself down... I have at least one of your books of poetry... and it's great! And I know you are scheduled to have a new one out later this year from Guernica Editions... I'm looking forward to its publication!

Cheers,

Karen

I look forward to taking it up with Ken when my copy of Furies comes in-- nothing like a good book of essays.

I can't agree with Ken Sherman's contention that "Writing in its completion, in its artistic rightness... differs from music, from dance, painting and sculpture, for the inescapable reason that language is fated to have meaning."
Music, dance, painting, and sculpture are all forms of artistic communication/language that in "completion" contain and convey meaning, and have, like writing, the potential to "counter the finality of dying." I would like to believe that "poetry is... a shield and a sword [that]... protects us from those inimical forces arrayed against us," but I will settle for "writing is alchemy that transforms pain into something we value." I think I'll have to order this book. Thank you for shining this light on Ken, Karen.

Hi Elana,

I will leave it to Ken to defend his opinion.

Karen

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page