Portrait of an obscure poet

The Israeli debut of the film 'Hyam Plutzik - American Poet' revives the work of the forgotten Jewish writer who still remains a mystery.

HYAM PLUTZIK  88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Mention the name Hyam Plutzik to your average reader of modern poetry, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Despite years of publishing to critical acclaim, including being named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his book-length poem Horatio, Plutzik is hardly a household name. But a new documentary, Hyam Plutzik - American Poet, screened last Wednesday at the Jerusalem Cinematheque as part of the Jewish Film Festival, and set to screen again on today in Tel Aviv, is shedding new light on this underrated talent. Poet and translator Lisa Katz, an instructor in the Hebrew University's English department, commented on the growing interest in Plutzik during remarks she made before the screening. "Plutzik's poetry is in no way reduced by his not being famous," she explained. "Perhaps now, at the height of globalization, he may be introduced to new readers whom he will interest precisely because he is a local, connected to his time and place, and not a product of merchandising." Recent buzz about Plutzik's work led the University of Rochester in New York to search for an archivist to organize video footage of the school's former professor of English. Documentary filmmaker Christine Choy, who is best known for her political documentaries, including Who Killed Vincent Chin?, about discrimination aimed at Asian-Americans, recognized a winning story and joined forces with daughter Ku-Ling Siegel and literary researcher Edward Moran to create a more-extensive film about the topic. Moran cites Plutzik's status as an "unknown" as one of the elements that drew him to work on the film. "I had heard about him, but I did not know his work," he explained. The desire to understand how a poet becomes forgotten, and what it takes to bring his work back to the public, became the film's central challenge, he said. Interestingly, while the film adequately introduces viewers to Plutzik's work, it doesn't really provide an intimate portrait. Despite scores of interviews with family members, former colleagues and many well-known names in contemporary poetry, including Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnel and Grace Schulman, the inner life of the man is never broached. This imbues the film with the same sense of mystery that surrounds the poet himself. Born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian-Jewish parents, Plutzik spoke only Yiddish, Russian, and Hebrew until he began grammar school at the age of seven, where he first learned English. After majoring in English at Trinity College, and spending two years at Yale Graduate School, Plutzik left his formal academic studies to concentrate on writing poetry, while he took various writing and editing jobs. In 1942 he enlisted in the army, and was based in England during the war years. Upon his discharge, Plutzik moved with wife Tanya to Rochester. There he became an English professor and a father of four. He also published widely in journals and magazines and developed a reputation as a poet of great technical skill whose work often focused on questions of Jewish identity. He died in 1962 at the age of 50. In one of his poems featured in the film, "For T.S.E. Only," Plutzik responds to anti-Semitic images in the poetry of modernist T.S. Eliot, both calling the poet to task for his racism, and at the same time endeavoring to find commonalities with him. In another poem in the film entitled "Portrait," Plutzik describes a second-generation American Jew who "tries to be a Jew casually." Although this well-dressed, modern Jew "lives in his own house under his oak," Plutzik succeeds at suggesting the ways in which such a Jew is haunted by tragedy and a history of discrimination. Indeed, many of Plutzik's best poems explore the collective upheaval of the middle of the 20th century, and the trauma of historical events, including the experiences of American soldiers in World War II and genocide at Hiroshima. Moran notes that Plutzik wrote much of his best work in the mid-'50s as "consciousness of the Holocaust was beginning to sink in," and adds that Plutzik was planning a large poetic work on the Holocaust at the time of his death. For director Siegel, the film's Israeli debut marks an important milestone in the development of the project. With both Asian-American and Jewish-American heritage, Siegel says she identified with the "Jewishness" of Plutzik's work, and she felt her own background gave her a direction in the making of the film. The film also provided Siegel with an opportunity to visit Israel for the first time, as she presents it at the festival. "I wish Hyam were here to see it. He must be so proud right now," she said. Moran added that the film's traveling to Israel represents a new phase in the study of Plutzik's poetry. Recalling a poem in which the poet imagines a scene of students "in a distant place" studying his verses, and wonders if his words will be remembered in the future, Moran mused on the fate of unknown artists. "A person wonders: Will anyone remember my work? And here we are, and, yes, we do," he said. Hyam Plutzik - American Poet, will be screened at Tel Aviv University today, December 11, at 6 pm. For more information, visit hyamplutzikpoetry.com