Kops Dances in the Sunlight

One of the foremost Jewish poets publishes a career collection of his verse.

THE PUBLICATION OF THIS selection of poems by Bernard Kops, the doyen of contemporary European verse, counts as one of the greatest literary events of the Anglo-Jewish world this decade.
His career began close to seven decades ago, when he became the bard singing of the ruthless exploitation and callous neglect endured by the now bygone Jewish immigrant communities of London’s East End into which he was born in 1926, “their old men huddled around the wireless weeping tears of pride at weather forecasts from Radio Moscow,” as he once put it. Since then, he has considerably expanded his range.
His formidable literary powers received the unusual accolade last year of a special pension awarded by the Queen. This ‘Civil List’ pension numbers Lord Byron and William Wordsworth among its previous recipients, an indication of the esteem in which he is held.
Probably (and typically) the only member of the British poetry-reading public still doggedly unaware that Kops has taken his rightful place in the literary world is Kops himself.
The youngest of seven children of an immigrant Dutch-Jewish family, Kops left school at 13 during the Blitz. He tried his hand at acting and the second-hand book trade, drifted through the then-bohemian world of Soho and won sudden, unexpected fame in 1957 with his East End play “The Hamlet of Stepney Green.”
This was drama steeped in the Yiddish theatrical tradition: a sweet-and-sour comedy including brilliant poetry set to music, the play portrayed a dying working-class community through the frustrating relationship between an ailing father and his adult son. He was hailed for it by the critics of the day as a significant contribution to the-then fashion in England for ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas. But several of his subsequent plays were mauled by the press. Atheater performing his play “Ezra” about the anti- Semitic American poet Ezra Pound was firebombed in 1981, possibly by outraged playgoers.
Nonetheless his prize-winning output is impressive, and has been translated into several languages.
His plays have won many prizes and they have been performed in many translations.
One, “The Dreams of Anne Frank,” first staged in 1992, has been performed in Hungary and it is now being translated into Czech as a reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism sweeping Eastern Europe. The play is about the miracle of survival through the perils of the Holocaust that claimed Kops’s large extended family in Amsterdam.
In all, he has written more than 40 plays, nine novels and two autobiographies. He runs a master-class for playwrights. But poetry remains for him “the quintessence of everything” in literature, as he once told me.
He is extraordinarily prolific. A sense of humor almost never deserts him. Here is how he says he experiences creativity: Poems are like grandchildren.
You should never bribe or persuade them to visit you.
...But wait until they enter and overwhelm and delight you.
“This Room In The Sunlight” is Kops’s eighth collection of verse, covering his entire career as a poet. The poems are mostly deceptively simple, insightful, dark-and-joyful and poignant. Many are already popular classics, having assumed lives of their own.
The book includes more than 40 hitherto unpublished pieces among the old favorites, describing the desperation of destitute communities dependent for survival on soup kitchens and pawnbrokers.
They also deal with Kops’s own quartercentury struggle with drug addiction and an attempted suicide: death is a frequent topic, much too much for my comfort. Familiar literary figures crop up in the work, friends and idols like the World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg, another Jewish master from the East End of London, as well as W.H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg and the recently deceased Adrian Mitchell. Yet his ability to combine touching simplicity with naked passion owes much to English literary traditions going back to the 18th century. The poems project great empathy and deep emotional commitment, their power driven by a desperate, unconcealed awareness of the vulnerability of all living things.
The new collection contains something very Jewish but also very rare in Western literature – a deeply felt, recurring declaration of passionate, lifelong matrimonial love. This is how Kops describes a train ride:
Beside me is a lovely girl with long dark hair.

The sun strikes the amber of her dreaming eyes where I am trapped like a prehistoric fly.

She smiles.

I must get to know her.

She is my wife.
The poet’s muse, wife, lover, friend, editor, mentor and manager and the mother of his four children is Erica, a diminutive woman of enormous intensity, the sort of matriarch you might think Rachel of the Bible might have become if she had been granted a longer life. The collection is dedicated to her.
In the poem “Shalom Bomb,” Kops celebrates his wife dancing in her dressing gown.
I want a happy family bomb, a do-it-yourself bomb.

I’ll climb on the roof and ignite it there about noon.

...I want a one-man-band bomb. My own bomb!
My live long and die happy bomb. My die peacefully of old age bomb;
in my own bed bomb.
EAST LONDON AS KOPS KNEW IT no longer exists. The dockside Jewish communities once sheltering there from the Holocaust have moved on to the prosperous North-West London suburbs of Golders Green and Hampstead, and beyond. Their place has been taken by more recent immigrant communities from South Asia, introducing to it their very different and exuberant cultures.
But East London has not forgotten Kops.
He is a well-known figure of the community, frequently recognized on the street. He stages plays there and holds poetry readings, lectures and theatrical workshops.
The collection opens with the poem “Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East” paying homage to that institution, once known as the university of the poor, where the poet used to shelter as an ill-clad, hungry child feasting on literature. Today, lines from that poem grace the walls of the library, which now serves also as a splendid modern gallery and museum.
On a recent visit to the museum for a performance of a 2008 Kops play, “Whitechapel Dreams,” about an Asian teenager seeking refuge from her family at the library, I watched young girls and stern matrons gaze at Kops fondly when they thought he did not notice. A bartender brought me free drinks when he became aware that I was in his company.
Here, I cannot refrain from a personal note.
Kops is my teacher and my close friend. He is a spellbinding public speaker whose still frequent lectures and poetry readings are often remembered in small detail by his audiences for years after. He is easily approachable, with informal manners radiating the warmth of a secure early childhood when he was spoilt by the love of his many sisters. But his face betrays the suffering endured by him as well as his extended family. He was dogged by financial worries for most of his life and suffered years of drug-induced mental breakdowns. But this spirited collection belies his troubles and celebrates his formidable gifts.
“This Room in the Sunlight” – the final poem in the collection – celebrates the joys of the simple, greatest pleasures of love, creativity and sharing. There is no better way of closing this review than to quote lines from this poem here.
This room in the sunlight.

And music weaving, imploring from the other room.

And Erica! Her silhouette perched over the newspaper; sighing for the woes of the world.

Then she turns, her sadness, her smiles coalesce, dance together in those deep dark eyes.

This room in the morning.

And birds, the other side of glass, darting through bare branches… This room in the morning.

And my heart full of loving; and the calling laughter of children not here.

And their lingering, echoing.

And Erica there, haloed by sunlight, pouring gold into this space called home; into this room in the sunlight and the joy of living.
Thomas Orszag-Land is a poet and awardwinning foreign correspondent. His last major translated work is ‘Christmas in Auschwitz: Holocaust Poetry,’ from the Hungarian by András Mezei.