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Socking It to T.S. Eliot

Lawrence Bush
May 4, 2017

Poet Emanuel Litvinoff, who criticized T.S. Eliot’s antisemitism in a poem, “To T.S. Eliot,” which he read in 1951 to a crowd that included the 1948 Nobel Laureate, was born in London on this date in 1915. Litvinoff wrote several volumes of poetry as well as novels that dealt with Jewish immigrant life in East End London, and he was active in post-war efforts to aid Jews in the Soviet bloc. In 1948, T.S. Eliot reprinted in his Selected Poems anthology a 1920 poem, “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,” which included such descriptions of “Bleistein” as “A saggy bending of the knees/And elbows, with the palms turned out,/Chicago Semite Viennese./ A lustreless protrusive eye/Stares from the protozoic slime. . . ./ The rats are underneath the piles./ The jew is underneath the lot.” Litvinoff responded in his poem with such lines as “Bleistein is my relative and I share/the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page/ in Stürmer, and, underneath the cities,/ a billet somewhat lower than the rats./ Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh/ float with the ordure on the Vistula.” Eliot was present in the audience when Litvinoff included the poem at a reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. “[P]andemonium ensued,” writes Margalit Fox in the New York Times. “The poet Stephen Spender stood up and denounced him for insulting Eliot, prompting others in the crowd to cry ‘Hear, hear’ in assent.... There was, however, a dissenting voice. Amid the tumult, a man in the back of the room was heard to mutter: ‘It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.’ . . . The speaker was Thomas Stearns Eliot.” Emanuel Litvinoff lived to 96.

“Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded/and darkness choked our nostrils,/and the smoke drifting over Treblinka/reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,/I thought what an angry poem/you would have made of it, given the pity. . . .” --Emanuel Litvinoff, “To T.S. Eliot”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.