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Memoirs of Sol Funaroff

By Urie Funaroff

Sol Funaroff was like a drowning man who lifts a guiding light for others while he sinks. In the midst of his own desperate struggle, he turned from the shore, remembering others. The promise of his life was drowned by the Great Depression of the 1930's. Yet despite his struggle for a bare existence he strained his meager physical and financial resources to bring the poets whose themes concerned labor, to the labor audience.

His effort resulted in pushing other poets forward even when his own poetry suffered. He was editor of the Franklin K. Lane High School magazine in 1929; of the National Student League's College Student Review in 1932; poetry editor of the New Masses in 1933; of We Gather Strength in 1933; of Dynamo, a Journal of Poetry in 1935; of Partisan Review in 1934; associate editor of New Theatre Magazine in 1936; and editor of various selections of poetry for the New Republic and the New Masses in 1934, 1937 and 1938. Finally, as editor and publisher of the Dynamo series, and as editor of American Writing in 1940, he published--in several instances introduced for the first time--the work of the following writers:

Joseph Kalar, Herman Spector, Edwin Rolfe, Kenneth Fearing, Sidney Alexander, Hans Otto Storm, Eugene Joffe, Norman McLeod, B. H. Scheiffer, Ralph Ellison, Robert Friend, Joy Davidman, Raphael Hayes, A. T. Rosen, David Greenhood, Ben Field, Ruth Lechlitner, Horace Gregory, H. M. Chevalier, Stanley Burnshaw, James T. Farrell, Isadore Schneider, William Pillin, C. Day Lewis, Muriel Rukeyser, Hector Rella, Ben Maddow, W. H. Auden, Orrick Johns, Andre Spire, Langston Hughes, Willard Maas, David Wolff, James Neugass, Jacques Romain, Alfred Hayes and others.

His own poems and writings were often signed by pen names: Charles Henry Newman, Steve Foster, and Sil Vnarov. His poems appeared in Poetry, a Magazine of Verse; Scribner’s Pagany, Nativity, Left and elsewhere. His writing can be found in standard anthologies and college text-books: A Quarto of Modern Literature, edited by Leonard Brown (Scribner's); An Anthology of Proletarian Literature (International Publishers); An American Sketch Book (Macmillan); A New Anthology of Modern Poetry edited by Selden Rodman (Random House), and This Generation, edited by Eda Lou Walton (Scott, Foresman & Co.). He was founder and guiding spirit of the Dynamo school of modern poets, which included Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser, Edwin Rolfe, Alfred Hayes, and others.

His main literary effort and aim throughout his life was to bring the new socially conscious poets together with their great labor audience. To this end he tried not only the usual means, but developed, adapted and fostered new means of expression--radio, voice recordings, sound film, dance, drama, and music. All this with the great audience of labor's millions in mind.

Economically he remained until death, below the bare subsistence level. Any little extra money he spent on books--philosophical, historical, political and economic as well as literary volumes. He often went hungry in order to take advantage of special bargains at Macy's and Gimbel's book sales.

He managed to accumulate a large library, in addition to large files of clippings, articles and magazines. These he read voraciously, marking them with marginal notes from cover to cover.

His penniless refugee family was chased and badgered from country to country in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His was a hungry infancy. The family came to New York’s East Side, and so his childhood was a tenement childhood. Hunger, poverty and illness were his daily experience. But he fought to live. Against a doctor's advice he climbed factory stairs in New York's garment district with his brother, selling ice cream, candy and fruit to the workers. He worked in a matzoth factory, in an upholstery shop at starvation wages. Searching the job-void depression continuously for work, he got occasionally short-lived assignments as a reporter for the New York World, City News Service and Federated Press; and he did some editorial work for the New Republic, Scribner’s, New Theatre and New Masses magazines. He never "got a toe-hold on a real solid writing job," to use the phrase of his desire and need. He remained in the lowest third of the ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clad people about whom he wrote. Home Relief and W.PA. writing jobs were a temporary help only.

One marvels that in spite of all this he was able to sandwich in all his literary and dramatic accomplishments. He lived to double his medically fixed life. He lived to stimulate and help many others; he left behind him much work unpublished. Now, if he were alive, with some recognition of his value in the minds and hearts of a growing audience, he perhaps could have gained the "toehold" he so much wanted. But unfortunately his good breaks always came too late.

Urie Funaroff, December, 1943.

By Genevieve Taggard

I knew Sol Funaroff, but I didn't know that he was physically ill. I remember a committee meeting where we worked through a long Saturday afternoon, planning a pamphlet on Loyalist Spain. I remember looking at his face as I sat beside him. Because I had read his poems I was particularly aware of him. I remember his physical image in a dark bare room. His image in poetry is the created opposite of that dark bare room.

There is no self-pity in Sol Funaroff's work. Let us not pity him; no poet is to be pitied. Strong emotions, not pity, are engendered by the story of his life.

Poverty killed him, slowly, elaborately, drawing out his desires and conceptions, only to threaten them daily; refining his insights into the identified sufferings of those he saw around him; giving him the old run-around when he called himself a poet.

Nevertheless he became a poet and faced his situation. He was a man of the 20th century, with all the possibilities of that realixation; he was Jewish, and aware of his people's experience; he was deeply read, soaked in good poetry and social understanding; he was a young American, participant with unnumbered youths of our country in the desire for a good life and great culture. He was a pupil of Necessity. His head and heart were full of desires that contradicted Necessity. He put the inner world and the outer world together; and so became a poet.

What lies behind his poetry? The dead father in Palestine; the mother in the East Side sweat-shop; the tenement fire, and the early illness; the tenement life; the American public school where the boy began to read and respond; books and more books; and from the streets and the tenements more knowledge of Necessity. When the time for growing up neared, the time of vigor and maturity, still living in poverty with a "poverty heart" he encountered the depression, which meant double and triple poverty, pressed down, overflowing, all-encompassing. Here is enough circumstance for melancholy, suicidal dejection, and the pessimism expressed by poets of the upper-class. But Sol, the New York boy who knew well and carried in his heart-beat the ruthless truth of his splendid city, did not follow that pessimism-pattern. His writing is marked by the red badge of courage.

Sol was fortunate because he had two poles by which to chart his course. His family came originally from Russia--he did not misunderstand the Soviet Union. That was one pole; his poetry makes that plain. He was not a sloganizing poet; rather he aimed at a deep and rich integration of the best in the arts with the realities of today. The other pole was the labor movement in this country. He loved our labor movement; and loving it he wanted to give his work and the work of his friends and fellow-poets to enrich the life of labor's struggle. I call it a triumphant life in spite of the pain, the starvation, the waste and the death. For the workers he did create richness out of poverty.

I like many of his poems: The Bellbuoy, and I Dreamed I Was Master, and Dusk of the Gods, and Thinking Upon a Time When We Are Dead and the Earth is Cold in Spider and the Clock; Song of Fatigue, Music on an Unplayed Theme and others in this collection. As so often happens, he wrote his own epitaph, using some suggestion from the folk-tale past--from Hebrew or Russian fairy-tale, perhaps:


The poet, in his nightcap,
descends the stairs of the dark,
and holds a flickering candle.

There are always bugaboos and drafts.

His magic cap makes him invisible.

But the flame he carries reveals him.
Here in the streets of life,
His bright body walks.

December 2, 1943.

By Herbert Kline

In 1861, during a similar time of bitter and bloody conflict, a great American poet named Abraham Lincoln said, "This is a struggle to give everyone a fair and equal start in the race of life."

About 50 years later, in the America of 1915, a child whose father had died in Palestine and whose immigrant mother was away working in a nearby sweatshop was carried gasping and near to death from a burning tenement in New York's East Side slums. Neighbors pumped the smoke and fumes from the child's lungs and wrapped him in a blanket while they waited for their tenement home to burn down.

"Rheumatic Heart," the doctors called it throughout the years they waited for Sol to die. And the boy lived to hear a bitter slum doctor call it "Poverty Heart." That was the birth of a poet whose will to live managed to stand up to years of struggle to help in his small way to make Lincoln's words come true.

Sol grew up tenement-thin and hungry-looking among the Jews Without Money of New York's East Side. In his 32 years of life, he never escaped the lot of that one-third of a nation that the greatest President since Lincoln has described as "ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed."

And I, who grew up in a bright and sunlit home in the Midwest, became his friend. Together, in that cold and miserable winter of 1933 when we first met, we searched for work that would sustain us while we tried to carry out our dreams of making good in our respective fields of poetry and the allied arts of theatre and film.

Sol "made good" as a poet. But his writings were not of the kind that lead to success in financial terms, or even to the adequate kind of living standard one enjoys at the times while making documentary films of wars and revolutions.

Sol spent most of his life searching for employment. He never managed to rise far above the tenement type of abode. On returning from Spain in 1938, I found him with an apartment of his own for the first time. At last, he said, he had a place of his own in which to write. He was then making $28 a week on the W.P.A. Writers' Project, his first steady job after years of part-time employment since his graduation from high school.

"Ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed." That was Sol Funaroff’s life. He was in love with a girl who loved him dearly, and was loyal to him for many years. But knowing he was destined for an early death, and that any child they might have would probably grow up in the same poverty he had known, he denied his love, and lived to see the girl marry someone else.

Yes, his life was as sad as his poems. But he was never a man who believed in crying out about his lot. He was too busy crying out against injustice to feel sorry for himself, or to allow anyone else to do so.

It's hard to tell what a friend is like to people who will never have a chance to know him. But perhaps one little story about a letter Sol wrote to Spain in that terrible spring of 1937 when Madrid seemed about to fall will tell more what he was like than the usual biographical eulogy.

I was working on a film about the Loyalist wounded. Sol was working for the W.P.A. and giving all of his meager earnings that he could spare to the cause of Spain. And he did more--straining his failing heart working to help win others over to understanding of what Spain meant to the future of the world.

But serious as he was, he realized that the American volunteers who were fighting on the Jarama front in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion were probably the most homesick group of heroes in the world. So he addressed a long letter to me to read to my closest friends in the Battalion.

It was not the serious type of news summary so many people back home sent to Spain with the sincere zeal and respect of stayathomes for the men at the front. It was a letter for homesick kids who ached for the sight of America and a few laughs and the kind of talk they would hear from their buddies over a game of pool or a few beers.

It was a letter full of fun and rough jokes and the latest gossip and wisecracks. As I finished reading Sol’s ten-page collection of laughs from home, the group of friends (who had been 110 consecutive days in the trenches helping hold the Madrid-Valencia road) broke out into applause.

One of them said, "Now there's the kind of guy I’d like to pal out with." His name was John Dyck, and he asked for Sol's name and address so he could write to him and look him up someday.

Some months later in New York I told Sol how my friends had applauded his letter, and what John Dyck had said just before he went to his death throwing a Molotov cocktail at a tank that crushed him into the Spanish earth he had volunteered to defend. And it made Sol happy to hear that he had given a moment's ease to the men who were fighting for what he believed on the front against fascism.

Like John Dyck, Sol's readers will never have a chance to pal out with him, or know the quick warm smile and hearty laughter that often broke the sadness of his face and life. But perhaps his words will lead them to help realize his dream and Lincoln’s of a world that will give "everyone a fair and equal start in the race of life."

November 11, 1943.

All selections reprinted from Exile to a Future Time.

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