"Sol Funaroff: Apollinaire of the Proletariat"--by Alan Wald
Adapted from Alan M. Wald, Exiles From a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left, copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press.
The modernist challenge to radical poetry was posed most directly by the verse and literary criticism of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), to judge by the number of direct responses to Eliot's poetry and the centrality of his name in literary debates on the Left.|1| Despite the elitism and arcane quality of many of Eliot's literary allusions, young poets found it unfeasible to ignore the profoundly novel approach to poetic form and sensibility that his verse represented. No Leftist could admit sympathy for Eliot's politics, either those implicit in the despairing poems of his early period, or the more explicitly reactionary ones that he later wrote. But there was contention about the extent to which his technical innovations, as well as those of Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who in the late 1920s personally befriended radicals and for an interval contributed to Left publications, could be assimilated bereft of ideology.
Sol Funaroff, for instance, crafted an optimistic and explicitly revolutionary response to Eliot's "What the Thunder Said" section of The Waste Land, in a 1933 poem of the same name. In it, he strives to reproduce the speech of a revolutionary Russian worker to a crowd of fellow workers while a thunderstorm threatens. Funaroff later avowed that his objective was to
transcribe the speech into poetic form and to transform the metropolitan scene with its vista of skyscrapers, bridges, airplanes, buildings in construction, etc., into a cinematic language which, as in montage, correlates and fuses the objects and symbols that visualize the changing themes of the speaker.
He also elaborated that his method of using cross-reference, swift development, and transition of images allowed him "to form a dialectic image pattern which would enable me to present simultaneously sensuous, historical, and philosophical relationships within the poem." |2| Yet Funaroff considers answering Eliot as only part of his project; his visionary poems are equally marked by prophesy.
A second instance of a revolutionary response to T. S. Eliot by Funaroff can be found in his posthumously published meditation on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which he called "Possessed By Death, 1931." Here Funaroff identifies the speaker of the monologue with Macbeth, instead of Eliot's choice, Hamlet. Funaroff then re-examines and discards the conclusions of Eliot's classic poem in light of Eliot's subsequent religious conversion:
what shall he do now? What shall he do?
Retrieve the butt-ends of ancient days
and smoke stale incense of his days and ways
while slowly the censer swings. |3|
Whereas Eliot believed that the church saved him from the despondency evident in his early work, Funaroff proposes that faith in the church transformed Eliot into one of the "hollow men" that Eliot had criticized.
The author of these Left rejoinders to modernist poems, Solomon Funaroff, was born in Beirut, Syria in 1911. He died at the age of thirty-one in New York City in 1942.|4| The Funaroffs, originally from Russia, were a destitute emigrant family, harried and pursued from several countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. His father, Levi Funaroff, wrote on social issues in Russian and Hebrew. The elder Funaroff died while the family was living in Palestine and his wife, Rachel, a Russian revolutionary and Left Zionist, came to New York with her sons to work full-time in a Lower East Side sweatshop.
Two events contributed to the ill-health that afflicted Solomon Funaroff from a young age. One was the 1918 influenza epidemic during which he contracted rheumatic fever that may have impaired his heart. The second occurred while his mother was at work; the tenement in which they lived caught fire, and young Sol was carried out gulping for air and near expiration. Neighbors forced the smoke and fumes from his lungs and cloaked him in a cover while the structure burned down. Doctors diagnosed his case as "Rheumatic Heart" (alternately called "Poverty Heart") and foretold an early death for the boy. Despite such poor health, Sol and his brother, Urie, spent their youth ascending factory stairs in the garment district vending ice cream, candy, and fruit to workers.
Funaroff graduated from Franklin Lane High School in Brooklyn, where he edited the school's literary magazine. At a later date he attended some evening classes at City College, simultaneously assuming the editorship of the left-wing College Students' Review. Most of his classes were during evening sessions so he could work all day as an upholsterer's apprentice, in a baking factory, and as a relief investigator. Lacking books of his own, he frequented the public library where, possibly because he was reading through the poetry section by starting at the letter "A," he stumbled on the modern verse of Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). He was apparently struck by a passage that he would later re-work into the opening of his signature poem, "Bellbuoy." Apollonaire's stanzas read:
Men of future time remember me
I lived at the time when kings were perishing
They died in quiet sadness one by one....
One night walking along dark deserted quays
On the way back to Auteuil I heard a voice
Which gravely sang with measured silences
So that the clear lament of other distant voices
Might reach the banks of the Seine |5|
The lines apparently resonated with Funaroffs sense that he, a poet-seer, was living in a era of epochal transformations, yet his own fragile grip on life was unlikely to permit him to witness the outcome. Moreover, Apollinaires haunting strophes correlated with Funaroffs personal temperament, not unfamiliar among the avant-garde, of having a blind faith in a future about which he was rarely specific.
Funaroff was later employed in a matzoh factory, then he obtained occasional reporting jobs for New York World, the City News Service, and the left-wing Federated Press. In the late 1930s he located some editorial work at the New Republic and at Scribner's publishing house; then he found temporary employment with Home Relief and the Federal Writers' Project.
It was characteristic that Funaroff was consistently drawn to editorial tasks and literary projects involving other writers. Every year or so he took on some collaborative activity. In 1929, he was editor of Franklin K. Lane High School magazine; in 1932, editor of the National Student League's College Student Review; in 1933, poetry editor of New Masses and of the collection We Gather Strength; in 1934, an editor of Partisan Review; in 1934-35, an editor of Dynamo, A Journal of Revolutionary Poetry; and in 1936, an Associate Editor of the pro-Communist New Theatre Magazine. Funaroff selected poetry for special supplements of the New Republic and New Masses in 1934, 1937, and 1938; he was the editor and publisher of the Dynamo series of poetry books; and, just before his death he was co-editor of a small anthology, American Writing (1940), consisting of mostly pro-Communmist authors (Ralph Ellison, Ben Field, Joy Davidman) taking their distance from the European war, not yet transformed into an anti-fascist crusade. In an uncharacteristically generous passage in his memoirs, Edward Dahlberg remarked that "Penniless Funaroff was ready to print any Marxists verse but his own." |6| In these and other activities, Funaroff aimed to bring socially-conscious poets together for a labor readership and audience, especially seeking opportunities to present poetry in innovative forums such as radio, voice recordings, sound film, dance, drama, and music.
His own poetry and criticism showed up under the pseudonyms Charles Henry Newman, Steve Foster, and Sil Vnarov, as well as with his own name. In addition to the New Masses, Daily Worker and Dynamo, his verse appeared in Poetry, Scribner's, Pagany, Nativity, and Left, and a few were even anthologized in textbooks of the day. A selection of his work was included in We Gather Strength (1933), and two books came out under his own name, The Spider and the Clock (1938) and Exile From a Future Time: Posthumous Poems of Sol Funaroff (1943).
Throughout his short life Funaroff was "tenement-thin and hungry-looking."|7| He spent most of his adult years searching for employment, reaching his economic zenith in 1938 when he made $28 a week and had his first private apartment. For many years he was involved with a woman, Natalie, addressed in his poems as his lover. When prospects for improving his health seemed hopeless, he broke up with her and she married someone else.
Like his friend Edwin Rolfe (born Solomon Fishman, 1909-1954), Funaroff was a pale and slight man who managed to produce writing charged with controlled vitality. Communist film-maker Leo Hurwitz believed Funaroff to be the driving force of the revolutionary magazine Dynamo, remembering him as "quiet little big Sol"--a man who had a "quality of littleness but was fairly tall with sweet shyness."|8| Gertrude Hayes, married in the late 1930s to poet Alfred Hayes (1911-1985), thought that in appearance Funaroff fit her image of an English poet: He was tall and blond, meticulously dressed with courtly manners, and somehow handsome despite his sickliness. |9|
Due to his modesty and willingness to promote other writers, Funaroff played a central role in a circle of unknown young Jewish writers from the working class who had radical politics and literary aspirations. One of these was Nathan Adler (1913-1994), who had drifted towards to the Communist movement a few years earlier. Adler had a reputation as a person of "genuine" proletarian background; his father sold ice in the streets in New York, and Adler had done some writing about his own work in a laundry and the period of unemployment experienced by his father.|10| Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961), a former Columbia University student publishing in the New Masses and who would join the magazine's staff for a while, asked Adler to read manuscripts for the New Masses in the belief that Adler would be able to recognize "the real thing." While performing this task in 1931 Adler met Funaroff. |11|
Adler had attended elementary school with a Jewish immigrant from England, Alfred Hayes. They had recently re-established contact, and Hayes introduced Adler to another immigrant who worked as a melamed (Hebrew teacher), Ivan Greenberg (1908-1973). Greenberg had published poetry in The Rebel Poet under the name Philip Rahv. Hayes, Rahv and Adler were of insufficient importance as writers to be admitted to the Communist Party's John Reed Club. Consequently they joined a more free-wheeling Party-led organization, the Revolutionary Writers Federation, which was open to anyone, although much of its base was comprised of Communists who carried on their literary activities in foreign-language organizations. The three men took over the Federation's Sunday night forum series as their base. Soon they were joined by Edwin Rolfe, who was employed at the Daily Worker. Herman Spector, always a loner, was also present but in the background.
Finding like-minded spirits in this milieu, Funaroff proposed launching a magazine to be called Dynamo, which was one of the names originally proposed for the New Masses. He grew so devoted to the project that he decided that some of his own contributions should be published under the pen names Newman and Foster as he didn't want to appear to be writing the entire magazine. Dynamo's sympathetic posture toward modern literature is implicit in its statement of purpose, although high modernism was kept at arm's length:
There has been a dead calm in American poetry since the "renaissance" of the tens and earlier twenties of this century. We believe that the new generation of American poets is now ready to initiate a new "renaissance" which in compact images and rhythms of poetry can utter the deeper, social and class meanings of the turbulent days around us. |12|
A series of critical essays featured in issue number two of Dynamo advanced the theme that the magazine intended to be a vehicle for young revolutionary poets who have followed the development of modernism.
Funaroffs contribution, appearing under the name Charles Henry Newman, was titled, "How Objective is Objectivism?" His preoccupation was with an early 1930s school of poetry that would yield a number of pro-Communists such as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi (b.1903) and Louis Zukofsky (1904-78). (These writers, however, all published little during the 1930s or in some cases the 1940s, so that their poetry evolved external to Party-led literary institutions.)|13| In his critique of their work, Funaroff praised their clear, precise images and firm, poetic lines. Significantly, he rebeled against their efforts to minimize the interpretive function of the poet by frequent use of objective nouns for descriptive purposes rather than "as poetically legitimate verbal means for analogy, for symbolical or metaphorical concept." The Objectivists, in Funaroff's view, correctly avoid sentimentality but mistakenly identify it with the expression of emotion. Hence the Objectivists' method fails to organize and co-ordinate experience most clearly in a social context.
In particular, Funaroff notes that William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) |14| applies his technique of observation to a social object, but falls short because his tools are unable to cope with such a breadth and width of material: "He sees details of poverty but he does not recognize or relate to its cause." Reheasing a familiar Left-wing thesis, Funaroff concludes: "Today, the poet...must transform himself from the detached recorder of isolated events into the man who participates in the creation of new values and of a new world, into the poet who is proud to give voice to this new experience." |15| Characteristically, Funaroff affirms the modern yet draws back from the brink of modernism in his partisanship on behalf of a realist vision.
In "The Love Campaign," Funaroff surfaces in the pages of Dynamo in the same issue writing under the name "Stephen Foster" to offer a fable adapted from a Soviet satirical journal, The Crocodile.|16| Funaroff produced the fable in response to perceived demands by the New Masses editorial board that poetry be written for special campaigns. In the tale, the "Responsible Editor" of Left Pass decides he needs a poem about love to launch a campaign. Hence he summons the writer Kenneth Edwin Haze (a name obviously derived from Kenneth Fearing, Edwin Rolfe, and Alfred Hayes) to produce such a poem to order. At the climax of Funaroff's thinly veiled plea against sectarianism, political criteria are invoked to gut the commissioned poem of its content. |17|
Funaroff was only twenty-one when the landmark volume We Gather Strength was published, and most of his contributions to the anthology featuring the work of four poets were written in his nineteenth year. Yet, from the outset of his literary career until his death, he was a beacon among the literary Left--a touchstone for critical observation about the problematics of form and political content. In his introduction to We Gather Strength, Mike Gold proclaimed admiration for Funaroff's ability to "combine abstract manifesto and personal lyricism in another curious fantasy. He is eclectic, derivative, and rhetorical, jazz and revolution mix." |18| A few years later Kenneth Fearing wrote in a review of Funaroff's collection The Spider and the Clock that his poetry was persuasive but not always poignant; he observed that Funaroff's "bulletins outlining the disasters of the twentieth century, condensed and stark," sometimes tended to cover too much territory, and could be too statistical, lacking a personal slant. Fearing especially admired Funaroff's title poem, "The Spider and the Clock," a work more "wistful" than optimistic, fully charged with the tragic implications of the times. Fearing contended that "A tendency to grandiloquence is his chief fault," but in more personal moments "he is capable of lean and memorable imagery." |19| William Carlos Williams thought that Funaroff's best work was "characterized by technical smoothness, a loveliness of jointure in the words....a verbal facility, an ear for the music of the line which is outstanding, a good outline to the image... and a clearly indicated relationship of the image to the poem." |20|
Funaroff's capacity to extract the raw materials of his art from the experiences of oppression and to fuse them with romantic images linked to the utopian future is strikingly demonstrated in "Unemployed: 2 A.M." A lone street lamp reveals the destitute of the city collapsed on the benches and grass of a park. As they sleep, the cool grass soothes their bare feet and "The waterfront nearby smells like a black restless wind" with a horn moaning far off that agitates their dreams.|21| "Uprooted" redeploys several of the same symbols--an unemployed worker, a street light, a "bare toe." The final stanza implies that the worker's dream can only be realized when passivity is replaced by recognition that directly in front of him stands the "machinery" of society, waiting to be seized:
The shadows of silent machines
spread on the walls of the city.
Amid uptorn pavement of the broken street
a blanketed steamroller,
Hands in pockets, he stands at the corner, waiting,
or walks, a brooding figure, through the streets.|22|
Funaroff's poem thus promotes a complex vision in which nature becomes the stepping stone to a revitalization connected with a mastery of modern city life.
In "To the Dead of the International Brigade," Funaroff praises his fallen comrades by divesting his human self and seeing it transmuted into a force of nature, thus uniting the poet and the environment:
Let me break down foundations of the earth
and speak to you in the dust
as the wind speaks in the dust
as the dust is carried in the wind
and the wind makes a speech of it.
Listen to me who hold you in memory
as a sky holds a cloud tenderly,
as the earth holds you eternally,
bearing each Spring green remembrances. |23|
In "The Last Superstition," Manhattan is a graveyard with Egyptian trappings, its subway cars coffins on wheels:
The city pyramids above the tomb--
embalmed in oil,
wound in ticker-tape,
encased in subway steel.
As he travels in his coffin,
his life disintegrates towards his destination
among the molecules.|24|
In contrast to this near-hallucinatory vision of acute urban isolation, "When the Earth Is Cold" reveals that direct contact with nature revives the soul and instills a will-to-struggle:
the voices of trees,
voices that leaf by leaf gather volume;
now the thunderclap of histories;
and then the swirling of wind and the dust,
rain and the seasons.
And the brown leaves, like letters, vanish in the snow.
We shook our fists at the sun.
We dug our heels into the mountains.|25|
Such rapid, fierce and immediate lyricism fuses seamlessly with the public moment of the poems expression of intransigence.
A resuscitation of the modern city through the tropes of romantic love and immersion in nature forms the turning point of Funaroff's nine-part "Dusk of the Gods":
As a lover's hands evoke desires
from the body of his love,
I, too, with fruitful fingers,
touch with tenderness,
as twilight a city,
til electric blooms flower from steel and stone...
My hands like hammers,
my mouth like iron,
I crushed mountains,
I consumed fear,
Funaroffs poet/seer is also a lover whose sequence of neoteric imagery leads to the sensual exploration of new-sprung worlds. Rarely has the desire for erotic-like transcendence been so elegantly fused with the passion for near-violent, transformative revolutionary praxis.
Like many of the lesser-known Left poets among the Communist movement, Funaroff felt unappreciated and even somewhat abused by a number of key leaders of the Communist Party's cultural work during the Popular Front era after 1935, when more prominent and established poets were courted by Party-influenced publications and organizations. Dynamo and other small magazines were abandoned by the Party, and the New Masses became less accessible to minor and novice writers. Funaroff nonetheless accommodated to the pull of the literary Popular Front as it guided writers further away from modernism. The majority of his later poems, after publication of The Spider and the Clock (which is largely a retrospective of his young manhood), are noticeably de-intellectualized by comparison. His last project was intended to be an anthology of children's street songs.
In a 1938 interview in the Daily Worker, Funaroff placed the Dynamo and John Reed Club period in historical perspective, characterizing the early 1930s as a time of "literary stimulation" instrumental in "making the literary world realize the significance of a social viewpoint." However, the League of American Writers had become the logical next step in poetic development, with its broader and more encompassing nature. City a call in the New Masses for "a poetry of hope and affirmation," Funaroff spoke about the possibility of "the mass production of poetry in pamphlets that will sell for about ten cents a copy." The Daily Worker interviewer praised Funaroff's image as a "regular guy": "S. Funaroff is no long-haired poet with nervous white hands and a strange expression in his eyes. Like most of his contemporaries, Funaroff's appearance is similar to that of any neat young worker." The accompanying photograph showed Funaroff with evenly cropped hair, wearing a checkered tie, white shirt, and double-breasted suit jacket. |27|
Funaroff's grievances about the Party exploded at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, although not so much in objection to the Pact itself as to the Soviet Union's subsequent invasion of Finland, and the Communist Party leadership's inept handling of the complex situation. Early in 1940 he wrote a close friend that "there's an urgent need for an independent radical party with a basis and organization in labor...." |28|
Funaroff's last published volume of poetry was Exile From a Future Time: Posthumous Poems by S. Funaroff (1943). It was graced with cover blurbs by Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Kreymborg, Isidor Schneider, Malcolm Cowley, and Genevieve Taggard. The collection was edited by John Varney (1888-1967), a pro-Communist poet who taught at New York University,|29| and included poems by Funaroff that had been set to music by the African-American jazz musician Willie "The Lion" Smith, Paul Bowles, and Waldemar Hill. Before he died, Funaroff also wrote a "Negro Musical," "Tough Scufflin'," and was working on another musical, "King Porter," on his deathbed.
Unlike other Jewish-Communist writers and intellectuals who became intimately engaged in African American history and culture from the perspective of championing a Black proletarian vanguard, Funaroff was drawn to the lyricism of African American song from his sense of Blacks as fellow outsiders, like poets and revolutionaries. On the other hand, Funaroffs visionary writing increasingly took a distinct turn toward Jewish themes. The arc of his steadily demodernized career might be seen in the range of such writings from the troubled allegories of his unfinished "Iron Calf" and "Medieval Jew," to the uplifting and optimistic cantata in five sections, "The Exiles." In this last work, Funaroff employs in unduly simplified fashion a motif from Popular Front icon Whitman adapted to the Jewish national resistance struggle: The "people of the grass" bring their wanderings to a climax by gathering themselves "in troops" to destroy "the brown beast." |30|
|1| The subject of Eliot and the Left warrants a book-length study. As examples of Eliot's impact, see the numerous references to him cited in the poetry of Horace Gregory, Kenneth Fearing, and Muriel Rukeyser in Macha Louis Rosenthal's landmark dissertation, "Chief Poets of the American Depression," New York University, 1949. Also see Jules Chametzskys comments on Joy Davidmans relationship to Earl Browder and T. S. Eliot in the Nation, 8 September 1979, p. 186.
|2| Poetry VLIII Oct 1938 pp. 50-3.
|3| Exile From a Future Time (Dynamo: New York, 1943), p. 62.
|4| New York Times obituary, 31 Oct. 1942, 15:6. See also Samuel Sillen, "No Wreath, But a Sword," New Masses XLV, no. 7 (17 November 1942): 22-23.
|5| Guillaume Apollinaire, Selected Writings (New York: New Directions, , 1971), p. 133. Funaroff's friend Nathan Adler first told me about the influence of Apollinaire on Sol.
|6| Dahlberg, The Confessions of Edward Dahlberg, p. 283.
|7| Herb Kline, "Remembering Sol Funaroff," Exile From a Future Time, p. xiv.
|8| Interview with Leo Hurwitz, 11 November 1989, New York City.
|9| Interview with Gertrude Hayes, 8 October 1989, New York City.
|10| Adler did not pursue his writing beyond the early 1930s. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where became an eminent clinical psychologist and taught at the University of California at Berkeley.
|11| Interview with Nathan Adler, 12 September 1989, Mill Valley, Ca.
|12| Dynamo 1 (n. 2): March-April 1934, p. 21.
|13| See Eric Homberger. "Communists and Objectivists," American Writers and Radical Politics, 1900-1939, pp. 163-186.
|14| Williams was considered by Mike Gold, Granville Hicks, and others to be a participant in the proletarian literary movement although not an ideological Communist.
|15| Dynamo 1, no. 3 (Summer 1934): 26-9.
|16| Adler claimed that he and Funaroff wrote this together. Interview with Adler, Mill Valley, Ca., 12 September 1989.
|17| Dynamo 2, no. 1 (May-June 1935): 24-31.
|18| We Gather Strength (New York: The Liberal Press, 1933), p. 9.
|19| Kenneth Fearing, "Historic Certainties," Poetry VLIII (October 1938): 50-53.
|20| James E. Breslin, ed., Something to Say: William Carlos Williams on Younger Poets(New York: New Directions, 1985), pp 94-96. Originally published as "Image and Purpose" in the 16 August 1938 issue of the New Masses.
|21| Funaroff, "Unemployed: 2 A.M.," Social Poetry of the 1930s, p. 49.
|22| "Uprooted," Ibid., p. 50.
|23| Ibid., p. 50.
|24| Ibid., p. 51.
|25| Ibid., p. 53.
|26| Ibid., p. 59.
|27| Anita Tilkin, "A Worker--An Extraordinary Poet," Daily Worker, 1 November 1938, p. 7.
|28| Letter from Sol Funaroff to Nathan Adler, February 10, 1940.
|29| Varney graduated from Dartmouth and attended Yale Divinity School. From Harvard University he received a Master of Arts as well as a Law degree. Following the Russian Revolution, Varney made several trips to the Soviet Union, spent a great deal of time in Europe in the 1920s, and was married for a brief time. He taught at New York University in the English Department from early 1930s to 1953, and thereafter wrote poetry and traveled. Varney published seven books of his own verse: First Wounds, A Story in Five Chapters of Verse (1926), Sketches of Soviet Russia (1920), Sparrow Hawks (1950), Stalingrad, New Years (1943), Star Men, U.S.A. (1956), Spun Sequence (1960), and Poems for a Prose Age (1960).
|30| Funaroff, Exile From a Future Time, p. 60.
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