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This report is taken from PN Review 155, Volume 30 Number 3, January - February 2004.

i.m. Milton Kessler 1930-2000 Judith Chernaik

The poet Milton Kessler died three years ago, just short of his seventieth birthday, leaving notebooks filled with work in progress. Now Etruscan Press has published Free Concert: New and Selected Poems, edited and introduced by two former students at the State University of New York (Binghamton), where Kessler taught for thirty years. The selections, taken from a much larger corpus, offer a fine sense of this strong and original voice, in the tradition of a distinguished group of New York poets, including George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and David Ignatow, who have had far too little recognition in Britain.

Kessler was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx, and the life of Jewish immigrants, their children and grandchildren weaves through his poems. Here are unsparing portraits of his mother Elizabeth, his father Arthur (working nights for the Post Office, raging against his impossible and beloved only child), his long-suffering wife Sonia, her mother and father, aunts and uncles, neighbours, passing strangers - a full Chekhovian cast, quoted verbatim and caught in characteristic poses. As a boy Kessler dreamed of becoming an opera singer (`To sing was the only way through High School and life'). Instead, he dropped out of school, worked in the garment industry, took singing lessons and sang each Christmas in Handel's Messiah. `At the Met I didn't sing but walked/with spear, flute, flagon, cape, beside Rise Stevens...' At some point poetry called.

I first met Milton Kessler in Columbus, Ohio, ...


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