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Friend, Robert (1913-1998)  
 
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An American-born Israeli, Robert Friend was both an accomplished poet in his own right and also an exceptionally skillful translator of poetry from many different languages. His rather small corpus of poetry reflects an introspective personality and an increasingly more open sexuality.

Early Life, Education, Early Career

The son of poor Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants who had settled in Brooklyn, New York, Friend was the first of their five children. He was born on November 25, 1913.

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The family's already precarious financial situation grew even worse when Friend's father abandoned them. Friend's mother struggled to provide for the children, but there were days when she could not put food on the table.

Friend's interest in poetry began early. When he was fourteen, he published a poem (written in English) in a Yiddish children's magazine.

After graduating from Franklin K. Lane High School in Brooklyn in 1930, Friend went on to Brooklyn College, from which he received a baccalaureate degree with a major in English and a minor in education in 1934.

Since good job opportunities were scarce in the Depression era, Friend signed on with the Civilian Conservation Corps and spent a year doing construction and forestry work in the western United States. He next taught remedial English in New York as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

After a year of elementary school teaching in Puerto Rico, Friend returned to New York in 1938 and spent two years in another WPA project, teaching English to immigrants.

He returned to Puerto Rico in 1940, first as a payroll typist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and subsequently serving as an instructor of English at the University of Puerto Rico for a semester in 1942. During this time he published his first volume of poetry, Shadow on the Sun (1941).

Love of the Caribbean

Friend was enchanted by the beauty of the Caribbean, which was in stark contrast to the neighborhood where he had grown up, "a slum where a tree was rare and wonderful, and there were no such things as gardens." The lush, sensual tropical environment led Friend to explore and appreciate not only the natural world but also his own sexuality.

In one of his poems from this period, "Ars Poetica," Friend has poet William Carlos Williams deflate his youthful intellectualization of experience by taking him "by the elbow / affectionately, but firmly" and telling him to appreciate "the bathers / running along the beach / and sporting in the waves." The direct apprehension of sensual experience that he discovered in the Caribbean altered both his poetry and his life.

Friend extended his stay in the Caribbean, working as a professor of English at the University of Panama from 1942 until 1946. He then returned to the United States to enroll at Harvard, from which he received an M.A. in 1947. His master's thesis was a study of E. M. Forster.

Friend spent the next academic year as an English instructor at Temple University in Philadelphia. During that time he successfully applied for a better position at Queens College in New York. To celebrate his good fortune in getting the job, he decided to vacation in France for the summer.

European Sojourn

On the voyage to Europe he befriended Edward Field, then a young aspiring poet. In 2003, Field acknowledged an immense debt to Friend, remarking that "When I read the poems of Robert Friend, I always sense the relationship to my own poetry. He was the father who passed on to me the key, and his own poetry the mother ground I started from."

Field recounted that on the voyage to Europe, Friend, "a natural teacher," quickly attracted a group of young men who spent the trip "discussing literature and ideas" with him in the lounge of the ship.

Friend and Field continued to socialize that summer in Paris. Field "studied [Friend's] poems through draft after draft and in that way learned from him how poetry was made."

Many of Friend's poems dealt with love for other men, but, as Field recalled, his sexual orientation caused him to see himself as "the outsider--or, in his lower self, even as a cripple or hunchback"--a response that is not completely surprising considering the tenor of the time.

Friend found the atmosphere in Europe more congenial than what he had experienced in the United States. He decided to give up the job at Queens College in order to remain there. When his funds ran low in 1949, he took a teaching job at a U.S. Army school in Germany to support himself.

Shortly thereafter Friend learned that because he had for a brief time some ten years before been a member of the Communist party, his passport was going to be rescinded and he would have to return to the United States. Fearful of what might ensue there, in 1950 he went to Israel instead.

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