from The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited by Robert Alter
The poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), who with the passage of time seems more and more one of the great poets of the twentieth century, is deceptively accessible in translation. He was part of a group of young Israeli poets in the early 1950s who effected a vernacular revolution in Hebrew verse, rejecting the high literary language and the rhetorical thrust of the previous generation of Hebrew poets and finding ways to make poetry out of the plain words of everyday speech. His first volume of poetry, Now and in Other Days (1955), was widely recognized after it appeared as the turning point in the vernacular revolution. This effort to use the plain language and images of ordinary experience is clearly visible in a good deal of what Amichai wrote. It has a lot to do with the enormous popularity his work has enjoyed in Israel from the late 1950s to the present. It is also what makes at least some of his poems seem perfectly transparent in English, almost as if nothing were lost in translation. But his language is scarcely as vernacular, and not at all as simple, as it is often imagined to be.
Amichai arrived in Palestine from Germany with his parents at the age of twelve, in 1936. In addition to his German mother tongue, he knew enough Hebrew when he came to get along immediately, for from the age of three he had gone to a bilingual school in his native Wurzburg, following a curriculum that included religious instruction (his parents were Orthodox). He naturally retained some attachment to his mother tongue, though English modernist verse appears to have been a more decisive influence on him than German poetry, however much he admired Rilke and, later, Celan. German renderings of a few of his Hebrew poems have been found in the Amichai archive at Yale, but the extravagant claim of one recent critic that much of his poetry is essentially a recasting of German originals is quite groundless. Amichai was manifestly enamored of the Hebrew language—not only its sounds and its rich historical associations but even its grammatical structures—and his poetry plays vigorously and inventively with the formal properties and the cultural backgrounds of its Hebrew medium in ways that cannot easily cross the barrier of translation. One extreme and therefore instructive example is an early poem, never translated (for good reason), called "The Sonnet of the Conjugations." It is one of the finest Ages of Man poems of the previous century, but it chooses to trace the movement from infancy to the last sad decrepitude by following the sequence of the seven conjugations of Hebrew verbs as they are taught in school, from qal, "simple," to hitpa'el, "reflexive." Uncannily, the paradigms of Hebrew grammar are transformed into a haunting expression of the human condition, a tour de force that cannot be conveyed in English.
Amichai obviously relished the directness of the only recently revived spoken Hebrew that he quickly mastered in the pressure cooker circumstances of his adolescent immigration. Yet, unlike most Hebrew poets of his generation, he also never let go of the language of the Bible, the prayer book, and other traditional sources to which he was extensively exposed both in his German childhood and at a religious school in his teens in Jerusalem.
Amichai's relation to his Orthodox upbringing and to the new Israeli reality in which he flourished makes him in some ways atypical of the Hebrew poets of his generation. He never underwent a crisis of faith, he once told me; he merely became bored with the world of observance—the constant repetitions in the liturgy, the endless round of rituals and ceremonies. But even as, by the time he left high school, he became what one would have to call a secular Jew, he never entirely jettisoned the baggage of Jewish tradition. In his poems, he sometimes regarded it as comical, sometimes with fondness, and his last volume of verse exhibits some nostalgia about the pious milieu in which he grew up. He surely no longer believed in the God of Jewish tradition, yet God is not absent from his work, persisting as an idea to grapple with, a being to challenge or turn inside out, even occasionally as a kind of lingering ghostly presence.
The local reality that Amichai entered was more military than he would have liked. At the age of eighteen he enlisted in the British army and was stationed for a while in Egypt. In the Israeli War of Independence of 1948-49, he saw frontline action (as he would again in 1956) in the Negev, and though it would be wrong to say that he suffered from posttraumatic stress, the experience certainly haunted him for the rest of his life. In several of his poems he remembers in particular carrying the bleeding body of a friend who did not survive; and in his poetry the mayhem of the battlefield is sometimes turned into an image of what modern life is all about. Once, in the 1970s, at a reading in Berkeley, a belligerent questioner wanted to know whether he had seen God on the battlefield. No, he answered quietly, he had seen only men dying, and it was the job of the poet to name these harsh realities plainly, not to envelop them in pseudotheological rhetoric in the way of the politicians and the generals.
One might say that war and love were the two poles of his life. If he was scarred by war ("I go out to all my wars," he wrote in an early poem), he also exhibited a kind of alacrity for falling in love. The first signal instance was in high school, when he was actually prepared to marry his teenage girlfriend—a step predictably vetoed by his parents and hers. He had other deeply felt romantic involvements afterward; and unlike most people, he continued to brood over them many years after they ended, sometimes writing poems about the pain of the breakup decades later. He married Tamar Horn in 1950 and had a son with her, Roni. In the mid-1960s he met Hana Sokolov, who would be the great love of his life, and with whom he had two children, David and Emanuella. He attended first a teachers' seminary and then the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he studied Bible and Hebrew literature. For two years he was a schoolteacher, and he subsequently earned his living at a teachers' seminary and then in a program for college students from abroad. By the 1970s he had a firmly established international reputation, with his work translated into many languages, and his books in Hebrew were the Israeli equivalent of bestsellers, so after a time he began to realize a degree of appreciable income from his writing. Though he became a celebrated public figure in Israel, he studiously avoided assuming any public role as "the poet," mocking those who did, and he always claimed that real poets should be simple foot soldiers, not preening generals.
One of the piquant aspects of his poetry is that a writer who was so immersed in the gritty actualities of constant warfare and in the sensual and emotional experience of love should have drawn so inventively from the language of Hebrew tradition to express these realities. Such traditional elements show up in surprising places. Some will be recognizable to the biblically literate English reader and others will not. In the former category, "We Did It," a poem about rapturous lovemaking and the world's indifference to it, invokes the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah's vision in the temple as well as Ezekiel's divine chariot as images of the two lovers' exuberant gyrations. More recondite is the beginning of "Bitter and Brusque," a poem about the breakup of a love affair (one of Amichai's great subjects), which is a citation of a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk. I have identified this as a citation rather than as an allusion because the phrase has become a kind of idiomatic expression for disaster in literary Hebrew, often invoked in connection with untimely death. The Hebrew for those first words sounds like this: mar venimhar. Existing translations render this as "bitter and swift" or "bitter and quick," but the double alliteration and the internal rhyme (the phrase is repeated in the poem) are inseparable from the striking elegiac effect, and in any case nimhar is not the normal form for the word that means "swift." Translations are inevitably no more than earnest approximations, so in the new version I did for this volume, I opted for "brusque," which yields an alliteration of both b and r, while giving up on the internal rhyme in the Hebrew.
Amichai's poetry has understandably attracted many English translators, and through the various English versions his work has had a strong and sustained following both in America and in England, perhaps especially among poets. Indeed, there are very few foreign poets who have had the sort of presence in the English-speaking world that he has enjoyed. (His poetry has also had considerable popularity in Poland, Albania, Slovenia, and even China and Japan.) A good many of the existing English translations are quite accomplished, and it has been my pleasure to incorporate in this volume hundreds of poems by a variety of translators. One whole book of verse, Time, was translated by Amichai himself in collaboration with his good friend the British poet Ted Hughes, and generous selections of their work appear here, though for some poems it seemed to me that other versions were actually preferable. There remain many fine poems by Amichai that have never been translated. A good many of these I have done myself, and for some I have recruited translations by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld and by Leon Wieseltier. The splendid collaborative translation by Bloch and Kronfeld of Open Closed Open appears here nearly in its entirety, with poems untranslated in the original American version of that book added and the order of the poems in the Hebrew volume restored. Though it was scarcely feasible to do a complete edition of Amichai's poetry in English (the book would have been more than three times the size of this one), I thought it would be instructive to provide readers with one complete volume of verse as part of the present large selection, a choice further justified by the fact that Amichai's last book of poetry is in certain ways a kind of summary and synthesis of his general enterprise and a reflection on his life.
Though, as I have suggested, there is much to admire in the available English versions of Amichai, there are also translations of many poems in which something is awry. The problems vary from wrong diction, defective rhythms, failure to convey significant biblical echoes or other allusions, excessive liberties with the original, and even egregious errors in construing the Hebrew. It seemed altogether unwise for me to revise the work of other translators and thus to get involved in the messy complications of negotiating with them about the revisions, so in those instances where I found a translation wanting—in a few cases, it was a matter of a single strongly offending word—I have done my own versions.
Let me offer one small example. "Poems of Akhziv," a vivid cycle of erotic poems written in the 1970s, has been rendered in English by three different translators. One poem begins startlingly with the words (each of the three versions uses the same sexual term) "I have learned to relate to your cunt as to a face." But the Hebrew word Amichai uses, 'ervah, is by no means an obscenity—modern Hebrew has a monosyllabic word, borrowed from the Arabic, that would correspond to the English four-letter term, but Arnichai invariably avoids it. 'Ervah is a biblical term, the "nakedness" that one is enjoined not to uncover in the various sexual prohibitions in Leviticus and elsewhere. It is, then, a perfectly decorous term that refers to the sexual part, female or male, with a certain association of taboo. To translate it as an obscenity is a serious violation of the poem. Since there was no way to get the biblical resonance in English ("nakedness" in the context of the poem would misleadingly imply the whole naked body), I represented the line in my own version as "I have learned to relate to your sex as to a face," at least preserving the tone of the original, which is at once erotically frank and decorous.
Another sort of challenge to the translator is presented by the poem "Farewell." The original is framed in virtuosic quatrains. Two of the three existing translations reproduce the quatrains, one a bit awkwardly and the other more resourcefully, but in order to create the rhymes, both translators have had to exercise certain liberties with the exquisitely expressive imagery of the Hebrew, and none of the three does anything with the blatant breaking of normal Hebrew grammar at the beginning that is a correlative of the shattering of the lovers' union. It seemed to me prudent in this case to surrender rhyme in order to hew more closely to the powerful images and the evocative syntax, trying to let strong rhythms in the English stand in for the fuller musicality of the Hebrew. Elsewhere, I have included rhymed translations—several published ones and a number of admirable versions done for this volume by Bloch and Kronfeld—in order to give some sense of one kind of verse that Amichai was drawn to, especially early on. Yet it must be said that despite the often remarkable ingenuity of the translators, these for the most part do not entirely equal the striking deftness of the Hebrew and so, whatever their virtues, can be satisfying only to a certain point.
In this particular poem, "Farewell," there is also the matter of a powerful pun in the original, depending on Amichai's familiarity with the language of Jewish tradition, that is entirely lost—indeed, misconstrued—in the three English versions: "For all came through our word, a profane all." All three translators mistakenly represent the last phrase, shehakol shel hol, as "all is sand" (one of them has "a world of sand"). The Hebrew hol can mean either "sand" or "profane." Shehakol is the popular designation among observant Jews of a blessing recited over certain foods: "for all came through His word." In the high compression of this allusive pun, what the speaker is saying is that in love's exultation, it seemed as though everything came about through the lovers' word, an everything that was not divine nor theological but wonderfully human. Though my version does at least reproduce the plain sense of the Hebrew, the pregnant allusion is invisible and, alas, has to be brought to light for the English reader through the kind of annotation I have just provided. I have appended to this volume a set of concise notes in order to provide where strictly necessary this sort of background of allusion and cultural reference that could not be communicated in the English versions of the poems. (Biblical allusions with which most readers will be familiar, such as grinding swords into plowshares and the parting of the Red Sea, are not annotated.)
A good many subtleties and complexities, then, in Amichai's poetry will inevitably disappear in translation. What I have tried to keep in mind in putting together these different versions and in doing my own is to avoid as much as possible English renderings that are more effortlessly smooth or more flatly colloquial than the original. A translated poem, of course, has to be readable in the target language, but while honoring this reasonable requirement, I have also sought in my editorial choices and in my translations to intimate the artful disjunctions and disruptions and the purposeful disorientations of the Hebrew. Amichai remains one of the most appealingly accessible of twentieth-century poets, but it is an accessibility often marked by unanticipated complications and challenges. Perhaps one cannot altogether convey this in a translation, but it seemed to me worth the effort to point in that direction.
In regard to the substance of Amichai's poems as well as their language there are more complexities and greater depth than meet the casual eye. He is obviously an intensely personal poet, with a large number of his poems explicitly anchored in autobiographical experience. This is surely part of his appeal to readers, first in Israel, then in America and England and across the globe. In fact, many of his early poems are a plea for the preciousness of private experience in a time of continuing warfare. Poems such as "God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children," "The Smell of Gasoline in My Nose," and "I Waited for My Girl and Her Steps Were Not There" resonated powerfully for Israeli readers between one war in 1948-49 and another in 1956, and well beyond that period, because they expressed with such poignant directness the desperate cherishing of a private world and private loves when historical reality tore lovers apart and dragged young people who had once been sheltered children to the pitiless exposure of the battlefield.
But there are elements in much of Amichai's poetry that go beyond the merely autobiograph~cal and beyond the local Israeli situation, even as both are vividly evoked. Thus, "The Smell of Gasoline" concludes with these two lines: "A jet makes peace in the sky for all, / For us, and all those who love in the fall." These lines explicitly echo the concluding words of the kaddish, which any Hebrew reader would immediately recognize: "He who makes peace in his heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel." The poem about a young soldier's wrenching experience when his call to the front compels him to part from his girl (the smell of gasoline is from the jeep or truck that is about to take him away) becomes a larger statement about the fragility of life in violent times. Instead of God in his heavens providentially protecting his people, modern lovers live under the provisional and intermittent protection of a fighter plane circling above. The poet's personal plight, without the slightest didactic insistence or affectation, is ultimately played out on the big stage of life in the upheavals of the twentieth century, between the arch of the heavens above and the earth below.
Some of Amichai's poems about the anguish of living in a world of relentless armed conflict are general statements about this condition rather than explicit expressions of the poet's personal experience. A few of the justly famous among these are "God Takes Pity on Kindergarten Children," "Rain Falls on the Faces of My Friends," "God Full of Mercy," and "To the Full Severity of Compassion." The last of these, characteristically, evokes two biblical allusions—Gad's promise to make Abraham's seed as countless as the sand on the shore and the writing on the wall of Belshazar's feast in the book of Daniel—in order to define a world where we are all lonely people, vulnerable and countable, and where the dire writing on the wall is everywhere, like graffiti.
Amichai more usually makes his way to the global through a concrete imagining of the personal. The moving love poem, "But We Must Praise," is a vivid case in point. The poem begins with a strong allusion to the opening words of one of the most familiar prayers of the traditional liturgy, "We must praise the Lord of all." Here, however, the object of the praise is "a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss." The Hebrew original of that second phrase is one of Amiichai's untranslatable puns, zahav mosh'al mishe'ol. The night of rapturous love is a treasure "borrowed from the abyss," presided over not by the God of tradition but by the "Lord of the loss of all," because sweet love is bitterly transient—perhaps necessarily transient—and our existence is shadowed by inevitable, painful loss. This poem definitely seems to bear the imprint of personal experience, but its articulation gives it a world-embracing reach. At the end, the lover is conscious of the stars overhead in this night of love, of his beloved's body as a token or model of the sky above "in the hollow / of this narrow world." The largeness of meaning conveyed by the poem is effected without the slightest strain in what looks like simple language, but the speaker's sense of the preciousness and the fragility of his love plays out under the starry sky, above the abyss, becoming an intimation of the human condition itself.
From beginning to end, Amichai is an extravagantly playful poet. The playfulness is exhibited in such manifestly exuberant poems as "The Visit of the Queen of Sheba," but it also has an essential role in some of his saddest poems—about personal loss, about the death of his parents, about the Nazi genocide. A good deal of this playfulness is enacted through puns, acoustic effects, and allusions and thus will not be fully visible in translation, though several of the translators represented in this volume have been remarkably resourceful in conveying at least some of the lively inventiveness of the Hebrew. But the playfulness is also often evident in the vigor and originality of the figurative language, which can be conveyed in translation, and in the poet's bold reimagining of familiar stories and common everyday situations. Let me quote, as a foretaste of what readers have in store for them in this collection, one complete poem from Amichai's last book, Open Closed Open. It is a take on the Exodus story—that last ghastly night in Egypt when the Egyptian firstborn perished and the Israelites were protected by blood smeared on the lintels, when the liberated Hebrew slaves fled in haste, with no time for the rising of the dough for their bread—that resembles nothing written by any other writer on this story, from the ancient Midrash to Thomas Mann's The Tables of the Law.
I don't imagine that on the night of the exodus from Egypt,
between midnight and dawn, any couple could lie together
in love. (We could have.) In haste,
blood dripping from lintels and doorposts,
silver and gold dishes clanging in the dark, between the firstborn's
stifled death cry and the shrieking of mothers' wombs
emptying like wineskins. And standing over them, legs wide apart,
the Angel of Death, crotch gaping male and female
like a bloody sun in the thick of frizzled black death.
Sandaled feet slapping against the soft dough of matza
and the flesh of belly and thigh, hard belts
cinched tight at the waist, buckles
scraping against skin, tangled in one another.
To roll like that, locked in eternal love,
with all the rabble from the house of slavery
into the Promised Desert.
There is an almost shocking explosiveness in the figurative language here, a power of mythic imagining, a mingling of the erotic and the theological, that might be surprising to those who think of Amichai primarily as a vernacular poet of everyday experience. He is this as well, of course, but there are also murky depths and soaring heights in his poetic world that are realized through his metaphors and through his often densely allusive Hebrew. As is usually the case with poets of the first order, there is more in his work than meets the casual eye. One hopes that American readers will be able to discern at least some of that richness in this volume.
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About the Author
Robert Alter's scholarly works on subjects ranging from the eighteenth-century novel to contemporary Hebrew and American literature earned him the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times. Alter is the Class of 1937 Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
Farrar, Straus and Giroux