Poet of the Land of Promises

When I was five years old, a poet came to my house and sat at
my kitchen table. I couldn’t pronounce his name, but I could
see the respect my parents, both writing professors, had for
him. He had a heavy-browed, gray-haired head and a gentle, accented
voice, and he laughed with my father about passing the town of
Pepsi-Cola (Pensacola, Florida) on the plane: "There must
be a whole state of Coca-Cola," he said. When I was 16,
we met again in his home city of Jerusalem. He read his poetry
to a group of American teenagers in both Hebrew and English,
and talked about the dream of peace. "Here is a man who
has really figured out a way to live," I wrote in my journal
that day.
On September 22, 2000, the poet passed away. Yehuda Amichai,
whose career spanned half a century, was the quintessential writer
of Israel and Jerusalem. So how did his archives end up here
in the US, at the Beinecke Library? The answer illuminates a
tension that ran through the poet’s entire life.
Yehuda Amichai chose his own name, which means "My People
Live." Born in Germany in 1924, he immigrated to Israel
with his family in 1936. He was one of the few poets of his generation
to attend a religious school, and although he was a lifetime
agnostic, biblical and liturgical language flowed through his
poetry. Benjamin Harshav, Yale’s Blaustein Professor of Hebrew
Language and Literature, first met Amichai during Israel’s War
of Independence in 1948 in the Negev, Israel’s southern desert,
when his brigade was relieving Amichai’s. Amichai, four years
older, was already a seasoned soldier, having served during World
War ii in Britain’s Jewish Brigade.
After the War of Independence and the establishment of the state
of Israel, Harshav and his friends at Hebrew University started
a small literary journal. Likrat (Toward) published "probably
Amichai’s first poems," Harshav says. According to Harshav,
it was a period of intellectual and social upheaval. "It
was a very political time, the last days of Stalin," he
says. "The whole country was on tzena (restraint). Very
strict rations; I mean, you got one egg a week. In 1951 suddenly
there was a feeling of detaching from the ideology. We called
it ‘Putting Zionism in quotation marks.’ Socialism, too. We were
tired of ideology, phraseology. ‘Don’t talk Zionism to me’ meant
don’t talk abstractness, philosophy." Amichai’s poetry fit
right into this mood, with its insistence on the simple and the
concrete. One early poem reads, in its entirety:
These five short lines contain the essence of Amichai’s poetry:
emotion conveyed obliquely, through an instantly recognizable
image.
Amichai studied literature at Hebrew University and then taught
primary and secondary school for a time. His first book of poems,
published in 1955, was called Now and in Other Times. "That
was so revolutionary in Israel, where the past was everything,"
says Harshav. "And suddenly he says ‘Now.’ What do you feel
now? What do you experience now, personally? Love, making love.
I would say Amichai was born in 1955 with this first book of
poems. It was then that he became Amichai and he never went back."
In Israel, Amichai was sometimes accused of "insufficient
Zionism." But Amichai never ignored politics, he simply
drew a stronger line than most between the poetic and the political.
"He wrote about peace and love," said Barbara Harshav,
a lecturer in Yale’s Comparative Literature Department who, with
her husband, translated much of Amichai’s poetry into English,
"[This,] in a country of war and hate, is a political statement."
Amichai’s poetry was also a statement about the future of the
Hebrew language. "Amichai was accused of not knowing Hebrew,"
Benjamin Harshav said, because his language was so stripped down
and focused on the entities of the modern world: helicopters,
oil rigs, tanks. "His real achievement was putting the language
of the everyday into Hebrew poetry," Barbara Harshav said.

After initial critical reaction, Israel responded positively,
raising Amichai to the status of a national treasure over his
career of five decades. "Every soldier had in his kit bag
a book of Amichai poetry," Barbara Harshav said. "I
remember very clearly some years ago being in a bookstore in
Jerusalem and seeing a grandmother come in to buy a book of Amichai
poems for her grandson as a bar mitzvah present." His front-page
obituary in The Jerusalem Post noted that his last book of poems,
Open Closed Open (1999) , stayed on the bestseller list for weeks,
an almost unprecedented phenomenon in Israel for a book of poetry.
He was the recipient of Israel’s highest literary honors. And,
as Benjamin Harshav notes, "He was able in his later years
to make his living from the poetry. That’s rare everywhere, but
in a small country, it’s incredible."
This popularity soon spread beyond his small home country. Extensive
translation secured Amichai’s world reputation. His work was
translated into 33 languages, from Finnish to Chinese. The unusual
success of these translations is tied to his particular poetic
concern with image, not language as such. "He was one of
the easiest poets to translate because of his images-except when
he worked in Biblical language, where the allusions can get lost,"
Barbara Harshav said. "Benjamin and I worked with him very
closely on [Even a Fist was Once An Open Palm with Fingers (1989)],
and there were a few of the compliments you hope for as a translator.
[Amichai] said, ‘Really, for the first time I feel that this
is what I wrote.’" Knowing English well enough to evaluate
his own translations, Amichai was restless and worked with many
different translators, from poets and others who knew little
Hebrew, like Ted Hughes and Stephen Mitchell, to native Hebrew
speakers like Chana Bloch. Hughes, a longtime friend, said, "He
was known and loved the world over." Benjamin Harshav points
out that Yale professor J. D. McClatchy’s Vintage Anthology of
World Literature included about 20 Amichai poems and says, "This
is what Amichai always wanted, to be a world poet." Rabbi
James Ponet, who hosted Amichai in New Haven several times over
the last 20 years, recalls the first meeting between Amichai
and American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, which occurred at Yale
in 1996: "Pinsky was very excited to meet him-stretched
out his hand and said ‘Hello, maestro.’ I think he really saw
Amichai as the giant leading the way."
Yet no matter how well-respected, how universal his sentiments,
or how translatable his images, Amichai remained inextricably
grounded in his home soil of Israel. He saw action in every major
war of his country, serving as a sergeant major in the reserves
until the age of 55. And it may have been the battlefields of
Israel that kept Amichai from receiving literature’s highest
honor. Most of his obituaries noted that he was a perennial nominee
for the Nobel Prize, which is given only to living writers. "I
think the issue was that they wouldn’t give it to an Israeli
until there was peace," said Benjamin Harshav. "His
archives coming here, to a world university, is almost a consolation
prize for his not receiving the Nobel," said Ponet.
So how exactly did they get to Yale? Amichai’s friends and acquaintances
here offer different explanations, but mostly they come down
to money. "It could be argued that his archive belongs in
Israel," said Geoffrey Hartman, Sterling Professor Emeritus
of English and Comparative Literature and a friend of Amichai’s
since the 1950s. "Unfortunately, Israel does not seem to
have public funds to properly care for this important legacy.
That is one reason why Amichai’s manuscripts are better off at
Yale." Ponet adds another reason: "I know he wanted
to be able to leave some money to his family, and the Beinecke
was able to pay him something substantial. I know he felt bad
about it. He had to choose between leaving his papers in the
country and leaving some money to his family-one of his daughters
is in her early twenties." Vincent Giroud, the Beinecke’s
Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, hesitates to give the
Library’s exact figure paid for Amichai’s papers. He notes only
that the prices for such acquisitions generally range from about
"10,000 pounds" to "astronomical" figures
adding, "I think we paid a fair price." How exactly
the deal was made is another delicate matter. Hartman says he
was originally approached by the Beinecke about Amichai’s papers
several years ago, and obtained the poet’s provisional consent,
but that "various complications ensued." Giroud says
the sale was negotiated through a few different dealers over
a period of ten years. He adds, "It’s obvious that for an
archive so important as that of Amichai’s we needed the permission
of the national Israeli archivist." To the charge that the
archives should have remained in Israel, Giroud says, "It’s
a legitimate concern, but the only answer we can give is that
it’s available to them here." Davi Bernstein, an undergraduate,
is working on the initial inventory, translating Amichai’s instructions
for the archivists and putting a catalog online as quickly as
possible.
In this information age, the resting place of scholarly material
may be a matter of largely sentimental importance. Yet there
is cause for sadness in the idea of a country that cannot afford
to keep the letters and manuscripts of its greatest poet. It
is especially sad for Israel to lose him now, shaken as the country
is by yet another convulsion of violence. Amichai’s poetry sustained
the theme of being twinned in fate with his country: "When
I was young, the whole country was young," he wrote. A week
after he died, on September 28, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel
Sharon stepped onto the Temple Mount, revered by both Jews and
Muslims, touching off the recent violence that has claimed over
160 lives to date, the majority Palestinian. "I, may I rest
in peace," read one of Amichai’s last poems, "I don’t
want to wait until I die to have peace . . . I want peace right
now, while I’m alive." As I listened to these words at Amichai’s
memorial service, in the hushed, translucent marble space of
Beinecke, the ironies multiplied. An old man’s wish for rest
echoes his country’s forgotten cry for peace; but even as we
celebrate his life, the struggle rages on.

 

Anya Kamenetz, a junior in Davenport
College, is a managing editor for
TNJ.

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