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75 at 75: Robert Alter on Yehuda Amichai

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary and beyond, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to recordings from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Robert Alter writes about a reading by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. It was recorded live at 92Y on April 20, 1998. Alter writes:

Posted on December 10, 2015

Robert Alter[6] copyYehuda Amichai was my cherished friend for thirty-four years. Though we first met in New York in 1966, where he was spending the year with Hana Sokolov, his then new love, most of our times together were in Jerusalem and in Berkeley. I never attended any of his readings at the 92nd Street Y, but he gave numerous readings over the years in Berkeley, a place to which he was always very happy to return. All these readings were of course in English, with the exception of one that took place for Hebrew speakers in the home of a visiting Israeli professor.

Yehuda’s presence at the lectern was always quietly understated, and that soft-spoken manner was a clear expression both of the kind of person he was and of his conception of poetry. He had a strong aversion to poets who sought to strike the theatrical note of the inspired bard. For him the making of poems was perfectly continuous with the making of soup, which he liked to do early in the morning, and with buying vegetables for his family, about which he wrote a memorable poem. Once, after he heard some of his poems read in English by one of his translators with great emphasis and dramatic flair, he told me he was a little nonplussed, wondering where all that came from, for it was very different from his own oral interpretation of his poems.

An incident at one of his Berkeley readings in the late 1970s is etched in my memory as a quintessential reflection of how he felt about poetry. After concluding his reading, he asked the audience if there were any questions. This is an unusual thing for a poet to do at a reading, but it suggests something about Yehuda’s readiness to engage with people. A bearded young man, in a patently belligerent tone, challenged him in more or less these words: “I know only the poems I heard you read tonight, and you’re supposed to be Israel’s leading poet. So I have a couple of questions for you. Did you fight in any wars?” Yehuda answered quietly, “In one or two.” (Actually, he saw service in the British army in World War II, then in the Israeli army in the bloody battles in the Negev during the War of Independence in 1948-49, and again in 1956.) “Well,” said the young man, “did you see God on the battlefield? That’s what I find lacking in your poems.” Such arrogant foolishness might well have invited a withering reply, but Yehuda answered in the same soft-spoken tone in which he had read his poems. “No, I didn’t see God on the battlefield. I saw guys getting killed. What you are asking for is what the politicians and the ideologues like to invoke in their rhetoric, but the job of the poet is to name the things he sees plainly, without adornment.” At that point, he cited as an illustration one of the poems he had just read, which I will quote here because it is an exemplary instance of his ars poetica.

When I banged my head on the door, I screamed,
“My head, my head,” and I screamed, “Door, door,”
and I didn’t scream “Mama” and I didn’t scream “God.”
And I didn’t prophesy a world at the End of Days
where there will be no more heads and doors.

When you stroked my head, I whispered,
“My head, my head,” and I whispered, “Your hand, your hand,”
and I didn’t whisper “Mama” or “God.”
And I didn’t have miraculous visions
of hands stroking heads in the heavens
as they split wide open.

Whatever I scream or say or whisper is only
to console myself. My head, my head.
Door, door. Your hand, your hand.
(translation by Chana Bloch)

The last three lines make me think of something Yehuda said on another visit to Berkeley when he spoke to a class of seventh graders (one of my sons was in the group) about poetry. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, he told the kids, you yell “ouch,” which doesn’t in the least make the pain go away but somehow helps you cope with it. That, he proposed, is what it is to write a poem.

What I’ve said here points up the endearingly unpretentious nature of Yehuda Amichai as a man and as a poet. In keeping with his understated manner, it of course understates the case. It is true that he created a revolution in Israeli verse in the 1950s by turning away from the elaborately literary, highfalutin style of the previous generation of Hebrew poets and instead tapping the resources of the ordinary colloquial language. That turn is eminently manifest in both the style and the substance of the poem I have quoted. But there are far more complexities in his poetry than readers generally realize. He has a rich sense of the three-thousand-year history of Hebrew, and many of his poems deploy intricate and subtle allusions to the Bible, to the liturgy, to rabbinic texts, and to medieval Hebrew poetry. Though justly celebrated as a wonderfully accessible poet, the play of invention and the element of surprise in his imagery are sometimes challenging, and there are poems that are deliberately disorienting in their leaps of language and in their juxtapositions of disparate elements. The mythic motifs of Hebrew tradition were often active in his imagination, and at times this poet of the quotidian could be powerfully mythological. It is the combination of such complexities with simplicity and directness that make Yehuda Amichai distinctive among the great modern poets. One finds in his work many aspects of the formally innovative and existentially probing character of modernist poetry, but he often prefers to convey profound insights through seemingly simple gestures. A poet, he said in one interview, should be a foot-soldier, not a general. That is how he wrote; that is how he read his poems; that is how he was as a person.

Robert Alter, renowned Hebrew translator and scholar, is editor of The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.