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The Full Severity of Compassion
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
By Chana Kronfeld, Aron Rodrigue, Steven J. Zipperstein
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Reclaiming the Revolutionary Amichai
Authentic art of the past that for the time being must remain veiled is not thereby sentenced. Great works wait.
— Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
I. Useful Poet
In the fall of 1999, when the seriousness of Yehuda Amichai's final illness was already public knowledge, and the Israeli media was filled with tributes by critics, fellow writers, and politicians, it was the outpouring of love from common readers that Amichai found truly overwhelming. "It's amazing," he told me in the hoarse whisper that had replaced his steady voice, "real love. And the poems are useful to them." "The main thing is to be useful [ha-ikar li-hyot shimushi]," Amichai would often say, in his inimitable mixture of irony and consent, invoking perhaps the socialist mindset of an earlier time, when being useful to one's community was considered the highest virtue. Providing useful poetry was indeed something he was always proud of, especially when it was ordinary human beings, not the mechanisms of state or institutional religion, that would find some practical application for his words. And it didn't matter if the context of use was sublime or ridiculous: from wedding vows and eulogies to lawsuits and hair salon ads.
The advertising poster on page 26 illustrates quite vividly the absorption of Yehuda Amichai's poetry into the fabric of the quotidian, a fabric that in Israeli culture still includes poetry. The refrain of Amichai's beloved early poem "Balada al ha-se'ar ha-arokh ve-ha-se'ar hakatzer" ("A Ballad on the Long Hair and the Short Hair") starts with the lines: "His hair was shaved off when he got to the base, / Her hair remained long and without a response." By the end of the poem, the lovers — separated by an antiheroic, alienating modern army rather than a tragic Shakespearean family feud — can no longer hear one another, and the third line leading into the refrain and rhyming with it, is broken in two: "'ma at omeret?' / 'ma ata omer?'" ("What are you [fem.] saying?" / "What are you [masc.] saying?").
The fragmentation of the dialogue in the poem's refrain (dialogue and refrain being the very features that the ballad genre marks as most salient) thematizes the ultimate impossibility of communication between the young lovers once the man is drafted into military service: "se'arekh ha-arokh, na'ara. / se'arkha ha-katzer" ("Your long hair, girl / Your [masc.] short hair"). The hair salon ad puns on this refrain, neutralizing in its commercial appropriation the poem's mournful protest against the emasculation brought about by conscription, as well as the military crew-cut's allusion to the Samson story that carries this meaning. The ad replaces this nuanced symbolism and intertextuality with the literal promise of a fashionable and fetching co-ed salon cut. It supplants the dialogue between the lovers with the hairstylist's offer to shorten (le-katzer) both men's and women's hair: "Your long hair, girl / Your [masc.] hair I will cut short" (se'arkha akatzer). In modern colloquial Hebrew pronunciation, which assimilates most ha sounds to an a, the ad's pun produces a virtual homophone between the poetic form of the definite adjective "the short" (ha-katzer) and the hairdresser's promise "I will cut [it] short" (akatzer). When I showed Amichai my photograph of the poster and asked him if he didn't mind having his poem mangled like that, he answered, smiling: "On the contrary [le-hefekh]! I love to be used, to be exploited." And so he was. But not always as he would have liked.
Amichai's poetic system differentiates throughout between two forms of exploitation that his work treats as profoundly distinct: on the one hand, those largely spontaneous, populist processes that have resulted in the incorporation and assimilation of his poetry into the fabric of everyday life, processes his work thrives on, indeed explicitly asks for; and on the other, the hegemonic mechanisms of cultural appropriation, leading to an official reception that constructs him as a national poet and politically neutralizes his sustained critique of institutional nationalism, state bureaucracy, and clericalism. Though I do not necessarily share the rather idealistic view that the two mechanisms can so clearly be distinguished, it is important to me to suggest the ways in which this distinction is crucial to Amichai's poetic ethics. In the process, I will also argue that no matter how powerful the mechanisms of appropriation become, the poetry — in its absorption into the practice of quotidian existence — continues to have a radical and radicalizing effect.
Liron Bardugo has suggested, in a perceptive article, that within all strata of Israeli culture "Yehuda Amichai is quoted almost inadvertently, as part of the sounds of everyday life and the noises of the street," and this despite what he describes as Amichai's rejection of a poetics of nationalism and collectivity. Becoming an inadvertent quotation is indeed the ultimate fulfillment for the verbal artist who places a high value on the complete integration of poetry into the lives of ordinary people.
One of Amichai's most famous early poems, "Lo ka-brosh" ("Not Like a Cypress"), rejects traditional elitist conceptions of the poet as lone giant or unique genius and offers a series of alternative populist and utilitarian models for the poet's social and cultural usefulness. In negating the tall, visually salient cypress and its towering human stand-in, King Saul, as models for the poet and offering instead, for example, the image of small and dispersed raindrops that are absorbed "by many mouths," Amichai opts for inconspicuous usefulness over a socially useless prominence (the cypress produces no edible fruit). Indeed, this poem rejects the notion that the poet is entitled to any privileged elite position or granted any aesthetic chosenness that would free him or her from the need to be of use to their society.
Less than a year before Amichai's death, it was the novelist David Grossman who articulated with the most poignant simplicity the source of Amichai's great popularity with the common reader over a period that spanned close to half a century. In an interview in Ha'aretz, Grossman talks about Yehuda Amichai's poetry as a constant companion:
This poetry, in its great intimacy, provides us with first names with which to address life situations where, having run out of words, we'd normally be whittled down to clichés [mitradedim li-klisha'ot]. Along comes an Amichai line and gives us words [ve-notenet lanu milim]. ... Because he reaches all the way inside the everyday, you suddenly feel that each moment, even the most banal, is shot through with light. ... [Amichai's] words have become part of my interior monologue, and not mine alone.
Grossman adds, "He has accompanied me both as a teenager and during army service — in my loves, in courting girls, as well as in my daily family life." This ordinary description masks in fact an allusion to an important metapoetic line from an Amichai poem ("Summer Rest and Words"), milim melavot et chayay ("Words accompany my life"), which describes the integration of intertextuality into daily experience. And when Grossman says that thanks to Amichai's words, even the most banal moments become — literally and figuratively — shot through with light, he's again invoking a foundational Amichai image: the ordinary beloved woman as the embodiment of — and substitute for! — divine glory, as she is "standing by the wide-open fridge door, revealed / from head to toe in a light from another world." Grossman's allusively charged yet misleadingly simple diction may be the ultimate homage to the increasingly Amichaiesque poetics of usefulness and accessibility that Grossman himself has been pursuing in the years after publishing his novel, See Under: Love.
II. The Politics of Verbal Art
In the next chapter I will explore what goes into making Amichai a usable, or simply useful, poet. Here, however, I would like to focus on the other half of the equation: his poetry's systematic co-optation and appropriation by hegemonic discourses of state and institutional religion. Amichai's poetry, despite its oppositional stance, has been thoroughly appropriated in two systematic ways, each corresponding to a different geographic center of readership: for nationalist official ceremonies and commemorative functions by various Israeli state-apparatuses (e.g., the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defense); and for religious ritual by the organized Jewish American community, as part of its investment in Yiddishkayt-lite. Both types of appropriation require, as I argue in section III below, that central aspects of Amichai's poetry be rendered invisible. In both cases, Amichai's sardonic deflations and critique of these very ceremonies and institutions must be ignored in order for his appropriations as National Poet or Religious-Bard-for-Secular-Jews to be as thoroughly successful as they have been. This is, ultimately, the most cynical distortion of Amichai's egalitarian ideal of the useful poet.
What I find most disturbing is that generations of progressive young Israeli readers have been turned off from Amichai's poetry because they came to identify it with its various official commemorative and ritualistic reifications — to all of which they were exposed from their earliest school years. What I wish to do, then, is peel away a few of the many layers of interpellation in order to make Amichai freshly readable again. I am motivated, above all, by my passion for his poetry and the sense that its prominence has, paradoxically, rendered it illegible. In reclaiming Amichai for a new/old reading and by reconstructing some of the shock value it had when he first appeared on the scene, I do not delude myself that any of his systemic co-optations can be fully undone or, for that matter, that my proposed rereadings are not in themselves expressions of my own political, aesthetic, and even academic-institutional situatedness. But I do hope, in laying bare my own positionality, to avoid some of the mystification that characterizes Amichai's ideologically driven appropriation by the "establishment."
That Amichai was not always received in Israel as the National Poet of Celebratory Statism is brought vividly home by a fascinating recent piece of archival detective work. Rafi Man, as part of his doctoral research, uncovered the minutes of two powwows held at David Ben-Gurion's office in March 1961. Among those present were the young kibbutzniks Amos Oz, who would become one of the major novelists of the Statehood Generation, and Muki Tzur, who would later emerge as a central historian of the Zionist labor movement. During one of these meetings, while the participants complain to their political father-figure about "the nihilism" and "loss of values" (ovdan arakhim) typical of the Hebrew literature of their time, Amnon Barzel, then the youth coordinator of the centrist-labor kibbutz movement (Ichud), brings up the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and adds: "He is an excellent poet but extremely dangerous [mesukan ad me'od]." He then offers to send Ben-Gurion a copy of Amichai's book. I propose that we take seriously the fact that in March 1961 these young intellectuals, seeking access to the seat of power, felt the need to report the danger of Amichai's poetry to the authorities. "Excellent poetry" is indeed too "dangerous" to be left alone to do its work; hence the need for what eventually became Amichai's massive hegemonic appropriation.
But what exactly was it about the poems of the first two volumes that Amichai had published by 1961 — Akhshav u-va-yamin ha-acherim (Now and in Other Days) (1955) and Be-merchak shtey tikvot (Two Hopes Away) (1958) — that made Amos Oz insist in that meeting that Ben-Gurion must read Amichai not, God forbid, because he is important, "but because he is expressive of something [Tzarikh li-kro oto. Lo mipney she-hu chashuv, ela mevate mashehu]"? It is clear from the minutes of those meetings that the budding literati in attendance did not yet have a cohesive sense of a generational poetics in line with what Israeli critics have come to first take for granted and then critique as the distinctive poetics of dor ha-mdina (the Statehood Generation). Thus, the participants "reported" to Ben-Gurion on a hodge-podge of writers of all ages and styles whom we associate in hindsight with different literary generations and trends.
No generational sense emerges from the conversations in Ben-Gurion's office simply because in 1961 the Statehood Generation had not as yet acquired the status of a full-fledged literary trend or become fully identified with the poetic avant-garde in the Israeli "republic of letters." Such a sense was not to be consolidated until 1966, when Natan Zach published a series of manifestos and programmatic essays, as well as a book-length attack on the previous generation, the moderna poets of the prestate period, and especially Nathan Alterman, who by then had replaced the more leftist and experimental Avraham Shlonsky as the moderna's leading figure. Zach's pronouncements aimed, among other things, to liberate concrete and personal poetic expression from the collectivist abstractions of the past, which were associated both with the socialist realism of the 1948 Palmach Generation and the heavily symbolist nationalism of Alterman's topical poetry. In fact, what we have come to identify since the mid-1960s as the political disengagement — or, in later critical reassessments, the luxury of a privileged individualism that only writers who are citizens of an established state can afford — fits perfectly the explicit poetics (but not necessarily the implicit poetics embedded in the poetry) of just one poet of the Statehood Generation, namely, the early Natan Zach. It fits none of the other poets who have since come to be seen as representative of that literary trend. Any close reading of the work produced in the 1950s and 1960s by Statehood Generation poets such as Dahlia Ravikovitch, Dan Pagis, David Avidan, and indeed Yehuda Amichai reveals that their poetry violates not only many of the famous "Fifteen Commandments" of Zach's manifesto "On the Stylistic Climate of the 1950s and 1960s in Our Poetry" (Le-akliman ha-signoni shel shnot hachamishim ve-ha-shishim be-shiratenu) but also the group's purported taboo on writing political poetry. Hamutal Tsamir has already shown that this is the case with respect to Ravikovitch and other women poets of the 1960s. I would add that before historiographical labels and hegemonic mechanisms of appropriation came between us and Amichai's work, it was often perceived as political to its very core and as having in its politics something palpably dangerous.
Furthermore, the human toll of the 1948 war (the Israeli War of Independence and the Palestinian Nakba) on both Israelis and Palestinians, and more generally the perspective of the defeated, forms a constant presence in Amichai's early poetry, albeit as a shadow of that which is no longer there. Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the fifteen or so poems in Amichai's 1963 collection Shirim 1948–1962 (Poems 1948–1962) in which this shadowy presence is felt even on the thematic surface of the text. But a few salient examples are in order. See, for example, the previously untranslated sonnet "U-veyt sira haya bli sira" (And a Boathouse Was Left without a Boat), a poem in which the absence of the boat whose house this was (and, via metonymy, the home [bayit] of the local fisherman), functions as an "echo of another world" (hed olam acher, line 14). This absence haunts both the place and the lovers who go through it "whispering as in a house of mourning" (kemo she-lochashim be-veyt avel, line 10). The ghost-like rattling of the rusty chains that lead to the boat which is no longer there is like the "empty hand of Tantalus / that hasn't come to terms / with having naught ... and keeps on grabbing" for what has been taken from him. Unable to forget who and what was in this place before them, the young Israeli lovers in the sonnet cannot rejoice in their sunny present even as the passing cars declare: "This time is ours" (ze yomenu, line 12).
Excerpted from The Full Severity of Compassion by Chana Kronfeld, Aron Rodrigue, Steven J. Zipperstein. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of ContentsContents and AbstractsIntroduction: "Be an Other's, Be an Other": A Personal Perspective chapter abstract
A biography of Yehuda Amichai and the arc of his life in poetry is interwoven with a discussion of autobiography and its role in lending Amichai's avant-garde lyric a deceptively simple impression.1Beyond Appropriation: Reclaiming the Revolutionary Amichai chapter abstract
This chapter traces Amichai's reception and appropriation as a "national poet" of official celebrations in Israel and as a poet of simple religiosity in the Jewish American synagogue. Arguing that revolutionary poetry is too "dangerous" to be left alone to do its work, the chapter interrogates these misreadings not as mistakes that should be corrected but as informative expressions of hegemonic processes of canon formation. By contrast, the chapter illustrates the wrath with which early critics received his work, labeling it revolutionary and heretical – all this in an attempt to restore our ability to perceive these features in Amichai's poetry even today, despite its massive cooptation. The chapter also critiques the over-emphasis on thematics in literary studies, theorizing from Amichai's work a model for the politics of poetic form.2"In the Narrow Between": Amichai's Poetic System chapter abstract
Simplicity and accessibility are for Amichai serious ethical principles, guidelines for a poetic effect that are part of the fabric of everyday life, not just the mark of "a playful poet" writing "easy" verse who has "no worldview," as some scholars have argued, mistaking his egalitarian imperative for a lack of philosophical gravitas. Poetic philosophy is revealed in the process to be a feature of stylistics as of thematics. Chapter Two outlines the major principles that underlie Amichai's poetic philosophy, focusing on the state of "in-between-ness" as the privileged yet endangered site of the poetic subjects-cum-ordinary human beings. This sets the stage for an array of systematic correlations between liminality as the governing feature of Amichai's poetic worldview and many of his signature rhetorical practices discussed throughout the book, such as juxtaposition, intertextuality and metaphor, which map two domains together without ignoring their distinctness.3"I Want to Mix Up the Bible": Intertextuality, Agency, and the Poetics of Radical Allusion chapter abstract
Famous for his iconoclastic allusions to sacred texts, Amichai is able to subject these sources to irreverent rewritings without producing a hermetic poetry. His intertextual collage co-exists with lucidity and readerly accessibility. The chapter retheorizes intertextuality through Amichai's rhetorical practice to call into question contemporary Western theories in the field. Using Amichai's unique combination of Jewish and matrilineal notions of literary tradition and (inter)textual exegesis, the chapter engages critically with Harold Bloom's model of "the anxiety of influence," and its bourgeois-individualist, male-Oedipal struggle between "strong poets;" it also critiques the poststructuralist view of intertextuality as "an anonymous tissue of citations" through Amichai's insistence on a historically inflected human agent as central to any process of recycling a culture's texts. This agency, though censored and limited, offers a possibility of resisting interpellation by the act of changing the words of its subjugating command, in Judith Butler's terms.4Celebrating Mediation: The Poet as Translator chapter abstract
Amichai sees the work of translation as a model for the poet's own in-between-ness, as well as for the translator/poet's inescapable secondariness. That the poet, like the translator, plays an immanently mediational position is a source of comfort rather than anxiety. This view of the poet's role sheds new light on contemporary theories of translation as cultural negotiation and their focus on asymmetrical power relations between source and target language. Amichai's poems about translation are read as celebrating the imperfect "recycling of words," describing translation as the epitome of all intertextuality, and ultimately of the creative process itself. Through Amichai's ecology of language, the chapter interrogates the ideological blind spots behind the numerous mistranslations that Amichai has been subjected to, not in order to advocate some correct rendition, but rather to suggest the ways in which they express what Gayatri Spivak has termed "the politics of translation."5Living on the Hyphen: The Necessary Metaphor chapter abstract
Metaphor embodies Amichai's principle of "in-between-ness" and has a significance within his poetic system that far exceeds the rhetorical. Chapter Five focuses on metaphor as the central marker of liminality, the hyphen of survival and resistance: it must never erase that hyphen, the marker of the disparate domains which it brings together (hence his preference for simile), even while it strives to make the gap between these domains productive of meaning. The ways Amichai's metaphors resist the erasure of difference critiques the vestiges of poststructuralist views, and offer an alternative model based on a historicized, context-sensitive reworking of prototype semantics. Amichai's images, while as novel and surprising as those of any 17th-century metaphysical poet, nevertheless strike us as completely "right," as visually and experientially familiar, because of their perceptually primary basis and the extensive and rigorous mapping they provide for the distant source and target domains.6Double Agency: Amichai and the Problematics of Generational Literary Historiography chapter abstract
Amichai extols the poet's freedom to oscillate between generational trends and poetic styles, while cherishing his outsider role and calling into question the underlying assumptions behind the generational model itself. His self-description as an inter-generational "double-agent" has presented a real problem for normative Hebrew literary historiography, with its teleological, unidirectional notions of a literary lineage, and has occasioned an impassioned debate. This literally subversive statement also articulates Amichai's post-Marxist critique of teleological historicism, his aversion to chronological order; and his preference for a simultaneous representation of personal and collective temporalities either as a fragmentary "archeology of the self" or as a fault-line geology. The chapter explores Amichai's resistance to the normative historiographic narrative of Hebrew literature, as well his refusal to reject his literary predecessors, a rejection prescribed in the manifestos of the self-proclaimed leader of the Statehood Generation, Natan Zach.