The quiet subversiveness of Yehuda Amichai’s poetry has been too long overlooked.
My first meeting with Yehuda Amichai, in the fall of 1970, was what we call in Hebrew a chavaya metakenet, a “corrective” or “healing experience,” one that mends a messy or unpleasant earlier experience. Overeager and all too young, I was trying to put together a series called “Rendezvous with an Author” for Israeli Educational Television, which would allow high school students to meet with cutting-edge Hebrew writers in a relaxed roundtable discussion of the writers’ work. I was still reeling from a failed attempt to produce the series’ pilot: an author whose stories I adored was so sadistically cruel to the young students that we had to stop the taping! And then it came to me—Yehuda Amichai, of course.
He was invested in not playing the role of the Great Poet.
Having gotten into the habit of reading his poetry daily for my own emotional sustenance since age fifteen, I was sure: Yes, Amichai would be the one to start with. He would know how to connect with the students and put them at ease; he would be able to talk about the most complex poetic issues with utter simplicity and without egocentric affectation. I had never met him before, but from everything I heard, he was invested in not playing the role of the Great Poet—even though by 1970 his status as the most revolutionary, indeed the most important poet of the Statehood Generation (dor ha-mdina) had solidified and he was acquiring an international reputation. Regardless, he was synonymous with unpretentiousness. And indeed, in his Everyman appearance and unaffected manner, Amichai proceeded to treat the students as his equals, joking his way into all our hearts, and thus the series was off to an exciting start. That experience was the beginning of my lifelong friendship with the man and the catalyst for my dedication to study and teach the work of the poet.
Over the years, as I became increasingly engaged in literary theory, I discovered that almost every theoretical issue in which I found myself interested—from intertextuality and metaphor, through modernism and gender, to larger questions such as the principles underlying literary historiography and the ontological status of aesthetic categories in poetry—all these issues large and small were ones on which Amichai’s poetry, in its subject matter or rhetoric, articulated a profound, indeed often a revolutionary position. I would try to theorize from—rather than into—his poetry. More often than not, I found that the aesthetic, philosophical, and political insights embedded in his verbal art compelled me to rethink quite a few of the views dominant in various changing critical fashions and trends.
Amichai’s poetry, in its subject matter and rhetoric, articulated a profound, indeed often a revolutionary position.
I wanted to start with this personal story in order to situate clearly and openly what is at stake for me when studying the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. To put it bluntly: the revolutionary poet has been occluded by his very canonicity, even though his work—its apparent simplicity notwithstanding—presents a coherent poetic system, not unlike the work of Blake, Yeats, and Stevens. Amichai’s oeuvre—like Brecht’s and Auden’s—offers an unrelenting critique of the dominant ideology of its time. Because for him a critique of ideology engenders a deeply empathic affinity for “the lonely people” or “the lovers,” who regularly fall victim to the manipulations of institutional power, Amichai’s oppositional stance has been all too easily ignored by defenders and detractors alike. It is important for me, therefore, to show that this empathy itself must not be mistaken for some vague, universalizing neoliberalism. Through a close reading of his poetry I have come to see the relational, empathic mode of Amichai’s poetry, the commitment to “be an other’s / be an other,” as a direct complement of his sustained struggle against historically specific dehumanizing systems of privilege and exclusion.
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Ironically, Amichai’s great popularity and success also brought about an odd marginalization. In Israel especially, I now encounter many young progressive intellectuals who have come to reject the appropriated, co-opted, and watered-down Amichai they were raised on. For them, Amichai’s poetry is no longer readable independent of the context in which they were introduced to it: poems that had to be memorized and shallowly interpreted for matriculation exams, recited at assemblies, and declaimed with great pathos at any number of official celebrations and commemorations, in total disregard for their complexity, irony, and uncompromising critical edge. In fact, Amichai’s poetic egalitarianism itself may have resulted in the ambivalent, at times even begrudging critical reception of his work among Israeli literati, despite (or perhaps because of) his immense popularity among common readers, his profound influence on three generations of Hebrew writers, and his unprecedented international acclaim.
Amichai’s poetic egalitarianism itself may have resulted in the ambivalent, at times even begrudging critical reception of his work among Israeli literati, despite (or perhaps because of) his immense popularity among common readers.
Somewhat differently, but ultimately with a similar result, I find that the great popularity of his poetry in the United States has been accompanied by some readerly obtuseness as to what his poetry actually says and does. Amichai has often found his way into the Jewish American prayer book and rabbinical sermon, but not because of a prevailing interest in his iconoclastic engagement with Jewish sacred texts—although, thankfully, that type of countertraditional reading is becoming increasingly “kosher,” leading a growing number of “alternative” Jewish American congregations and their rabbis to read Amichai’s poetry for its irreverence, feminism, and critique of the establishment tout court. All too frequently, however, have I seen Amichai’s poems embraced by American readers who, knowing very little about the sacred texts he takes apart, remain unaware of—and uninterested in—his resistant, anticlerical poetics and are lulled into complacency by the apparent simplicity of his poems’ surface. The mere reference to prayers, God, and the Bible in his poetry has qualified him for the role of a religious Jewish poet laureate for the Jewish American community. Thus, Amichai’s poetry is not infrequently used to provide readers in the United States with something textual to hold onto, either as a marker of some fuzzy, feel-good Jewish identity or, more generally, for its pleasantly vague sense of Old World tradition.
For both Israeli and American audiences, I want to make the experimental, iconoclastic, and critical Amichai readable again, without marginalizing his empathic “postcynical humanism”—his own poignant term. The Amichai I started reading daily in my teens wrote about topics that had never before been considered worthy of poetry in the Holy Tongue, from housing projects to one-night stands. In his philosophical explorations of the quotidian, he was one of the first to boldly make poetic use of newly minted Hebrew slang and to invoke intertextually not only the Bible but also “subcanonical” popular culture—from children’s language to bureaucratese and legalese, and from movie captions to pop songs. What’s more, he would often—Heaven forfend!—juxtapose these lowly expressions with allusions to sacred texts, refusing to privilege the latter over the former.
How then did this revolutionary poet, described by critics and politicians as heretical, even dangerous, in the first two decades of Israeli statehood, become identified with the establishment? Arguing that revolutionary poetry is indeed too “dangerous” to be left alone to do its work, the first chapter of this book deals with the appropriation of Amichai’s work by the same institutions of authority that his poetry struggles against. I analyze some of the ways he has been misread both in Israel and in the United States in order to rigorously interrogate these misreadings not simply as mistakes that should be corrected, but as symptomatic expressions of the processes of institutional appropriation and readerly interpellation—processes that are always at work in canon formation and in the hegemonic taming of canonical writers.
Scholars have for too long mistaken his egalitarian imperative for a lack of philosophical gravitas—misconstruing his simplicity as the mark of “a playful poet” writing “easy,” “unstructured” verse who has “no worldview.” This is the poet who insisted that all his books in Hebrew have the same small format (10 × 18 centimeters) so they would fit in a reader’s back pocket—something ordinary people could take along on their arduous journey through workaday reality. He practices an ethics and aesthetics of what he calls “the wisdom of camouflage,” since flaunting “the splendor” of artistic vision is as dangerous as leaving the lights on during an air raid. Hence, the commitment not to “stand out,” to write “Not Like a Cypress” (the title of one of his most famous early poems) “but like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits.” The Amichai I wish to reclaim is the poet for whom simplicity and accessibility are serious ethical principles, guidelines for a poetic effect and a verbal art that can be part of the fabric of everyday life.
This post was adapted from The Full Severity of Compassion: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Chana Kronfeld.
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