A look back at the poetry of Yehuda Amichai

Published - December 23, 2017 04:26 pm IST

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

In September 2000, after one of Israel’s most celebrated poets, Yehuda Amichai, passed away, his publisher Robert Alter recalled the impact of his poems: “There is a tension between personal experience and the violent pressures of history...Writing about himself, he is also writing about Everyman.” As Jerusalem returns to the centre of West Asian conflict with U.S. President Donald Trump declaring it as the capital, a re-reading of Amichai’s series of poems on the city where he lived shows us the extent of personal experience and historical pressures.

As he writes in the cycle of poems, Jerusalem, 1967 , “Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity”; “Jerusalem, the only city in the world/ Where the right to vote is granted even to the dead”; “A person returning to Jerusalem feels that places/ That were painful no longer hurt”; a city “built on varied foundations/ Of restrained scream” where past and present coalesce; “We have put up many flags/ They have put up many flags/ To make us think that they’re happy/ To make them think that we’re happy.”

Promise of land

Yehuda Amichai was 12 when he fled with his parents from Würzburg in Germany to settle in the ‘promised land’ in 1936. This literal escape marked the lines of the future poet. He wrote in Hebrew but his poems were translated, several by British poet Ted Hughes, into English and more than 25 languages, the personal experience metamorphosing into his nation’s, the themes of love, loss, god, country, life and death appealing universally. Acutely aware of the politics, and having fought in two wars, Amichai strived for peace, hoping it would come from the alleys of his favourite city, “short and crouched among its hills... filled with prayers and dreams, hard to breathe.”

The experiences of war haunted him, as Alter writes in the introduction to The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai : “...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 if he had seen God in the battlefield. No, he answered quietly, he had only seen men dying, and it was the job of the poet to name these harsh realities plainly...”

Human response

The story goes that when Amichai was in battle, he stumbled upon an anthology of modern British poetry that had poems by Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, which made him think about writing poems.

In an interview to Paris Review , Amichai observed that all poetry is political: “This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality, and politics is part of reality, history in the making.”

As he says in Temporary Poem of My Time , “Is there in this land a stone that was never thrown/ and never built and never overturned/ and never uncovered and never discovered/ and never screamed from a wall and never discarded by the builders/ and never closed on top of a grave and never lay under lovers/ and never turned into a cornerstone?” Is there any conflict-ridden land where this doesn’t hold true?

The author looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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