No longer the province of an artistic elite, poetry in Israel today is being produced by hundreds of poets of all stripes
There was a time, one and two generations ago, when Israeli poets wore crowns. Led by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)—the king of Israeli poetry in English translation, a sort of Jewish Billy Collins able to please his audience with his smoothness and smarts and his attractive image of the Israeli as a sensitive soul—this band included other greats whose work also appeared in The New Yorker yet who did not become as popular as he was with American readers. Dan Pagis (1930-1986), like Amichai a German-speaker who wrote in Hebrew after he arrived in pre-state Israel, was a darker, more disturbing poet. Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005) was more surprising than Amichai because of her approach to gender—and darker too. She was well-translated but somewhat harder to grasp outside of her native culture, without knowing the emotional and political battles she fought and the texts she rebelled against.
And more recently there was, until this year, Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) a Palestinian-Israeli poet who lived in Nazareth and ran a souvenir shop. Not as widely celebrated as Amichai, he may be more famous in English than at home, due to Adina Hoffman’s fine 2009 biography in English and the translations into English from Arabic of her husband Peter Cole with Yahya Hijazi and Gabriel Levin. Taha, no less than Amichai, wrote with accessible wit and wisdom about life in this contested place, of which he was a native. Toward the end of his life, he too commanded a large audience at Israeli poetry festivals, in the Hebrew translations of Anton Shammas.
Currently, the beloved veteran poet Agi Mishol (disclosure: I translated a book-length selection of her poems, Look There, in 2006; she is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry in Hebrew) continues to be extremely popular and draw large crowds. She is often called a successor to the great Israeli women poets Yona Wallach and Dahlia Ravikovitch, with poems as deceptively simple as “Blue Bird”:
On the kitchen
carries a blue-feathered
the beak still
in a pincer grip
on a pomegranate twig
each of us holds
in our mouths.
But poetry here, as elsewhere no doubt, is no longer the province of one clearly identifiable artistic elite, and certainly not the province of only a few poetry kings or queens. There are hundreds of poets active in Israel, and they come in all stripes: lyric, protest, experimental, minimalistic, formalist, academic, and others. A poet’s union is forming, and, as the prelude to its first meeting, an open reading was held in the street last month on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.
Because I am a translator, I know that for poetry to cross language borders, it must have strong content and brilliant or at least surprising thoughts, not the province of all writers, even the very good ones. To stay at home with honor, poetry must touch a local nerve—be sensitive to both language and current affairs—which is a different thing. Since it may very well be true, as Charles Simic said in a famously negative 2007 New York Review of Books essay about Robert Creeley, that “there are not many poets, even among our best ones, who are likely to have more than eighty pages worth reading,” this will be a brief journey among excerpts from what I consider excellent poems by poets you have probably never heard of. I make no claim to represent everyone’s taste, just my own. And space limitations will mean that mostly everyone is being left out.
I’ll begin with a beginner, a barely published 29-year-old Hebrew poet whose first language is Russian: Johnny Spector. I can’t translate him, as I hesitate to translate rhyme and it is nearly impossible to reproduce consonance and assonance. I find that the words emphasized by the repetition of sounds change so completely in translation that a rhymed translation often loses content, in order to give a pathetic illusion of formal similarity to the original.
To feel the force of its beauty, however, you can read the first line of Spector’s “Poem for Budapest” for yourself in a transliteration of the original Hebrew: “Lah-lekhet beh-mah-seh-khat shah-lehket hah-gashmeem. Blee mah-seem. Beh-lo-mileem.” The poem opens with a scene of walking, after a rain, without really noticing, and without uttering a word, on the piles of fallen leaves that are also masking something. The poet, by the way, is writing a thesis on the ethnic identity of prison wardens in Israel.
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