In 11th-century Spain, where the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi composed many of his masterworks, poetry was, for the educated classes, the language of everyday life. In his biography of Halevi, published this year by Nextbook Press, Hillel Halkin describes the young Halevi improvising poetry (about the pleasures of wine, of course) in a busy tavern—which, Halkin explains, would not have been an unusual way to spend an evening. “If calling an age ‘poetic’ refers, not to some supposed collective sublimity or imaginativeness of mind, but, more mundanely, to the widespread use of poetry in ordinary life as a medium of communication and social exchange, the young man was born in one of the most historically poetic of ages,” Halkin writes. “Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news from one encampment to another; for the recording and remembering of unusual events; for the wooing of the opposite sex; for the enhancement of celebrations; for the flattering of authority; for the vaunting of one’s exploits; for the praising of one’s friends and the derogation of one’s enemies, and the like.”
Twentieth-century America is a little bit different. For most of us, poetry is something outside of the everyday—but to celebrate National Poetry Month, Tablet is trying to be a bit more like medieval Spain by including a Halevi poem, in Halkin’s new translation, on the Scroll each afternoon. Today’s first short poem—actually a fragment—is, as Halkin puts it, a “bantering quatrain” about a woman we know nothing about: maybe an actual love interest, maybe just a literary construct. The second poem is also about longing—for southern Spain, written while Halevi was living in the north. He would return many times to theme of homesickness. Enjoy your daily drink of Andalusian wine below—or download and print out a pocket-sized version here. Plus, check out a bonus poetry feature from our archives, and don’t forget to enter Nextbook Press and Tablet Magazine’s Yehuda Halevi poetry contest!
Ofra does her laundry in my tears
And dries it in the sunshine she gives off
She doesn’t need to take it to the trough,
Or wait to hang it till the weather clears,
A dove weeps in the treetops
And her sobs make my heart sore,
For its pangs are as her pain is
And my fate is shared by her.
I cry for kin and country,
She for her old nesting grounds;
I for my lost dear ones,
She for her scattered friends;
I for days long vanished,
She for youth now fled.