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.”
21st 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. Halevi wrote today’s poem while far out at sea, where the world seemed deserted to him. “Neither bird, beast, nor man?” he asks. “Has nothing remained?” 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!
Be still, you booming surf, enough to let
A pupil go to kiss his master’s cheek!
(That’s Master Aaron, whose unflagging rod
The years have not made tremulous or weak.)
A teacher who never says, “The lesson’s done,”
A giver who never fears to give too much,
He makes me bless the east wind’s wings today
And curse tomorrow’s gusts out of the west.
How can a man who feels as though a scorpion
Has stung him leave Gilead’s balm behind?
How trade the shade of a grand, leafy tree
For winter’s ice and summer’s savagery,
The shelter of a masterly mansion
For the shriving of God’s rain and sun?