Hebrew, as the literary critic Ruth Kartun-Blum once pointed out, is a language that often “seems to be hypnotized by its past.” Nowhere is this hypnosis more evident than in Hebrew poetry, where biblical and Talmudic turns of phrase loom large, holding under their sway even the most involuntary, subconscious references. The self-described “Galactic Poet” David Avidan, however, was hypnotized by the future—and in his work, he attempted to propel literary Hebrew forward, as he coined words, played with linguistic structures, and even conducted poetic dialogues with a computer. Due to his work’s experimental nature, Avidan is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. The recently published collection Futureman contains translations of his work by Tsipi Keller, as well as a number of Avidan’s own translations, and is a terrific introduction to the work of an eminent poet, who died in 1995 but would have turned 84 this week.
Robert Frost famously wrote that poetry is “what gets lost in translation.” Avidan believed the opposite to be true, positing instead that: “Poetry is whatever is gained while moving from one language to another, and what’s lost in translation should better have been disposed of in the original.” Though admirably cavalier, this is a rather odd statement for a poet who put so much stock in language play—of the sort that’s nearly untranslatable. Take, for instance, the most famous word, coined by Avidan: adamila, which is an amalgamation of the Hebrew words “adam” (man or Adam) and “mila” (word). To translate it simply as “word-man” is to miss out completely on the sonic funkiness of the neologism. This isn’t merely about the witty overlap of the sound “m,” common to both words. It’s also that adamila sounds grotesque, with echoes of “Godzilla” somewhere on the background. There is also something very Slavic-sounding about the word—which would not be entirely surprising, given the poet’s obsession with the great Soviet poet-innovator and word-man Vladimir Mayakovsky. Besides, while adam is obviously a biblical word, connoting the creation story, the word mila, endowed with this particular meaning, is a modern word, and the fusion of the two is fascinating and resonant. So, adamila is a word-making poet-monster, reaching back to a mythic past and forward to an invented future. Today, this word graces the poet’s gravestone.
Another great word Avidan invented is “Sadosemanticism,” which is also the title of a poem, translated by Avidan, and included in “Futureman”:
silly to accuse me of sadism
all I’m trying to do is
use words with painful precision
torturing even precision itself
precisefully painting without compromising
on half-pain half-precision
mash pleasurepain with food coloring
minimal happiness to preserve the community
in its overpreserved minimal state
well then pleasing
weekends and holidays
to zero point
all over again
This poem is an ironic, self-humoring meditation on poetic composition and methodology that devolves into a cooking recipe, as it briefly reflects on the nexus of linguistics and politics, and then, finally and flatly, expires into the hopelessness of the mundane. Sadosemanticism is not merely about the torture of finding the right word to use in the poem—but enjoying oneself while at it. And sure, any writer will confirm that the creative process is both painful and transcendent—but what Avidan hints at is the perverse dimension of this pleasure, which, if it magnifies too much, overpowering the pain, as the second-to-last stanza suggests, will simply vanish.
Another way to understand the poem is to imagine the feeling one gets trying to recall the right word, and struggling to remember what that word is. The word is on the tip of one’s tongue but it does not emerge. It is a very irritating feeling, a tease that can quickly turn into an obsession. Now imagine this sensation lasting for an hour. For days. Imagine one’s whole life dedicated to that feeling, even as one knows the word on the tip of one’s tongue is impossible, doesn’t exist, perhaps because the language—and consciousness—is not broad enough to contain it. That sweet torture is sadosemanticism.
In a way, Avidan’s interest in “the future” is itself a form of sadosemanticism—trying to guess at that which is fundamentally elusive. It is the imaginative space where idealistic hopes clash with inherited fears in the field of an invented language mixed with sarcasm. Consider, for instance, “Let’s Start Digging,” which was translated by the poet himself: “Maybe Jewry as a whole is sort of futureless / Even the Creator himself appears not to have a very clear future of his own.” Here, Avidan’s trademark dark humor and obsession with the future are prominently on display. The lines contain an allusion to the Babylonian Talmud, which cites an ancient rabbi positing the absence of an astrological sign (mazal) for the Jews. And although on a literal level Avidan is commenting on the decline of faith in God, he is, at the same time, pointing to the uncertain fate of the other “creator”—the artist.
In his sci-fi poem “Message From the Future,” the poet portends a visit from a time traveler, who brings word of a forthcoming World War III and advises U.N. leaders to subvert the course of history—by starting the war early. In the end, “the teleword spreads that the whole matter / has been nothing an extremely imaginative Japanese publicity gimmick / triggering the promo-campaign of mass-produced / electrotelepathors for extensive marketing / and for popular use.” The poem is a brief summary of the plot of a film of the same title, which Avidan directed. (In addition to writing poems, Avidan was also a painter, playwright, and filmmaker.) Though his short film Sex was screened at Cannes in 1971, none of his films are available to American viewers, except in amazing snippets on YouTube.
Avidan’s first book, Lipless Faucets, came out in 1954, when the author was only 20 years old. The reviews were scathing. As Israeli scholar Anat Weisman writes in her insightful introduction to Futureman, Avidan’s work was castigated for having “caricaturized values and ideals, thus revealing a sick attraction to nothingness, death, and chaos … a blatant misuse of something beautiful in the service of something ugly and reckless.” Weisman points to what the great Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai wrote of Avidan’s reception, namely that it was harsh and offensive, and as such, just what the “poet-innovator reaps as a wreath on his head.” No doubt, the pushback thrilled Avidan, as it would any avant-garde poet.
In the 1950s, the Israeli poetry world was heavily influenced by Russian poets—metrical, rhymed, often endowed with romantic or political sensibilities. But Avidan gravitated toward Western modernists—he clearly alludes to T.S. Eliot, and one can certainly draw parallels between his work and the writings of Ezra Pound, and in some cases, Gertrude Stein.
In the anthology The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, Ezra Spicehandler recalls that Avidan flaunted his “flamboyant temperament,” and was a “rebel both politically (he embraced Communism) and literarily.” Indeed, as Avidan’s translator Tsipi Keller wrote to me in an email, Avidan was one of the Israeli poets who, taking the cue from Western artists, “abandoned rhyme and elevated speech in favor of everyday, street language, poets like Zach, Amichai, Yona Wallach, Dahlia Ravikovich, and others. You may say they were the avant-garde of today’s poetry, in the sense that they transformed Hebrew poetry, but linguistically and thematically Avidan always looked to the future, and he actually broke open the entire field for all of them.” In those days, recalled Keller, “there was a café called Kassit (legendary in Tel Aviv folklore) where writers and artists would drink and argue into the night. For the most part, Avidan didn’t mingle with them. He was never part of a group. He was, fundamentally a loner.” A crippling case of asthma was not the only reason for Avidan’s isolation—he was also difficult to get along with.
An eccentric dresser, he stood out in 1960s-70s Tel Aviv, which was then, as Keller put it, “a small, seemingly sleepy town.” You can just imagine how the “sleepy town” might have reacted to a poem titled “Experiments in Hysterics,” a piece that uses repetition that is in part reminiscent of Stein’s textural permutations, but is also charged with improvisatory trance-like energy that is also reminiscent of works by Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg. Here is Tsipi Keller’s translation of its opening:
There are people who’ve got nothing to lose, there are people
who’ve got nothing. What
haven’t they got, what
haven’t they got to lose? There are people
who’ve got a time bomb inside, they’ve got
time inside that will soon explode. What
have they got inside that will soon, what
have they got to lose? And there are, of course,
other ways to formulate a feeling. It’s possible, for instance,
to decelerate at once the wheel of reflexes, then suddenly
everything regains its crystalline form. They’re visible,
those who’ve got nothing to lose, they’re visible, you see them,
you may even see them in the form of an advanced submarine,
a submarine in fact that hasn’t been tested yet, a submarine in fact
that may never get tested.
Who are the people with nothing to lose, with a time bomb inside? Are they outsiders—or people in general? Artists? The destitute? Disaffected Israelis of his generation? The questions seem clarified by the haunting image of the visible submarines—displaced machinery that will never be put to the test. Perhaps, the poem is about those who do not take pride in their “nothingness,” their internal chaos, who do not take existential or artistic risks but float, forever untested. Sure, one could “slow down”—a reference, possibly, to drugs—to catch a “crystalline” vision. But another, implied option, is to descend, submarine-like, into the unknown parts of self, or of language. “Experiments in Hysterics” is formally resonant with works by Beat poets, but whereas the Beats’ nihilism is countered with glimmers of spiritual and romantic awakenings, in Avidan’s poem the nihilism is entirely unmitigated, with a blunt and almost sadistic humor.
In a much later poem, “Improvised Report on the Young Poetry Scene in New York,” Avidan considers iconic American poets—including Ginsberg—with a measure of disdain. Deriding the New York poetry scene as a whole, Avidan observes that in New York, only poets come to performances by other poets, and the readership is dwindling as well. His own poetry collection, he points out “sold thousands of copies, while most / Manhattan poets, including the well-known, sell only in the hundreds, and somehow I even manage to snatch / a few American grants.” He is bragging in a way that surely crosses the line of decorum but, at the same time, it is hard not to empathize with a poet who struggled much of his life as an outsider, physically and mentally deteriorating by his late 40s. As Keller wrote in her email to me, “He didn’t age well, his entire persona was about youth, and aging didn’t suit him. Also, from an early age he had to inject himself (his asthma was severe), and at some point, he also began to take all sorts of pills, uppers and downers.”
Although in 1993 Avidan was awarded the prestigious Bialik prize for poetry, only two years after, aged 61, the poet was found dead in his apartment in Tel Aviv. As Weisman put it in her introduction, Avidan died “alone, ill, and destitute.”
At the end of the “Experiment in Hysterics” the poet requested:
…remember me fondly, speak
of me fondly on that other morning when I’ll awake anew
into the murderous unreal speed of impressions
to which I am enslaved, it seems, irrevocably
Is this a dark intimation about afterlife and rebirth, or is this about the poetic legacy one leaves behind? Is it about being translated into a new language? Or is it about being, forever, language-like, driven insane by dreams of the future, forever set on reinventing oneself?
Read Jake Marmer’s poetry criticism for Tablet magazine here.