Poetry for a Time Gone Mad

Joining the Ancient and the Modern To Write for a Renewed People

By Rachel S. Harris

Published February 04, 2009, issue of February 13, 2009.
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Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry

A HYPERMODERN TAPESTRY: Clockwise from top left: Amir Or, Mordechai Geldman, Tamir Greenberg, Maya Bejerano and Agi Mishol.
A HYPERMODERN TAPESTRY: Clockwise from top left: Amir Or, Mordechai Geldman, Tamir Greenberg, Maya Bejerano and Agi Mishol.
Selected and translated by Tsipi Keller
State University of New York Press, 339 pages, $24.95.

The second half of the 20th century saw a boom in Hebrew poetry unlike anything since the Golden Age of Spain 1,000 years earlier. Using their evolving vernacular, Israeli poets synthesized the literary traditions of the past with rich new waves of English and American poetry. In doing so, they created a poetic world that sings out louder and more poignantly than a news broadcast ever could. At a time of yet more violence and political turmoil in Israel, poetry offers a perspective on the human condition.

“Poets on the Edge” deserves to be in every poetry lover’s library, and should be on every Jewish bookshelf. Not since Carmi’s 1981 “The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse” has a volume of such significance been published. This long-awaited anthology of contemporary Hebrew poetry, edited and translated by Tsipi Keller, is a significant contribution to the scant collections available in translation. Replete with annotations, Keller’s work hints at the rich tradition of Hebrew poetry throughout the ages, revealing the multitude of inter-textual references that draw from the Jewish past’s biblical, rabbinic and historical passages that Israelis have employed in creating a new language of imagery.

Yet, this tantalizing glimpse at the literary layers of the poetry also lies at the heart of the collection’s shortcomings. For a reader even vaguely aware of biblical texts, it becomes immediately noticeable that Keller often skips over many of even the most common biblical or cultural references. It is not clear why some are noted and others are not. Hebrew readers will be frustrated at the lack of original texts, and Keller’s layout is somewhat hard to navigate, with the associations among poets often obscured.

The book’s arrangement impedes any true understanding of the connections between periods and styles. By laying out the authors according to birth dates, the inter-generational influences of literary journal editors who cultivated subsequent generations are difficult to fathom — and the arrangement gives no account of movements, or of literary trends such as the avant-garde poetry of Wallach and Wieseltier, which challenged the establishment’s devotion to lyrical depictions of the landscape. A more thematic framework would have provided a sense of the relationship between poets and poetic schools. But these few flaws are perhaps merely the price for the sheer volume of material that this collection provides.

Keller’s anthology presents the works of the most important Israeli poets familiar at home and abroad, such as T. Carmi, Natan Zach, Dan Pagis and, of course, the ubiquitous Yehuda Amichai. But there is also plenty offered from an array of lesser-known figures, such as Agi Mishol, Tamir Greenberg and Mordechai Geldman.

Each of the 27 poets is represented by a number of poems and a brief biography. These many short examples reveal the diversity of styles that characterized the Israeli literary scene from the 1950s to the 1990s. Aminadav Dykman’s superb introduction contextualizes modern Hebrew poetry, explaining that the lyricism and high registers of speech among the early modern Hebrew poets gave way to subsequent generations that had Hebrew as a first language — like Zach and Amichai, who talked about cars, taxis, tanks and modern cities. Dykman argues, “Like their fellow postmodernists, they discovered the night and recognized their urban surroundings and daily lives as subject matter.”

While these themes and images are characteristic of the spectrum of modern and hypermodern poetry worldwide, Israeli poetry also connects to an ancient literary tradition that stretches through the past 3,000 years to the Bible — “more ancient than most poetic traditions of our time.” Keller’s notes help the contemporary reader observe and understand the poems’ rich allusions, despite the difficulties of reading in translation. In Hebrew literature, “the bible and the ‘mekorot’ (sources) are an integral part of everyday life… commonly heard and used side by side with new slang words, with locutions and technical terms borrowed from English, and with curses and obscenities taken, most frequently, from Arabic and Russian.” This volume gives a taste of the intricacy of using an ancient language in its modern evolution.

Keller explains that quotations are “sometimes straightforward” and sometimes playful and ironic, as in Agi Mishol’s poem “From the Depths I Called Hey,” which puns on an allusion to Psalm 130, “From the Depths I Call Out to You Oh God.” By reading the letter Hey not as an abbreviation of God’s name in Hebrew but as a letter of the alphabet, the poem becomes a slang form of address. Or consider Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem “But She Had a Son,” which conjures up a present-day matriarch. Using the name Rachel echoes the biblical narrative, while the woman’s grief for her dead soldier son echoes Rachel’s cry in Lamentations as well as the fêted poem by Rachel (as Rachel Bluwstein, 1890–1931, is known), “If only I had a son/A small child/With black curls… I’d call him Uri.” Capturing the archaeological layers of Israeli poetry transforms images of barrenness and motherhood into a critique of war.

Alongside these ties to Jewish liturgy is plenty of material of a more purely secular nature. From Ronny Someck’s poem “From the Distance the Tombstones Look Like a Flock of Storks” comes the line “Lennon, Joplin or Hendrix, who then played along the watch-tower.” The suggestion of popular culture, with a reference to a song by Jimi Hendrix, speaks to the increased influence of American culture in Israel. But this reference also speaks to the political aspects of watch towers, which were an integral part of early settlements in the new country; subsequently, they have become an allusion to the poverty of South Tel Aviv slums, bending the appropriated imagery into new contexts.

The earliest of the poets represented was born in 1924, and the final entry belongs to Sharron Hass, born in 1966. Hass’s poem has an afterword that introduces poetry of Irit Katzir — an unknown writer discovered posthumously by Keller. The poets come from a broad cross-section of Israeli society and include women (notably Yona Wallach, Maya Bejerano), Mizrahi writers (the indispensable Ronny Someck, among others) and even figures associated with the religious establishment, such as Hava Pinchas-Cohen. Eminent poets are situated alongside marginal and obscure poets that have no reputation outside Israel. Poets at the center of the establishment are complemented by a wide range of poets outside the traditional canon.

The breadth of this collection displaces the hegemony of Hebrew writers from the Eastern European elite that dominated previous anthologies in English, yet it does not sacrifice these important figures entirely. Keller presents fresh material, often little known, and demonstrates the wide array of perspectives represented in contemporary Israeli literature. The selection of poets is commendable and paints an accurate portrait of the vibrant diversity of late 20th-century Hebrew poetry and society.

Occasionally, however, the poems feel as though they’ve been chosen at random. The edginess of the anthology’s title implies a postmodern agitation against the accepted mainstream in theme and style — but Keller’s selections are not always indicative of the cutting-edge style that usually characterized poets like S. Shifra, Yehuda Amichai and David Avidan, who have written radical poems that remain daring long after these writers became dominant features of the Israeli landscape. Examples like Ravikovitch’s “Tell About the Arab Who Died in the Fire” are still likely to shock audiences, delivering the edge Keller promises.

In the past five years, a new generation has reinvigorated the poetic scene in Israel. Tel Aviv’s centennial this year makes it an exciting time to consider the recent evolution in Hebrew poetics. Yitzhak Laor and Amir Or, who appear in Keller’s book, have been among the lead figures of the old guard, helping foster those of the contemporary manifesto generation, who are mainly in their 20s and 30s. Aiming to bring poetry to wider audiences through public events, concerts, workshops, readings and performance poetry, alongside the more traditional mediums of print, such as books, literary journals and newspapers, these writers are changing the literary landscape. Poetry festivals sponsored directly by the Tel Aviv municipality mean that works by innovative new writers are plastered on city buses, garbage trucks and park benches throughout the city each summer, bringing Israeli poetry to the people who make and remake the Hebrew vernacular. “Poets on the Edge,” with its diverse collection of poets, captures the foundations that have enabled a new counter-culture emerging in Israel, providing some clues to an exciting future for Israeli poetry.

I told her: No it’s still the same poem. And she asked: What’s it about? I said: About the times gone mad, Except we’ve learned to live with it, Which is a great evil; — Natan Zach, “Three Poems That Weren’t Written”

Rachel S. Harris is assistant professor of Hebrew literature and language at the State University at Albany (SUNY). She works on contemporary Israeli literary journals and the manifesto generation.


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