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How David Avidan Became Hebrew’s Most Experimental Poet

A new and important translation aims to introduce readers to David Avidan, the most experimental poet in the history of Hebrew poetry, and a poet unjustly unknown to nearly all English-language readers. Avidan was also a filmmaker, a conceptual artist, and a television and radio host. In all his pursuits, he was obsessed with the future and riveted by the possibilities of technology and translation. Most of all, he was in love with the Hebrew language — its grammar and its system of constructing words — and he could not resist making up many words of his own.

This translation by Tsipi Keller, who brought great passion to the project, which is called “Futureman” — “very simply, I love him,” she told me — admirably preserves Avidan’s made-up words, such as his famous description of himself as an adamila, or “wordman.” The translation is accompanied by an extensive and helpful introduction by scholar Anat Weisman, which explains Avidan’s place in the history of Hebrew poetry, and shows the effect his radicalism had on other Israeli writers.

Weisman quotes the poet Aharon Shabtai, who wrote that Avidan “personified all that was forbidden and deviant.” She explains that Avidan was a poet fascinated by poetry’s relationship with other genres — which Weisman intriguingly describes as “prayer, science, logic, lyrics, film, and television.”

Not surprisingly, with a world-view like that, Avidan definitely did not fit into his own time. Avidan’s birthdate places him squarely in Dor Hamedina — the poets who began publishing after the state of Israel was established in 1948 — but he was not interested in their aesthetic. “Avidan’s poetry was always grandiose,” Weisman writes, “designed to be read resoundingly in the public square, while also cognizant of the fate of poetry to vanish from the square.”

You can hear the grandiosity, as well as the fear for poetry’s role in history, in Avidan’s wild titles, like “Violation Ticket to the Messiah for Weeping in Public” and “What Did Kurt Waldheim Expect from the Polish Pope?” Keller, who has brought many Israeli poets into English, deserves readers’ gratitude for taking on the major challenge of Avidan. The publisher here is interesting as well: Phoneme Media, a new translation press in Los Angeles that is committed to social activism. If Avidan were alive, he would probably be delighted to be on Phoneme’s extremely cool list, next to a graphic novel about life in Angola prison that was translated from the French. It fits with his international, avant-garde aesthetic.

I spoke with Keller about why Avidan matters — and what translating him was like.

David Avidan Image by Courtesy of Tsiporen Lotem

Translators are at heart, very close readers, and I’m curious to hear your personal take on why Avidan is important. Why did you feel compelled to translate Avidan, and why do you believe he matters to Hebrew poetry and world poetry?

I never met Avidan face to face, but I would see him occasionally on the street, after that first time when I was still a schoolgirl, and he was pointed out to me on Dizengoff Street with the words “There goes that crazy poet Avidan.” Tel Aviv in those days was a small city, even provincial, and Avidan stood out. The way he dressed (tight shirts, tight pants), the way he walked (very erect posture, head held high, raven-black long hair), invited jeers such as: Shvitzer (arrogant, showoff), definitely un-Israeli! And yet, in retrospect, he was “cool” long before the word reached Israel, and before it became ubiquitous in the U.S.

He was an original, an individualist, both in his life and his work. Indeed, “individualist” was one of the complaints leveled against Lipless Faucets (1954), Avidan’s first book, which he self-published, founding a press he called “ARD” an acronym that stood for: I Want Print. Looking back, it is astonishing that anyone paid any attention to a self-published book by an unknown twenty-year-old, but the fact is that they did. They couldn’t ignore it. It touched a nerve: The gall! Who does this pisher think he is?

Well, this pisher knew he was a man of singular mental powers, and he wasn’t shy or apologetic about it. He stood out because he was different, because the clichés and traditions of the past have had their day and it was time to leap forward. In her Introduction to “Futureman,” Anat Weisman — an Avidan Scholar and co-editor of his posthumous “Collected Poems” (four hefty volumes, 2009-2011) — notes: “’Lipless Faucets’ was controversial from any conceivable angle: the brutal and sexual themes; the arrogant and misanthropic persona of the poet who abhors the collective; its odd and hybrid aesthetics; its cryptic surreal-apocalyptic visions; its existential and uncompromising bitterness; the absolute freedom from, and rejection of, communal values.” Still, Avidan was a poet one could vilify, but not ignore.

What was the reaction to Avidan outside Israel, during his lifetime? And what did his “competitors” within Israel — other major poets — have to say about him?

Avidan, who never recognized borders, who said “My arena is the entire planet” would travel abroad, creating a stir everywhere he went and would call on poets he wanted to interview, such as John Ashbery, Andrei Voznesenski, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He had his admirers in Israel — for the most part poets, writers, artists, and a new generation of young readers — but the reading public, as a whole, didn’t know how to “digest” him.

Poet Natan Zach, Avidan’s contemporary and friend, and one not famous for lavishing praise on others, has said that Avidan, singlehandedly, transformed Hebrew poetry. In an interview, poet Aharon Shabtai has said: “[Avidan] championed an Israelism whose horizon was open and daring: open to the erotic, to self-invention, to confrontation, to thinking and debating.”

Yes, I got carried away, but this is the only way I know how to talk about Avidan. Very simply, I love him — as a poet, and as a man who was born before his time, and who, ill and destitute, died too young. Were he alive today, he’d be all over the Internet. He has an online presence, please Google him; Hebrew speakers may want to watch the documentary “Avidanium”. And I hope I answered your question why I felt compelled to translate him, and why I think he matters to Hebrew and world poetry.

Avidan made up words his entire life. What are a few examples of made-up words in Hebrew that you particularly admire? What are the challenges of translating made-up Hebrew words into English?

Avidan knew Hebrew inside and out, Hebrew was his home, and he took liberties with her (Ivrit is a feminine noun). Hebrew was his music, his typewriter, an instrument, and he combined words as a matter-of-course (and soon other poets and writers followed). He liked to say that this compounding held a powerful mystical charge, which allowed words to have “a proper social life, unlike people whose fate it is to be solitary.” He usually combined words when it felt organic, when the last letter of a word was the same as the first letter of the next. The best known word he coined was “adamila” combining “adam” (man) and “mila” (word) — wordman, and the short, nearly elegiac poem on his gravestone says it all: “The word I was/the word I will be/the word I was/ before my birth/the word I will be after my death/the word that was in me/the word that is with me.” I don’t know if this poem brings tears to people’s eyes, but it does to mine.

“Sadosemanticism” is another wellknown (not a typo) term he coined, and in a poem of the same title (a poem he translated), Avidan says: “silly to accuse me of sadism/all I’m trying to do is/use words with painful precision/torturing even precision itself.”

What are some of the reasons you think he played with words, other than for the sheer joy of it?

Avidan also combined words when he felt a need to speed up the movement, the rhythm. I followed his lead and combined words where I felt it would work in the English, as, for instance: allatonce, firstofall, and so on. In other instances, when the English translation yielded words that didn’t lend themselves to be coupled, I didn’t force it. For example, in the poem “The Stain Remained on the Wall,” Avidan combines the Hebrew “alul” (might) “lipol” (fall) to create: “alulipol” but the English “mightfall” interfered with the rhythm and confused the eye to read “nightfall.”

On the other hand, in the poem “Interim Summation,” Avidan combines the words “boker” (morning) and “kaitz” (summer), to create “bokerkaitz” and here the English “summermorning” worked fine, just as it does in the Hebrew, visually and musically.

You have translated many important Israeli poets, including Erez Bitton and Raquel Chalfi. How has this translation project differed from other books you have translated?

Avidan himself was a prolific and enthusiastic translator. He translated plays by Chekhov, Brecht, and Friedrich Schiller, as well as “Hamlet,” and the play adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.” Avidan believed that a poem achieves completeness only after it has traveled through a number of languages.

Avidan very much wanted to be read, and worked hard to reach the wider world as well as the future world. Let’s walk through a single poem, found on page 71, and discuss the Hebrew involved and the translation problems you encountered.

“Violation Ticket to the Messiah for Weeping in Public” encapsulates Avidan’s essence, his acerbic and uncompromising intelligence, his love for, and agility with, wordplay, his irony-tinged humor, his rabbinical familiarity with the sources (the Bible, the Talmud), as well as his compassion, if stinging, for man’s fate. In the Hebrew the first line of the poem reads: “al tivké, yeled mouké” and as “luck” would have it, the English came to me quite easily, and, if I recall correctly, maybe instantly: “Don’t weep, whipped child.” This doesn’t happen often when a translator from the Hebrew is able to get all three components: the meaning, the cadence, and the internal rhymes. But in cases where I can’t get all three, I’ll forgo the rhyme in favor of meaning—namely, the engine that drives the poem—and the rhythm. (Hebrew rhymes easily, mostly thanks to suffixes denoting gender, tense, possession, and so on. In his poem “Only in Hebrew” Meir Wieseltier says, “Only in Hebrew beautiful/rhymes with coffee,/a doctor with a baker.” To carry this further: coffee, beautiful, doctor, baker—they all rhyme, ending with a “phé”).

In the second to last line of the poem, Avidan says: “mashiah kashiah” which translated literally means: inflexible/rigid/unbending/hardheaded messiah, but I chose to go with “messiah pariah,” because the essential meaning and end result of both the poem and the line is that the messiah is an outcast, indeed, “a hopeless case” as the last line asserts. Here I felt it was important to choose rhythm and sound over the explicit meaning of “kashiah.” Another translator may disagree, but I believe that Avidan would have approved.

Even those who don’t read Hebrew can discern that in the Hebrew, eight lines end with ה(five of them in the first stanza), and, of course, they all rhyme with one another, while the English lines do not. And yet, I maintain the rhythm, and herein lies the challenge you speak of. And, in the first and second lines of the second stanza, another “lucky break: the English practically invited: “messiah messiah/you’re a mess.” But here, too, I deviated a bit from Avidan who says in the second line: “you’re in trouble.” But “troubled” came in handy in the fourth line: “a troubled orphan.” The literal meaning of the Hebrew in the fourth line is: “disturbed orphan” which renders the meaning but interferes with the sound and rhythm.

And who is this romantic, troubled, orphaned messiah? In a word, all of us. He is everyman. He harbors great hopes and dreams. The entire world waits for him to show himself, to prove his greatness, and he waits for the world to see him for who he is. Everyone is waiting, but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to nothing at all, but a wretched discharge that also marked his beginning. We were cast out of the symbolic Garden of Eden, our mothers are not pretty and our fathers are not men. We are born and we die. But the world will continue to wait, and so will we.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner


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