You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Only A Man

Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel's National Poet
By Nili Scharf Gold
(Brandeis University Press, 445 pp., $35)

This is a disheartening book. As the first full-scale biographical-critical study of one of the great poets of the twentieth century, it invites high expectations, and it repeatedly disappoints them. The problem does not stem from any lack of dedication in the research on which the book draws. Nili Gold has sedulously labored in the Amichai archives at the Beinecke Library at Yale, and she has uncovered a variety of interesting materials. She has interviewed many people who knew Amichai at various stages of his life--he died in 2000, at the age of seventy-six--and has gained access to a trove of Amichai letters not in the Beinecke collection. She has walked through the squares and streets of Wurzburg, in southern Germany, where Amichai spent his first twelve years, and unearthed there useful information about his childhood friends, his school, the shul where his Orthodox father worshipped, his frightening encounters with Hitler Youth thugs. And yet the image of the poet that emerges from Gold's treatment of all these biographical materials is often deeply misleading, sometimes in exceedingly exasperating ways.

The first difficulty is that Gold is a writer who never met an idea that she could not run into the ground. Her book presents two purportedly new ideas: the centrality to Amichai's work, first, of his Germanness, and second, of what is represented as his first great love, for a woman now living in New York, with whom he was smitten at the age of twenty-three. I will begin with the question of the German background. Several recent researchers working in the Amichai archives have reported a surprising presence of German in his notebooks: German marginal comments on drafts of the poems, German alternatives to lines of the Hebrew poetry, and at least one entire German poem that was recast in Hebrew. Gold does not mention an additional fact reported by people who knew Amichai in the 1950s: that the language of communication between him and his first wife, Tamar, was quite often German. Israeli critics--notably Shimon Sandbank--have long recognized Amichai's affinity with Rilke. Gold uncompromisingly insists that Rilke is a crucial influence on Amichai's poetry, but mentions Auden and Dylan Thomas only once in passing, though they were demonstrably at least as powerful models for the young Hebrew poet as Rilke.

The German background is strenuously invoked here in the repeated insistence on the decisive influence of Amichai's boyhood on his sense of self and on his future course as a poet. His original family name was Pfeuffer; the twenty-three-year-old poet, on the eve of Israel's War of Independence, chose the Hebrew surname Amichai, which means "my people lives." It is less generally known that everyone in Wurzburg addressed him as Ludwig, and not, as he would later recall to interviewers, as Yehuda, the Hebrew name bestowed on him at his circumcision. Gold dramatically construes this misrecollection as part of a lifelong project of "suppression." In her account, Amichai was determined to conceal his German past. It is a construction I would question. Ludwig is grotesquely foreign-sounding to Hebrew ears (as it would be to American ones). One readily understands that the twelve-year-old new immigrant to the yishuv immediately preferred to be called Yehuda, and that later it was easy for him to remember himself in Germany as Yehuda. This is hardly evidence of a systematic effort of concealment.

Again and again, Gold asks why Amichai did not represent his German childhood in his poetry, except fragmentarily and obliquely. The inconvenient fact that his major novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place, devotes elaborate attention to Wurzburg (which is given the fictional name Weinburg) is not allowed to trouble Gold's thesis of suppression, because the book is fiction, not poetry, and hence is thought somehow to belong to a different category in regard to the writer's relation to his early years. But Gold's notion of Amichai's "poetics of camouflage" rests on an entirely unexamined assumption--that it is the task of the poet to represent his life directly and in full, and hence that biography is always the key to the meaning of the poems. This is a thoroughly bizarre notion. In their many ways, poets muse on the world around them, responding to loss, to love, to nature, to historical events, and to much else in the reality that immediately impinges on them. Sometimes they may recall their childhood, though this is more the exception than the rule. Do we say that Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot suppressed his childhood because there is not much evidence of it in the poems?

The fact that Amichai's childhood is no more than a background to some of his poems is surely explained more plausibly not as an act of camouflage but as an understandable preference to write about the excitements and pain of his loves, about the wars in which he fought, about the landscape of Jerusalem, and about other aspects of the world in which he was immersed as an adult. And even as he responded in his poetry to present experience, he also repeatedly wrote about his father as he remembered him from childhood, and his one long autobiographical poem, "The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela," abounds in childhood memories. Amichai's native language and native land were surely important to him, but is one really entitled to speak of "the German world that formed the core of his being"? Gold asks us to contemplate German as "the language that reverberated in Amichai's ears when he was still in the womb," and ever in pursuit of German maternality, she writes that "a careful reading of Amichai's oeuvre reveals that he continued nursing from the distant breast of his German childhood." It is not clear how one nurses from a distant breast; but the difficulty of the metaphor betrays a fundamental problem with the absolute and unflagging intimacy of connection with German origins, however removed they became temporally and experientially, for which Gold argues so rigidly.

The primacy of German is then read into the poetry. Oddities of syntax, which abound in much Hebrew poetry, even when it uses a more or less colloquial diction, are claimed--implausibly, at least in some of the proffered instances--to be translations of German syntax. "Segments of Amichai's poems," Gold asserts, "can only be fully understood and appreciated when translated into German." When Gold discovers a single complete poem that exists in both German and Hebrew versions, she calls this "a covert admission by Amichai that he was camouflaging German in his work," and proceeds, quite without warrant, to conclude that "translation from German to Hebrew was an integral part of Amichai's poetic practice." In the same dubious vein, since the protagonist of Not of This Time, Not of This Place gives us Hebrew versions of the Weinburg rabbi's German sermons, Gold concludes that "Amichai unintentionally reveals a secret: his Hebrew poetry was in some way a translation from the language he had absorbed as a child."

Not only is this extravagant inference wholly undemonstrated, but a close reading of Amichai's brilliant stylistic achievement readily shows, in one instance after another, that he constantly exploited the intrinsic properties of the Hebrew language--its associative richness, its layered past, the play of overlapping sounds it enabled, the distinctive expressive possibilities of its syntax, grammar, and linguistic registers. That is why Amichai is hard to translate, even as his poetry gives the illusion of being altogether accessible in translation. To imagine that all this wonderfully resourceful use of the Hebrew language is "in some way" ultimately a stand-in for an invisible German original strains credence to the breaking point.

As to the biographical account of Amichai, Gold's book tells us almost nothing about his life after the age of twenty-four. In one respect, this cut-off point is justified, because her aim is to explain the "making" of the poet. But the result is drastically to skew the portrait of someone who continued to evolve as a person and as a poet. Gold assumes that there are only two decisive causes of Amichai's character and career as a poet--his German childhood and his early love affair with the woman here identified as Ruth Z. But Amichai's involvement with Ruth Z. is another instance in which Gold's discoveries as a researcher gravely distort her perception of her subject.

Amichai met Ruth Z. in January 1947, when they were both studying at a teachers' college in Jerusalem. While he began working as an elementary school teacher, they were together in Haifa and in the town of Binyamina. In September 1947, she left for what was supposed to be a year of study in New York, leaving Amichai in the hope, or perhaps the expectation, that they would marry. Over the next eight months, he wrote her three times a week, sometimes incorporating poems into his letters. She then informed him that she had met another man whom she was going to marry. The young Amichai was devastated, and, as poets are wont to do, he went on to write poems--some of them quite extraordinary--about the breakup of their relationship. (It is far from clear that all his poems about the end of an affair, a subject that continued to compel him, were about Ruth Z., though Gold appears to assume this.)

It is certainly to Gold's credit that she managed to locate Ruth Z. in New York, to interview her at length, and to persuade the octogenarian woman to let her read the ninety-eight letters from Amichai that she had saved in a closed box for sixty years. Evidently Gold was not given permission to quote passages from the letters, so all the book can offer is her summaries of their content, which makes it a little hard to judge precisely what sort of biographical testimony they provide. In any case, Gold, having gotten hold of this previously unknown set of documents, is convinced that they are an indispensable key to Amichai's life, and to his whole enterprise as a poet. Much is made of the centrality of the experience of abandonment to Amichai's sense of self. The young writer's abandonment by his lover is somehow linked to the purported sense of abandonment he experienced in leaving Germany. This last notion is not quite coherent. After all, Amichai emigrated from Germany, in 1936, in the company of two loving parents as well as his sister. He left Wurzburg behind, nobody left him behind. But for Gold the theme of abandonment runs through the life, and from the life through the poetry. The occurrence in a letter to Ruth Z. of the ordinary Hebrew verb azav, which means "left" or "abandoned," suffices for her to claim that the letter is the kernel of a poem on this subject.

The love and the loss of Ruth Z. engulfed Amichai for a year or two, but there is scant evidence that they constituted the sort of watershed experience that explains the making of a writer. Moreover, Ruth Z. was not Amichai's first great love. In his senior year in high school he fell in love with another Ruth, whose last name was Falk. The couple were so serious about each other that they wanted to marry, a plan that their parents prudently scotched. Ruth Falk is never even mentioned by Gold--no doubt because it would compromise her notion of the looming importance of the affair with Ruth Z. In a related adjustment of the factual record, Gold claims that when Amichai, in her company, spotted Ruth Z. at a public lecture in New York in 1997, he identified her with alacrity as the woman whom he had once loved and written about. According to his journal, however, it was Ruth Z. who hunted him down after the lecture, and subsequently pestered him with letters and newspaper clippings.

Amichai would go on to other loves (and losses) that do not appear to have resembled his relationship with Ruth Z. If he often wrote movingly about the sadness of parting, he also wrote many memorable poems about the exuberance of passion, something one would scarcely guess from Gold's book. Especially noteworthy in this regard is the cycle of poems from the 1960s titled "Poems of Achziv," a wild and witty celebration of the erotic. Here is a characteristic sequence of lines: "I learned to relate to your sex / as to a face. / I speak its archaic language. / It is wrinkled and made of stuff more ancient / than all the remembered generations that are written in books." Abandonment, the pain of emigration, the loss of German--the "poetics of camouflage"--do not seem to exert their baneful force here.

Gold wants us to accept that Amichai's letters to Ruth Z. are "a time capsule that transports us back to the true history of the poet's art," though her summaries of the letters do not persuasively support this far-reaching claim. Since Amichai subsequently did not speak explicitly about this early affair, at least not publicly, his reticence is construed as an effort to "camouflage" it. Gold explains this particular act of silence with the fact, documented by the letters, that as early as 1947 Amichai was writing poems and expressing the ambition to devote his life to poetry. In various interviews, he himself identified the early 1950s as the time when he began to become a poet. Gold, erroneously claiming that Amichai located his literary beginnings in 1948-1949, regards this purported fact as evidence that he wished his career as a poet to coincide with Israel's national narrative.

Deconstructing the Zionist national narrative has become one of the more tiresome exercises of Hebrew criticism over the past two decades, and much of Gold's book pursues that aim in relation to Amichai's poetic career. "Amichai had to camouflage Ruth Z.," she writes, losing her grip on the correct English usage of this verb, "because his time with her contradicted the creative autobiography he had forged, which had him bursting forth as a poet because of, and in unison with, the establishment of the state." I am not aware that Amichai ever claimed that he emerged as a poet because of the establishment of the state. It would be surprising if he never wrote any poems or thought about becoming a poet before 1948; but whatever he wrote before that date seems to have been, aesthetically speaking, unripe. Gold admits as much about the poems of Amichai's dalliance with Ruth Z. in Binyamina that appear in the letters that he wrote to her; and her confident contention that some of the poems published in the 1950s were written during this first affair cannot be conclusively verified.

When Amichai said that he became a poet after Israel's War of Independence, he may have been making the merely chronological observation that he began to write viable poetry during those years. The idea that he should have been thought of as "Israel's national poet" would have been entirely abhorrent to him, as I can attest from a friendship that spanned several decades. Gold, of course, views this matter quite differently. Referring to a group of poems titled "In the Public Garden," which she oddly characterizes as an "epic," she writes: "He not only camouflaged identities and content in this epic, but actually kept it from publication for over a decade, never revealing when it was written, so as not to endanger his national poetic persona." In fact, a national persona was something that Amichai avoided like the plague. In conversation he often made wicked fun of certain Israeli poets who cultivated a public or "national" persona.

It is true that Amichai became a beloved and very widely read poet in Israel, but he was by no means a national poet, nor would he ever have wanted to be. On the contrary: much of his appeal to Israeli readers lay precisely in his ability to remain an unassuming private person in his poems, and to speak repeatedly on behalf of the preciousness of private experience in times of war, urgent national duty, and ideological stridency.

There is one other thing wrong with Nili Gold's book, and it is that she has a rather dim notion of how to read a poem. At least some of this deficiency stems from her fixed idea that poetry is finally confessional or autobiographical, and hence that only through the biographical details can we grasp the "real" meaning of the poem. Thus, the very mention of the notion of translation in the poems--a topic to which Amichai devoted rich reflection, early and late--must invariably be construed as a reference to his alleged personal anguish in being caught between his native language and his acquired one. But even when she moves beyond biography, when she tries to do close readings of particular poems, Gold falls into the most fanciful and questionable interpretive inferences drawn from formal features such as sound and word length. Since "And the Migration of My Parents" begins with an alliteration of hard g's and r's, she concludes that the Hebrew verb gur--which means both to fear and to sojourn--is announced through the sound (subliminally?) as the theme of the poem. On a sonnet cycle that begins with the words ahavnu kan, "we loved here," Gold performs the following contortion: "Combining the trisyllabic, informative word ahavnu with the laconic kan creates an imbalance of meaning as well as of sound. The pronunciation of ahavnu is drawn out, the second syllable long and emphasized, while kan is terse; as a result, the prolonged feeling or action of love, ahavnu, is almost halted by the brief kan that follows it." This reads like a parody of the New Criticism that reigned in America in the 1940s--and this effect is compounded at the end of this analysis when Gold says that it is "significant" that kan is used and not its common synonym po because "po ends with an open sound, a vowel, while kan ends with a consonant and therefore sounds more finite." Gold would have done well to consult Benjamin Harshav's classic essay "Do Sounds Have Meaning?," which demonstrates through meticulous analysis that particular sound-clusters never have intrinsic meaning, and that it is the semantic momentum of any sequence of lines that generates the illusion that the meaning is somehow conveyed by recurrent sounds. But I suspect that bad habits of reading such as those exhibited in this book are not amenable to correction.

Amichai was often melancholy in his poems, but he was also an extraordinarily playful poet--sometimes even in poems with very somber themes. His humor, his delight in language, his zest for experience: all are significant elements of the distinctive allure of his poetry, and all are conspicuously absent from Gold's book. I will offer just one counter-example to the portrait of soul-wounding displacement and constant disguise that she presents: the fourth poem in a sequence of eight titled "The Visit of the Queen of Sheba." Astoundingly, Gold, pursuing the biographical fallacy with a vengeance, takes the prominence of a sea voyage in this cycle of poems as evidence that "the pain of immigration and the memories of a traumatic voyage underlie all these segments." It is mystifying how she could discover pain in the carnivalesque joyfulness of this poem, or personal memory in a fantastic narrative set in the time of Solomon.

Here is what the poetry actually sounds like (the translation is mine).

Fish blew through the sea
and through the long anticipation. Captains
steered by the map of her longing and the rings of her belly.
The nipples of her breasts went before her like spies,
Her hair whispered together like plotters.
In the dark corners between sea and hull
the counting began, silently.
In the constant trill of her blood
a solitary bird sang. Rules fell
from the books of nature. Clouds were torn up like contracts.
At noon she dreamt
of sex in white snow and egg-yolk dreams
and yellow-wax pleasure. All the air was pressed
to be breathed in her. The sailors called out
in the language of foreign fish.
But beneath the world, beneath the sea
were musical notes as in chanting the Bible.
Everything sang each other.

This exuberant, erotically charged voyage northward through the Red Sea manifestly has nothing whatever to do with the flight by steamer of the Pfeuffer family from Venice to Haifa. The untrammeled playfulness of poetic imagination here shows not the least trace of an experience of traumatic displacement. One might note, for example, the extravagant comic image of the Queen of Sheba's nipples erect with anticipatory arousal, going before her like the spies in the Book of Numbers who were sent ahead to scout out the Promised Land. The seascape of the poem is not in any way threatened by a murderous regime but, on the contrary, is a world in which everything sings to each other; and in a characteristic enlisting of imagery from the realm of the sacred for the profane, underneath the world are cantillation markings, ta'amei neginah, like the ones under the Hebrew text of the Prophets that guide the chanting of these texts during Sabbath and holiday services.

The most delectable lines of this poem, the ones devoted to the sexual fantasies of the Queen of Sheba, are also the juncture at which the inventive energy of the original is least visible in translation (and most resistant to any far-fetched notion of back-translation from German). As happens often in Amichai's poetry, the play of sound builds a strong momentum that moves in free association from word to word, the sounds virtually generating the words that follow in the syntactic chain through phonetic kinship. The two and a half lines beginning with "At noon she dreamt" sound like this in the Hebrew: batzohorayim halmah al / mishgal besheleg lavan vahalomot helmon / ve'oneg donag tzahov. The promiscuity of intermingled sounds replicates the promiscuity of the Queen's erotic imaginings, leading the language into fantastic places: the sex is in snow because mishgal and sheleg share the same three consonantal root letters, with the order of the last two reversed in the word for snow; the egg yolks, perhaps suggesting body fluids or farcical orgies, appear in her dream because helmon, egg yolk, is close in sound to halomot, dreams; and the pleasure is yellow-wax (chromatic cousin to the egg yolk) because oneg, pleasure, and donag, wax, make a virtual rhyme.

These lines, like most of Amichai's poetry, testify to a poet in absolute command of the expressive resources of the Hebrew language. For all of Amichai's attachment to his first language, it is hard to imagine that he could have exhibited this sort of virtuosity in German, and the idea that a hidden German subtext must be uncovered in the poems in order to fully understand them is preposterous. Though the subject of this early poem may not be entirely representative, the elan of playfulness and the linguistic inventiveness are entirely characteristic of Amichai's verse, and one still encounters them, sometimes in spectacular configurations, in the late poems that brood over the destruction of European Jewry.

At the end of her book, Gold immodestly announces that "the discoveries and analyses presented in this book demand a sea change in the interpretation of Amichai's oeuvre from this point forward." Her account of the poet certainly demonstrates the importance of his German childhood, though every poet's childhood is important in the development of his imagination; but the idea that he systematically camouflaged it is altogether insupportable. The emphasis on the theme of loss is also legitimate, though scarcely new in the interpretation of Amichai. But Gold's study also illustrates what a bad idea it is to reduce a great writer to one or two explanatory formulas. Amichai devoted some dark reflection to the violently destroyed world in which he spent his first years (how could he not?), and the pain of love lost is the subject of a good many of his poems--but as a poet who firmly resisted being grandiose and "national," he was also witty, mischievous, sexy, brilliantly resourceful, celebratory, and acutely responsive to the time and the place in which he lived his adult life. For all these reasons, he probably provides more sheer pleasure than any of the other leading poets of the twentieth century. One must be grateful that the reach of his writing was never limited to the place and the people that he lost.

Robert Alter's new book, American Prose and the King James Version, will appear in late 2009.

By Robert Alter