Interviews

Yehuda Amichai, The Art of Poetry No. 44

Interviewed by Lawrence Joseph

Born in Würzburg, Germany in 1924, Yehuda Amichai emigrated to Palestine with his Orthodox Jewish family in 1936. During World War II he fought with the Palestinian brigade of the British army in the Middle East, and he served as a commando in the Haganah underground during the 1948 war. He also fought with the Israeli army in the 1956 and 1973 wars. Amichai has worked as an elementary school teacher and has taught writing at New York University, but he devotes most of his time to writing. He moved to Jerusalem with his family in 1937, and presently resides in that city’s Yemin Moshe district with his wife and the younger two of his three children.

Immensely popular, Amichai is generally acknowledged as being Israel’s most important poet, and one of the writers who have shaped modern Hebrew literature. His books of poems sell about fifteen thousand copies each, in a nation where only three million read Hebrew. (Comparable sales in the United States would merit best-seller status.) Amichai’s stature and audience are international, and he is among the most widely translated poets alive. Since 1968, sixteen books of his poetry and fiction have been translated into English, including Poems (1969), Songs of Jerusalem and Myself (1973), Amen (1977), Love Poems (1980), Great Tranquility (1983), Jerusalem Poems (1988), Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1986), and Even the Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers (1991). In addition to the poetry for which he is best known. Amichai has written novels, short stories, plays, essays, and reviews.

He is a frequent visitor to the United States, and most of this interview was conducted in New York City, during the summer of 1989, at various cafés in Greenwich Village—the Triumph diner and Caffe Dante among them. All of the meetings took place in the early morning and were conducted in English, which Amichai speaks fluently in an accent that crosses German and Hebrew. Additional material was gleaned from correspondence exchanged during 1990, and a final session took place in New York in March of 1991, shortly after the Gulf War cease-fire.

In person, Amichai’s amiability and charm mix with a subtle wryness, mental rigor, and a gentle sense of irony and humor. He is handsome and compactly built, with dark eyes and the presence of a former athlete and soldier. The recurrent awareness of the physical in his poetry appears in person; frequently gesturing with his body and eyes he answered questions openly and without hesitation. He was completely at ease with the considerable background clatter of the cafés—in fact, he preferred it.

 

INTERVIEWER

You were born in Germany, shortly after the First World War, part of a postwar generation.

YEHUDA AMICHAI

Yes, I was born in Germany in 1924. And I’ve always believed, as a general remark, that those born after World War I until, I would say, 1926, bear the weight of the twentieth century. We are the generation that inherited the aftermath of World War I and came of age during World War II. In my case, as an Israeli, I was still young enough, after World War II, to be actively involved in three additional wars. I really have the feeling that I am the result and very contents of the twentieth century.

INTERVIEWER

Had your family been in Germany for a long time?

AMICHAI

Yes. On both sides. My father was a German Jew, very Orthodox, a strong believer, in the best sense of the word. He was born in a Jewish farmhouse in the south of Germany, in a village, Giebelstadt; there must have been twenty to thirty thousand farmhouses like the one he was born in all over the south at that time. My father’s was a family of farmers. So was my mother’s family. They were also from the south, from a village that today would be about a two-hour drive a bit north from Giebelstadt. At the time, that was a great distance. My grandparents and my great-great-great-great-grandparents all were born in Germany, reaching back, I think, to the Middle Ages. My father was the youngest of a family of seven children. Only one of them remained a farmer, one of his brothers. My father went to a town, Würzburg, and became a merchant. That’s where I was born. Würzburg had a very strong Jewish community—two thousand or so in a town of a hundred thousand inhabitants. But two thousand was quite a substantial Jewish community at that time. There was a Jewish hospital and a Jewish school—a state school Jews could go to. I learned Hebrew in first grade, to read and write Hebrew as well as German, which may explain why I had no trouble with Hebrew later on.

INTERVIEWER

Did your father fight in World War I?

AMICHAI

Yes, he did. So did my uncle, my mother’s brother, who fell in 1916—I have a poem about that. It was strange for Jews who fought in World War I—Jewish people were divided among feuding nations. There were Jews fighting for Germany, for France, for Britain, for Russia, Jewish rabbis praying for the Allies, for the Turks, for the Germans and the Austrians. It was very much like the Druze in the Middle East—Israeli Druze fighting for Israel, Syrian Druze fighting for Syria against Israel.

INTERVIEWER

Do you come from a large family?

AMICHAI

I have a sister, who is older than I am. She lives in Israel. But I come from a large extended family. My family—the extended family—were all Orthodox. It was a very close-knit family which met for all sorts of occasions—weddings, bar mitzvahs. There was a strong, warm, very protected feeling among us. Also, my family—all the brothers and sisters of both my parents and their children, my cousins—moved to Palestine between 1933 and 1936, all of them. Some of them were settled into Palestine before the Nazis really took power. My family was, at the time, one of the few Jewish families from central Europe in Palestine. No one was killed in the coming Holocaust.

INTERVIEWER

Were you raised a Zionist?

AMICHAI

I was, but my family’s Zionism wasn’t ideological in any intellectual sense. It was the Zionism of religious orthodoxy, a practical Zionism—going to Palestine. For my parents, going to Palestine was typically romantic, motivated in part by their sense of Orthodoxy and in part by the longing to be in their own country. I had cousins who may have seen Zionism in utopian socialist terms, though my parents did not. There was, of course, zealous anti-Semitism before Hitler, which also had something to do with my family’s going to Palestine. Some people think that anti-Semitism didn’t really exist in Germany until 1933. I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Hitler’s guilt, but the anti-Semitism I grew up with predated Hitler. We were called names. We had stones thrown at us. And, yes, this created real sorrow. We defended ourselves as well as we could. Funny thing, the common name we were called was Isaac—the way Muslims are called Ali or Mohammed. They’d call out, Isaac, go back to Palestine, leave our home, go to your place. They threw stones at us and shouted, Go to Palestine. Then in Palestine we were told to leave Palestine—history juxtaposed can be very ironic. But I do remember in 1933 when the Nazis came into power the anti-Semitism had been religiously based. Then it became political and economic. Before that the two hadn’t merged—there was a kind of horrible limbo—but you could feel what was happening. I remember my parents telling me to keep away from the military parades, not to become mesmerized by the music and marching. I was also told—Würzburg was a very Catholic town—to keep away from the Catholic processions on certain feast days. All Saints’ Day, I remember in particular. The processions were very somber, very German in a way, with students, priests and nuns carrying banners and holy icons and figures. Once—I was nine or ten—I was watching a Catholic procession because I liked its colorfulness and pageantry. Since I was Orthodox I was wearing a yarmulke. Suddenly, someone hit me in the face and shouted, You dirty little Jew, take your skullcap off!

INTERVIEWER

How did your father make his living?

AMICHAI

My father was what you might call a middleman. He and his brother had a large store, and they sold merchandise to tailors and companies but didn’t sell retail. We were what you would call here upper middle class—quite well-off. My father never attended university—he apprenticed as a merchant, as was done in those days. But he was educated. He was well-read and he enjoyed and appreciated music. He had a great sense of humor. He was well liked and had many non-Jewish friends who later tried to talk him out of leaving Germany for Palestine. My mother, too, read a lot. There was a great deal of culture in our home. Music and poetry—Goethe, Schiller, Heine. My mother and grandmother used to read to me from German literature.

INTERVIEWER

Would you characterize the environment you were brought up in as religious?

AMICHAI

Very much so. I went to synagogue regularly. My first education was interpreting the Bible. But I also grew up with German folk songs and stories, which became as much a part of my imagination as the Bible stories. My sense of history came from these stories—I was fascinated with what you might call fairy-tale-shaped history. But from the beginning I felt I belonged to a different people, which wasn’t any problem for me. I made the German landscape, which was very beautiful to me—flowing rivers, mountains, forests, lakes—into a biblical landscape. The valley of sunshine into which we went on school excursions in my imagination became the valley in which David and Goliath fought. Even though there was anti-Semitism, the German landscape was idyllic to me. This was mixed in with the dream of Palestine. I existed in a realm of dream, in the realm of the romantic, in a romantic dream of moving from a place where we were a small group, sometimes victimized, to a Jewish Palestine that had ancient roots in the Bible. Using the word tribe to describe us would be absolutely correct, I think. We didn’t have our own tribelike, private ways of dress like the gypsies did, for example, but what we possessed was deeper, it was inside us. We were so strong in our beliefs and dreams and imaginations, we felt we could live with the others because we were so deeply different. We didn’t need to dress differently and we could work among them, because what we felt inside was so strong. I was a very religious child—I went to synagogue at least once, sometimes twice, a day. And I remember my religiousness as good—I think religion is good for children, especially educated children, because it allows for imagination, a whole imaginative world apart from the practical world. The world of religion isn’t a logical world; that’s why children like it. It’s a world of worked-out fantasies, very similar to children’s stories or fairy tales.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember having had a sense of the social and political realities in Germany while you were growing up?

AMICHAI

Not really. My parents were of a generation that didn’t talk to their children about politics—they kept the children away from what was happening economically and politically. The men talked politics among themselves but felt it was their role to keep the women and children away from politics. I never was aware of the depression in Germany, probably because my father was doing quite well and because my grandparents, who were still alive, lived on farms, which I frequently visited. I don’t recall feeling the economic repercussions some Jews in the large cities must have felt.

INTERVIEWER

Were you an artistic child?

AMICHAI

No, I never really thought of myself in an artistic way. In my extended family there was no one even close to being an artist, being creative or performing. I think I was what you might call a normal child with a very rich inner world. I loved soccer and folktales. I never felt any sense of separation between an inner and outer world, and I don’t feel it now. Real poets, I think, turn the outer world into the inner world and vice versa. Poets always have to be outside, in the world—a poet can’t close himself in his studio. His workshop is in his head and he has to be sensitive to words and how words apply to realities. It’s a state of mind. A poet’s state of mind is seeing the world with a kind of double exposure, seeing undertones and overtones, seeing the world as it is. Every intelligent person, whether he’s an artist or not—a mathematician, a doctor, a scientist—possesses a poetic way of seeing and describing the world.

INTERVIEWER

At some point the decision was made to leave Germany for Palestine.

AMICHAI

It was after the rise of Hitler that my father decided to go to Palestine. My father had a good sense of history, and all of his brothers and sisters went too. The whole tribe, so to speak, came to Palestine between 1934 and 1936—my father’s family, my mother’s family, not one of them stayed. We were one of the few German Jewish families that were spared the Holocaust. I was aware of what was happening by then, but it was more like a distant thunder coming closer than a real threat. My father was very aware, although he tried not to let us feel what he saw and felt. So we went to Palestine when I was eleven, going on twelve, in 1936. Some of my older cousins went a year earlier—they joined kibbutzim. We moved to a small, very pleasant village not far from Tel Aviv called Petah Tiqwa. I remember the thrill of being able to walk barefoot through the citrus groves around the village. My father and his brother and one of my older cousins opened—they were among the first in all Palestine—a small factory in which they made sausages. It was actually a small house with a few machines. So, I know—firsthand—what goes into making sausages! My older cousin and my uncle actually made the sausages. My father handled the administrative side of the business; it was a business of two, three people . . .

INTERVIEWER

Did you have difficulty adjusting to life in Palestine?

AMICHAI

No, not at all. I moved immediately into a Hebrew-speaking culture and society. I had learned Hebrew at school in Germany and had no difficulty speaking and reading it in Palestine. We spoke German at home, but I became fluent in Hebrew. We also spoke and studied Hebrew at school. I spoke Hebrew all of the time except at home with my parents. My father knew Hebrew, but even so we spoke German to one another; it was a kind of family event. The school system was very different from the German-Jewish school I had attended, which was extremely disciplined, where there were ironclad rules that could never be broken. There was very little discipline in the school—it had the feeling of being in the Wild West. For example, some children came to school barefoot. The openness there was a revelation to me and although I never really lost my sense of discipline, I didn’t mind the sense of freedom, the wildness, at all.

INTERVIEWER

Did you experience any clashes with the Palestinian Arabs?

AMICHAI

Well, there were the Arab disturbances that started in 1936 with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem—his dealings with Mussolini and Hitler. We could hear shooting at night—not a lot, but enough to remember it. And the elders of the family—my father, uncles, my older cousins—had to go on guard duty. And we were prohibited from going too far from the village—we couldn’t go to Jaffa, for example, because it was too dangerous. But all this was natural to the way we lived, to our lives. No one was actually afraid; we just had to be careful and all of us took care of one another. We defended ourselves and that was that. I remember a practical joke my father played in 1936. He was a very serious man, my father—but he was also very funny and a practical joker. In early 1936 he went to Jaffa and bought himself Arab attire, qunbaz, and a big stick. And then he rode into Petah Tiqwa on a donkey one of my uncles had. No one recognized him and he frightened everyone. He came to our house and frightened all of us with that stick. I remember this well. I remember my father’s sense of humor, even in times of unrest—it’s something I’ve inherited from him. He used to act it out because he wasn’t verbal, as I am. But I think that much of me is rooted in my father’s juxtaposed sensitivities, his sense of humor and his seriousness.

INTERVIEWER

You eventually moved to Jerusalem.

AMICHAI

In 1937. I think it was partly because my parents wanted us to get a better education—there were very good schools in Jerusalem. My father had also wanted to buy a large piece of land, which he wasn’t able to do, so he decided to move to Jerusalem. He had just inherited some money too—so we were quite well off at that time. Two or three years later my father started a couple of businesses; basically, we never lacked money. We went to good schools, which were quite expensive. We grew up, I think, like the Lebanese in Beirut: moving among our own people—mostly German Jews—of which there must have been over three thousand at that time in Jerusalem. We didn’t have any real contact with Arabs and we didn’t have any sense of being victims, although there had been riots, disturbances. We had our government under the British mandate and the Arabs had theirs.

INTERVIEWER

So you had become more aware of political realities by then?

AMICHAI

Yes, by this time I had become quite aware of political realities. This was right before World War II and there were more and more Jews coming to Palestine, more and more from Germany and other parts of Europe. And the Arab Palestinians actually aligned themselves with the Axis powers. I have a poem about going with my father once a week to the Wailing Wall but between 1937 and 1939 Jews couldn’t go there through the Arab quarter—you had to go through the Armenian quarter or have stones thrown at you. The same stones that are being thrown today. Throwing stones wasn’t invented yesterday. I remember in 1939 my parents listening to reports on the radio about the German invasion of Poland. I remember it still, exactly. My mother and father were listening—it was the first of September 1939—and I remember they turned pale, as if they realized . . . I’m sure they didn’t imagine the Holocaust but they sensed that this war would be unbearably terrible. I was fifteen. But, I must tell you, I didn’t have the same sense they had. To me it was terrible, of course, but at the same time I felt something momentous was going to happen. I sensed that war would change my life.

INTERVIEWER

Did your increasing political awareness affect your religious sensibility?

AMICHAI

Yes, very much so. I stopped believing in God at that time and stopped practicing religion. My father was very hurt. I think my reaction to religion was, so to speak, in the air. It was the beginning of the socialist movement in Palestine, which was in part a reaction to certain Orthodox Jews—my father wasn’t among them—who rejected Zionism. And most of the pioneer Zionists who had come from kibbutzim—most of them from very Orthodox families like mine—had broken from religion. Zionism had become a kind of revolution against traditional Jewish Orthodoxy. There were two ways of rebelling against it: one was to become a communist, a Bolshevik, as in Soviet Russia; the other was to become a Zionist. At that time I chose—not in any thought-out, formalized way—the latter. I didn’t think much about socialism and communism until much later, until after World War II when I became involved with the left.

INTERVIEWER

So you were an adolescent when war broke out in Europe in 1939.

AMICHAI

Yes, I was fifteen. I finished high school in 1942. But during those years Jerusalem was, strangely, politically peaceful. In 1939 there were still Arab riots, but not like in 1936 when the British more or less tolerated the rioting against Jews. The British quashed the uprising in one week, destroying a few Arab villages, moving the people off the land. That was the end of it. Why the change? Because the war had broken out, the British needed Jewish soldiers—they didn’t want colonial problems. But by 1941 real anxiety had come into our lives— the Germans were advancing into Russia, to Stalingrad, and an anti-British, pro-Fascist government was in power in Iraq. The situation was extremely tense. At the same time the German army was advancing through northern Africa. I remember being terribly worried because we all knew what would happen if the Germans entered Palestine. There wasn’t much of the British army left in Palestine, either. So at that time, in 1941, a lot of young Jewish men in Palestine volunteered for the British army, as members of a brigade actually. In 1942, after high school, I volunteered too. I became a soldier in the Palestine brigade of the British army. Written across the shoulder of my uniform was the word Palestine. But, I should say, although I felt anxiety it wasn’t the anxiety that my parents’ generation had—they had a different sense of what was happening. It didn’t penetrate as deeply with me. I had a sense not uncommon for young men who come of age during war—war put off having to make a lot of decisions. I was relieved in a way not having to decide what to do, where to work, and so on—I was going to war and I didn’t know how it was going to end and that was that. My motivation was to do what I had to do, to do what was right—which was very much determined by my parents’ fears, and the necessity of protecting my family and my people. This is what took over in me. And 1942 was a turning point in my life for another, quite important reason—it was the time of my first love affair. So my first war and my first love affair coincided.

INTERVIEWER

Up until this time—you were eighteen—had you written, or thought about writing, poetry?

AMICHAI

It never entered my mind to write poetry, at least not in any formal sense. I wrote some in diaries, which are lost, and I read a lot. I wrote poems for the girl I was in love with. But that was it—and these were private.

INTERVIEWER

So you fought in the Second World War . . .

AMICHAI

Yes. During 1942 and 1943 we were stationed in Palestine, along the coast—you have to remember in 1942 there was still a fear of a German invasion of Palestine. We were stationed along the coast for almost a year. First I was in an infantry unit but then was switched to doing maps in the Royal Engineers. In 1943 we were moved to Egypt. We were in Egypt for two years. We moved all over Egypt. I knew Arabic—from school—and learned more. I became deeply involved with Egypt, its landscapes, its colors. A friend of mine in my unit was an expert on Egyptian antiques and we went on excursions into places that were very remote and totally unexplored and undisturbed, not like now. We saw no military action there, and I met a lot of Egyptians and made many friends, especially in Cairo. But I mostly hung out with our people, because we had a lot to do. Between 1944 and 1946 we did a lot of underground work—smuggling arms and Jewish immigrants into what was then Palestine. We began preparing on a small scale for a Jewish state—we were actually preparing for a new conflict while the one we were in was fading away. One event in Egypt had an extremely important impact on my life. It was in 1944, I think, we were somewhere out in the Egyptian desert. The British had these mobile libraries for their soldiers, but of course most of the British soldiers, being from the lower classes and pretty much uneducated, didn’t make much use of the libraries. It was mostly us Palestinians who used them—there we were, Jews reading English books while the English didn’t. There had been some kind of storm and one of the mobile libraries had overturned into the sand, ruining or half-ruining most of the books. We came upon it and I started digging through the books and came upon a book, a Faber anthology of modern British poetry, which I think came out in the late thirties. Hopkins was the first poet, Dylan Thomas the last. It was my first encounter with modern British poetry—the first time I read Eliot and Auden, for example, who became very important to me. I discovered them in the Egyptian desert in a half-ruined book. This book had an enormous impact on me—I think that was when I began to think seriously about writing poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do after the war?

AMICHAI

I was twenty-two in 1946 when I was released from the army. I went back to Jerusalem and had to make a decision about how to make a living. There were courses offered through the Jewish shadow government, financed by the British for ex-servicemen. So, I went to school for a year, a year of intensive courses, to become a teacher of small children. This was a good time. I was very active in politics during this time too—more on the left, the socialist Zionist movement, the Haganah, which was the defense group of the Jews who wanted a Jewish state in Palestine, who were dealing with the British. This was very mainstream, though. There were two groups on the extreme right, one of them Begin’s. But Begin was an outsider then, he was nothing—I still think he’s an outsider. There was also a Palestinian Communist party, which was monstrous. The Haganah was the mainstream. Again, the feeling was to do what was right. The main principle of the movement was never to retaliate, no vengeance, which I think helped us win—the main principle was “hold back.” I started teaching in 1947 but after about two months I volunteered for one of the Haganah commando units. The shadow government authorities encouraged teachers not to volunteer—there were hardly any teachers. But I joined anyway—a commando unit that was called the Palmah, which actually means “crack unit.” We were at war. My unit fought in the south of Palestine, which is mostly desert. At the time there were twelve Jewish settlements there that we had to defend against the whole Egyptian army. I will never forget it. It was a terribly exhausting, draining, but remarkable experience. We were young—socialists, Zionists—and we believed in a new and better world. We were like guerrillas—we had small arms only and we were up against well-armed troops. I commanded ten people—a small infantry unit, a crack infantry unit. There were about two thousand of us, along with several hundred people from the nearby kibbutzim, against some twenty thousand Egyptians on the other side. Almost every night we went out in small groups, creating skirmishes, so that the Egyptians would believe there were larger operations than there were. But we really had nothing. I also don’t think the Egyptian army was very motivated—remember they were fighting in a foreign country and were afraid, I think, to wander out in unknown territories where terrible things might happen to them. The Egyptian officers were also totally trained by the British and operated according to British military principles—artillery barrage and attack, artillery barrage and attack. The artillery barrages leveled some kibbutzim right down into the earth. After that, their command thought that nothing would happen. But we were holed up in bunkers—we were more like guerrillas, remember—so that when they broke through we were alive and shooting. But the price we paid in killed and wounded was very high. One thing I’ve never forgotten happened during the last days of the fighting when our unit caused the Egyptian army to retreat into the Sinai peninsula. We came to an Egyptian detention camp where Egyptian liberals and socialists and communists were imprisoned by King Farouk. We actually liberated the camp, and we all embraced one another, all of us part of what we felt to be a new world, the breakdown of monarchy and imperialism. It was extremely moving. I’ve never forgotten it. It isn’t surprising that the Egyptians were the first to make peace with us—the heaviest fighting in 1948 involved the Egyptians. The Syrians and Iraqis sent armies in but without any real conviction. The Jordanians invaded Palestine to get part of it as their state, which actually was the land allocated to the Palestinian state. I don’t think the Egyptians fought to get any land or power—they fought out of conviction. It’s no coincidence that those who overthrew the King—Nasser, even Naguib and others—had been young officers in the Egyptian army that invaded Palestine.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start seriously writing poetry?

AMICHAI

I remained in the army until the end of 1949. I then went back to Jerusalem and started teaching again. I also took courses at Hebrew University, studying the Bible and literature. And, around then, I began seriously writing poetry. Until then I’d never thought of writing as any kind of occupation because I wasn’t certain exactly what I’d be doing. I was in the army. I saw writing primarily as a way of keeping some personal thoughts. I never wrote during battles, but sometimes between battles I wrote out what were almost small testaments, small legacies, last wills, objects of feeling I could keep and carry with me. What I wrote then wasn’t for others yet. I also wondered why as long as other writers were able to represent what I was thinking and feeling I should bother to try. But in the late forties there came a point in time when I started thinking, Why don’t I do this myself? The writing I was reading didn’t represent my needs, what I saw, and what I felt. I was about twenty-five. I began to write poems in the early fifties. I was attending Hebrew University. Because of the war my whole generation began university studies when we were in our mid-twenties. I took courses while I was teaching schoolchildren.

INTERVIEWER

Were you in touch with other writers?

AMICHAI

In 1951—I was twenty-seven—I showed one of my literature teachers, Professor Halkin, poems of mine. He sent one of them out to one of the magazines and it was accepted. Then there was a contest sponsored by the student newspaper, a monthly, which published very uneven writing. I submitted a poem for the contest and won the first prize. I was part of a group of young writers, but most of the group lived in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, then as now, was pretty much isolated from any vivid intellectual, literary scene—Tel Aviv was and still is the place for publishing houses, cafés, theaters, writers’ groups. and so on. A few people in Tel Aviv began publishing poems—actually a group of four or five. One of them, Benjamin Harshav, now is a professor at Yale. David Avidan, Nathan Zach, and later Dahlia Ravikovitch were also among the group. I was older than the others because the poets my age had been seriously writing longer than I—the others were all in their late teens, early twenties. No publisher would publish us, so we published our own little magazine and published ourselves. My first book in fact, which came out in 1955, was published by this magazine press, which meant it was published with my money. The publishing houses were only publishing the great old men of modern Hebrew literature like Bialik and Tchernikhovsky and extremely popular poets like Alterman and Shlonsky and Greenberg—all of whom, I’d say, wrote under the influence of Russian, German, and French poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Your generation was in the remarkable position of molding your language. Was there a lot of talk about what could be done with modern Hebrew?

AMICHAI

There was but I didn’t take too much part in it because I wrote for my own needs. My thinking was why not use the language I talk in as well as the language of my Orthodox background—the prayers, the Bible—together, juxtaposing and blending them. I discovered that this was my language. It was, I think, due to my unique personal background—I’d been raised in a very Orthodox home and the language of the prayers and the Bible were part of my natural language. I juxtaposed this language against the modern Hebrew language, which suddenly had to become an everyday language after having been a language of prayers and synagogue for two thousand years. This was very natural for me—there was nothing programmatic about it. This kind of mixed sensibility or imagination of the language was my natural way to write poems.

INTERVIEWER

Were there European and American influences?

AMICHAI

Yes. I was also influenced by English and German modernists—Auden, Eliot, Else Lasker-Schüler, and at a certain point Rilke. I felt that what they could do with their language, I could do with Hebrew. Like the others in my group, I rejected the aesthetics of writers like Alterman, Greenberg, Shlonsky, who wrote with a pathos very much influenced by Mayakovsky and Blok and the French poets. I also rejected the typically romantic socialist and communist pathos that was popular at the time, which was influenced by poets like Eluard. I found a certain falseness in the music, in the rhetoric, in the “bread and wine” images of the simple peasant or the common man with a fist raised to communism—I felt it was a false pathos. There was of course a long tradition of Hebrew poetry, but what we were experiencing was a free-fall into modernism at exactly the same time a Jewish state had begun. It was more than a turning point in the Hebrew language—it was a time of radical change. In addition to the languages of the Bible and prayers, I also studied and learned and used in my poetry the Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages—both its forms and its language. The Hebrew poets were greatly influenced by Arabic poetry, in southern Spain especially, during a “golden age” when Jewish and Arab cultures openly mixed.

INTERVIEWER

What was the response to your first book?

AMICHAI

It was mostly attacked. One newspaper in fact attacked a young critic who had praised it. My style, my technique, outraged most critics—I was attacked for using colloquial language, attacked for trying techniques no one had ever tried before. But after a year or so, within two years, I was suddenly being talked about, I was very much “in.” My second book, which came out in 1958, almost immediately sold four thousand copies, which, in a country the size of Israel, made it a kind of best-seller. I was thirty-four but my readers were from all age groups—they always have been. The book was published by a house associated with a kibbutz, very left-wing at the time. I brought my third book of poems to the same house—but they chose not to publish it although my book with them had been a best-seller and they said they liked the poems very much. Why? Because we have already published a book by you. That was socialism. I had my share, now someone else gets theirs. So I went with another publisher, Schocken, who still is my publisher—actually they came to me. I think it’s one of the oldest publishing houses in Israel, very small but very good. It originally was a German house—the first Israeli publisher of Kafka and Agnon—in the great tradition of small literary houses drawing its writers from connections within the house. My third book of poems came out in 1962. Half of it included the first two books, the other half was new poems. It was actually my first collected work, 1948 to 1962. There must be five hundred poems in the book, which is still in print and still sells very well—over fifty thousand copies have been sold.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also written essays and stories.

AMICHAI

Yes. In the mid-fifties after a trip to the United States with my first wife I wrote two small essays, impressions of sorts. One was entitled “Auden Reads His Poetry at the Y,” which has to do with my impressions after hearing Auden read in New York City at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA and meeting him very briefly after the reading. Then in the mid-sixties we met again and became friends. I also became very interested in Dylan Thomas. His poetry didn’t really influence mine but I loved his poems. So on our return to Israel from the United States we passed through Wales and I visited the place where Dylan Thomas had lived in southern Wales. I visited his mother and the cottage where he had worked—you wouldn’t have believed it. The cottage was open, there were manuscripts lying right on the floor, no one had taken care of them. I was too naive to have done anything about it. I talked with his mother, a very moving experience. When I returned to Israel I wrote an essay on visiting the birthplace of Dylan Thomas for one of the newspapers and one of the editors said, Why don’t you write short stories? I then started writing short stories along with poems. In 1959 I published a book of short stories. About this time I also started writing my first novel, which was six hundred pages in Hebrew; that would be about eight hundred pages in English. It came out in 1962 at the same time as my third book of poems. Harper & Row published the novel in the United States in the early sixties—it was in fact the first book of mine to be published in English. But I had to cut the book almost in half for the translation—it was probably too expensive to translate the whole thing at that time.

INTERVIEWER

The sheer output of work during this time is remarkable. Had you stopped teaching and committed yourself to writing full time?

AMICHAI

Not at all. I was doing all of this writing while I was teaching—during the fifties after I received my B.A. from Hebrew University I had a full-time job teaching small children. Anyone who has taught small children knows what kind of work it involves. I taught the “problem” children, the tough ones, the children no one else wanted to teach. I actually was very good at it, I seemed to have been able to help these children, but the work was exhausting. I really don’t know how I wrote poetry, short stories, and my novel all at the same time, I really don’t know how I did it.

INTERVIEWER

When did your work first begin to appear in English translations?

AMICHAI

In the early sixties. Two Israeli poets—Dennis Silk and Harold Schimmel—began, very successfully and quite wonderfully, translating some of my poems into English in Israeli magazines. A few people at Hebrew University began translating me too. In the mid-sixties in England, Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, while looking for poems to publish in their first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, came upon one of those magazines where there were two or three poems of mine. They contacted me and included my poems in the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, in 1964, along with poets such as Popa, Herbert, Voznesensky. The magazine received a lot of attention in England because of the energies of Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort. It was, really, Ted Hughes who put me into orbit. Through him in 1966 I was invited by Gian Carlo Menotti to take part in the Spoleto international art festival. It was the most fashionable international festival of the time—theater, music, the best of the international avant-garde. So my international debut after Modern Poetry in Translation was at Spoleto where I read with Auden, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Ungaretti, Zbigniew Herbert, Hughes, and others. And then a year later I was invited again to Spoleto and also to one of the great international poetry festivals, the festival put together by Ted Hughes and others in London. It was very grandiose—there was a lot of money around—and included Octavio Paz, Auden, Pound, Robert Graves, Alberti, Voznesensky, and Neruda. So quite suddenly I found myself meeting and reading with poets whom I had admired for years.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have many writer friends?

AMICHAI

I live in Jerusalem, which compared to Tel Aviv is not very artistic at all. Tel Aviv is a very vivid city, very alive, and most of the action in literature, theater, journalism, publishing, painting, photography, cinema is in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is a closed environment, there is very little artistic activity, which is why I like living there. I keep very much to myself there, as everyone does—I don’t hang out in any literary cafés because there really aren’t any. I think it’s natural for poets to become friends, but I also think after a certain time it’s very difficult for poets to keep a friendship alive—for example, I’ve always felt that if two poets marry the marriage has to be almost impossible. No, personally I don’t think poets have real friendships with poets who write in their language or in their region. I don’t think so. I grew up with this notion—I think it was nurtured by the mythic romanticist relationship between Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge—that poets became the closest friends. For me, though, friendships with poets are difficult because poets have large egos and are quite envious. I don’t think I have one friend writing in Hebrew who is a poet whom I count among my very closest, best friends. I think writers, especially writers in the same language, are actually more colleagues than friends—like surgeons among surgeons. It’s, at best, a professional relationship but one potentially wrought with enmity. It’s best to avoid this, to stay away from it. My close writer friends—like Ted Hughes—also are temperamentally very much on their own. Hughes has never needed the London literary, artistic scene and I’m certain there are a lot of people who don’t like him out of envy or other reasons. I have other very good friends who write in other languages with whom I have really good times—Christoph Meckel of Germany, Stanley Moss and Philip Schultz here, for example. My closest friends in Israel are mostly people involved with science—a geologist, a biologist—probably because I have great respect and love for the physical sciences.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about your poetry, your thoughts about it. Do you have any primary imaginative concerns when you write a poem?

AMICHAI

The most important dimension in writing for me is time. Time is entirely relative, relational. The phrase I like to use to describe my sense of time—a play on “comparative literature”—is “comparative time.” Time for me is imaginatively comparative and continuous; I have an almost physical sense of memory recall. I can pick up any point in my life and be almost physically right there but in an emotional sense. It’s easy for me to shortcut back to my childhood, my adolescence, my wars. It’s actually a very Jewish sense of time, out of the Talmud. There’s a Talmudic saying that there’s nothing early or late in the Bible, which means that everything—all events—are ever present, that the past and future converge on the present, especially in language. This is also true for Arab culture and the Arabic language. In Hebrew, unlike English or German or even the Latinate Romance languages, there aren’t complex tense and mood structures, all of the structures I had so much trouble learning in school, such as the future present, the future past, the pluperfect. Structures such as “I should have been” or “What will you have done tomorrow?” In Hebrew and in Arabic most tenses revolve around the present—you can change easily from present tense to past tense or from present tense to future tense. There seems at times almost to be no difference and, as often happens in the Biblical texts, the future tense is used to describe something that happened in the past. This sense of bringing the past and future into the present defines my sense of time—it is very strong within me and my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry is also infused with an acute historical consciousness, which is both public and personal.

AMICHAI

Yes. Events are very, very important to me. I see events—images, memories—almost physically, like small plaques, icons, objects, each with its own descriptions, depictions, its own codes. And each of these, wherever it took place, is imaginatively imposed, layered, beside or on another. So, if I am writing a poem in the Caffe Dante in New York—and I’ve written several here during my stays in New York—I am also, simultaneously, writing about other places, other times. In the Caffe Dante, in New York, thinking of New York all around me, thinking about you in the orange orchard near Tel Aviv where I kissed you twenty years ago. That’s the way, spatially and temporally, I think through poems. And my sense of time is also linked to my sense of history. I think this is true for everyone; I think it’s especially true for Jews, whose sense of history has literally helped keep them alive. I try to create a kind of equality between my personal history and the history around me, because historical events often occur during times which are metaphorically concentrated. For instance, if I were to say that I remember my father during Passover in 1940 sitting at the table listening to this and that, by mentioning Passover I bring into play the whole history of the journey of Israel out of Egypt as well as a particular celebration of Passover in a particular place at a particular time. Whole histories can be included in the language by collapsing content and language itself—for example, I can shift into a biblical Hebrew to describe the particular, personal Passover memory, which then takes on different historical meanings. This provides me with enormous temporal and spatial range within the language itself. But there is also a side of me that hates history—my political, humanist side. So much of history, my individual and my collective history, has involved war and I hate war. So I hate history. I’ve experienced and my generation has experienced great and grievous historical disappointments. I say this not only with irony but with a stronger feeling. My generation—many of whom, myself included, were idealistically very left-wing—didn’t need Gorbachev to explain to us the violence of a certain kind of historical thinking; I remember when the truth about Stalin came out. I’ve also seen the violence of right-wing thinking. I’ve often said that I consider myself a “postcynical humanist.” Maybe now after so much horror, so many shattered ideals, we can start anew—now that we’re well armored for disappointment. I think my sense of history and God, even if I am against history and God, is very Jewish. I think this is why my poems are sometimes taught in religious schools. It’s an ancient Jewish idea to fight with God, to scream out against God.

INTERVIEWER

In a highly politicized society, in a highly politicized part of the world, what are your politics?

AMICHAI

Because, as a child, I kept away, and was kept away by my parents, from politics, I’ve never been attracted to ideology or ideological thinking. I always had this deep sense that I had my world, and there was the world outside me, and that I had to come to terms with it, even if it wasn’t always good. But I preserved my own inner world, which I was fully aware of at a very early age. This didn’t prevent me from becoming quite leftist in later years, but those politics were always primarily based on individual not “party” politics. I have never joined a political party. I think I inherited this sensibility from my father who, although he was very religious, never joined a religious party. He was always suspicious of anyone, even rabbis, who made their living from ideologies. I inherited his skepticism of ideologies. He believed religion to be very private, very individual. So personally I believe that when someone becomes a functionary for an ideal—don’t get me wrong, a society has to have such persons, I’m not an anarchist—he becomes a commissar of sorts and necessarily loses the sense of his ideal. So I’ve always been suspicious of and kept away from joining official political parties, although I’ve frequently been asked to join. I’ve always refused. My politics are very much rooted in a humanist context. My politics were not based as such on Marxist theory, but rather on a principle of maximum justice and equality among people. Of course I was always aware that people are not born with equal talents and capacities, but I believed that a social system had to maximize opportunities and freedoms for all human beings.

INTERVIEWER

Are you frequently asked to comment on political events?

AMICHAI

Yes, there are demands on me as a writer to make political statements; and I sometimes do with other writer colleagues through statements in newspapers. I’ve also written a few poems that are very politically direct, in response to particular political events, which I don’t put in my books because, actually, I consider them more to be placards than poems. I’ve always publicly spoken out for peace but I’m fully aware that what writers feel about peace doesn’t matter all that much. Often it’s a case of writers wanting to believe they have more power than they do or, worse, writers feeling good about themselves because they announce themselves as anti- or pro- something. But I’ve never wanted to be the kind of intellectual who becomes involved in a political party as Günter Grass did with the Social Democrats in Germany. I’ve always been fully aware that if you enter into politics at a certain point you have to make deals with nasty people. Because politics involves money, politics is a dirty business—you have to get dirty. I’ve never cared for the role of playing the pure prophet within organized political contexts.

INTERVIEWER

Are you a pacifist?

AMICHAI

I am, generally—but my pacifism isn’t extreme or absolute. An absolute pacifist would not have fought for the creation of a state, nor fought to protect it. I’ve always seen this type of pacifism in terms of the Nazis—to me it leads at some point to acquiescence to evil. But I resolutely believe in the principle of nonviolence. I believe one must do the utmost to avoid violence. One must do everything one can to prevent wars. We should find ways to prevent further wars. That seems to me the crucial thing. I’ve lived through so many betrayals of romantic political ideals—the main thing I believe now is to do as much as possible to prevent war.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel isolated by your position?

AMICHAI

My position isn’t an isolated one, not at all. It’s a position defined and politically recognized in Israel in terms of secular humanism. To be a secular humanist in Israeli society really means something politically. But I must emphasize I know the space I live in isn’t empty—there are other sides. I’m not like so many Western thinkers who somehow exonerate violence by Asians and Africans because Asian and African states are “third world” and, therefore, subject to lower moral standards when it comes to violence. I think this kind of thinking is racist. I have never felt anything racial toward Arabs, but certain Arabs and Arab states are part of a long and terrible tradition against Jews, especially fundamentalist Muslims. I am fully aware of this; I have no illusions about it. But that’s why I think we can talk with Arabs—those Arabs who are under the same threats of violence from Muslim fundamentalists as we are. I very much fear the disintegration of a society into violence when those who are committed to violence on ideological or racial grounds begin to take over a society. This happens not only in the Middle East but all over the world. I am afraid of people who speak in absolutes, in the name of right ideas no matter who they are.

INTERVIEWER

What is the relationship between your politics and your poetry?

AMICHAI

First of all, whoever reads my poetry could never arrive at fundamentalist, absolutist thinking. If someone is attracted to my poetry, he or she is attracted to all of the metaphoric background that I throw up against violence. Dealing with political realities is part of what we need to do to survive as normal human beings. You have to acknowledge political realties as they are. There’s an old Jewish saying: if you meet the devil, take him with you into the synagogue. Try to take the evil of politics into yourself, to influence it imaginatively—to give it human shape. This is my attitude toward politics. I’ve often said that all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea it reflects politics.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your sense of the relationship between poetry and politics—your sense of engagement—is rooted in your identity as an Israeli?

AMICHAI

Yes. In fact, some people, some poets, whom I meet from all over the world, envy my political realities. This has nothing to do with Israel’s particular politics but rather with an envy of my situation—I can be a deeply involved, engaged writer because I don’t have to seek engagement. I am politically engaged because everyone in Israel—on the right or left—exists under political pressures and existential tensions. And it’s true—I am incapable of thinking how anyone cannot be politically engaged. Politics is history in the making. I have always felt part of it, part of its large process. I have tried to incorporate this feeling into my poetry from its beginnings. I am in a way like the state of Israel—I have a poem that says, “When I was young, the country was young.” I was in Israel before the creation of the state, and I’ve taken part in its wars, and I am still alive after it all, conscious of what has happened and what is happening now. From 1935, 1940—my last fifty to fifty-five years of history are comparable to over two hundred years of history in the United States. Two hundred years of wars, changes, immigrations, generations, condensed into one lifetime. This is the kind of pressure I’ve written within. I’ve often asked myself if it hadn’t been for all this pressure—if I had grown up in America, for example—whether I’d be writing poems at all. My personal history has coincided with a larger history. For me it’s always been one and the same.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever find all of this exhausting? Do you resent that your life has been politicized?

AMICHAI

No, not at all. As a poet, I don’t get exhausted by all of the political pressure, the political realities, because I experience it all without any self-conscious awareness of myself. I don’t think of myself as a poet, that’s why I can write poetry about my experiences. I didn’t volunteer for the Jewish brigade or fight in our war in a tough commando unit, self-consciously as a poet. I’ve never said, You’re a poet, you have to become a soldier or become a criminal in order to experience life. I’ve always had enough life to experience. I did what I did because it was the right thing to do and because I had to. My preoccupation was sorting out love and war. I was like someone walking on the street who stumbles over a rock—he can either fall or take quick steps to break the impact of the fall. Poetry was like taking quick steps to break the fall. My mind was on love while history was full of constant danger, the news of murder, news of Holocaust. This is what I put into my poems. When the peace treaty with Egypt was signed an American journalist asked me what would I write about now, since my poetry dealt so much with war. I answered him that if the only sacrifice for peace would be my poetry, I would gladly stop writing. But of course there hasn’t been peace and, anyway, there would be enough political and private pressures in my life to create poetry. Contrary to those who believe history is at its end, I don’t believe so.

INTERVIEWER

What are your feelings about a Palestinian state?

AMICHAI

Politically, I ally myself with those who believe in territorial compromise, the creation of a Palestinian state that would be confederated with Jordan. I believe after forty years of being at the top of the hit lists of most Arab countries Israel has the right to be very cautious. But I also believe we shouldn’t be in the territories. Although we didn’t invade the people living there—they were conquered after we were attacked in 1967—we shouldn’t rule people who don’t want us ruling them. I don’t think Israelis should rule Arabs who do not want to be ruled by Israelis. No matter what justifications may be advanced, I think it’s wrong. This position is neither left nor right—it’s more moral, I think, than political. I am of course deeply concerned about what has happened and is happening in Lebanon and in Syria and Iraq and, unlike many liberals in the West, I don’t exonerate violence because it’s committed by Africans, Asians, Indians. I am not and never have been prejudiced against Arabs. I don’t see the issues with Arabs as racial, any more than the wars between England and Germany were racial. We are enemies and we are enemies for reasons. Racism isn’t one of them—certainly not a valid one. And of course Arabs in the territories, even Israeli Arabs, are really in the worst of it. You could compare their situation to what Japanese in California during World War II went through, when the Japanese were put into camps. Arabs in Israel must have multiple loyalties—and I don’t blame them, not at all. All of this just compels the need for some kind of compromise, with Arabs in Israel playing a vital role, since they know the conflicts of both worlds. But the conflicts can’t be settled only by Arab Palestinians who want peace. Remember that we are in a state of war with Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Libya. Therefore it’s a process that must be cautiously pursued.

INTERVIEWER

Has the Gulf War affected your thinking?

AMICHAI

The Gulf crisis has not basically changed my attitude toward the possibility of some dialogue between Arab states and Palestinians and Israel. However, the war has made me more suspicious about the PLO’s real targets; they were ready to ally themselves with those who promised to “burn” Israel, just as Palestinians in the past allied themselves with Hitler and Mussolini and later with Nasser of Egypt.

INTERVIEWER

Back, more specifically, to your poetic strategies. Your poems contain a sense of constant motion, in and out of different realms of experience and reality. Is this a central tenet of your aesthetic?

AMICHAI

Yes. As a poet I’ve always thought of myself as a kind of traveler—I expressed this feeling directly in my long poem, “Travels of a Latter Day Benjamin of Tudela.” The first Benjamin of Tudela was the great medieval Jewish traveler who during the second half of the twelfth century traveled throughout the Levant and the Middle East to find the lost Jewish tribes, traveling all through the Middle East, even to Yemen. The second was created by the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Mendele Mokher Seforim. Benjamin II was a comic, Don Quixoteish simpleton who set out for the Holy Land. I think when you’re a poet you have to forget you’re a poet—a real poet doesn’t draw attention to the fact he’s a poet. The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet.

INTERVIEWER

Yet, for all of the seriousness of your subject matter, you’re a poet of profound irony. How does irony fit into the picture?

AMICHAI

Irony is integral to my poetry. Irony is for me a kind of cleaning material. I inherited a sense of humor and irony from my father, who always used humor and irony as a way of clarifying, clearing, cleaning the world around him. Irony is a way of focusing, unfocusing, and focusing again—always trying to see another side. That’s the way I see, that’s the way I think and feel, that’s the way I live—focusing, refocusing, and juxtaposing different shifting and changing perspectives.

INTERVIEWER

You know Israeli-Arab and Palestinian poets and have translated their poetry. Do you see similarities between their poetries and Hebrew poetry?

AMICHAI

Basically, yes. I think that Israeli Arab and Palestinian poets are trying to do the same things within their traditions that Israeli poets are trying to do within theirs. In a way, we are working on common ground—not only literally, within the same reality, the same landscape, but also on common spiritual ground as poets. It’s mainly been Palestinian poetry that’s interested me. Poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qasim, powerful, strong poets who mix traditional and modern forms and techniques and language with political subject matter. Mahmoud Darwish and I have read together at several international events. And, although I don’t accept much of his role as a political figure in the PLO, I greatly respect and admire him as a poet. As far as I know he thinks the same of me; I’m sure he doesn’t agree with much of my politics, although I’m not outspoken politically. I’m more of a moralist poet who deals with political realities than a poet who writes out of a political context. But I have no illusions. It’s quite difficult for poets to communicate with one another in a society that is politically torn apart the way that ours is. I have a doctor friend who tells me it’s the same with doctors. When, for example, he meets Syrian doctors at international meetings, everything is cordial and collegial on the level of being doctors. But this is a kind of illusion, because ultimately politics intrudes. At some point the Israeli and the Syrian have to return to the political realities of their own countries and whatever exchanges were made become transitory. This is true for Arabic and Hebrew poets, for Jewish and Arab doctors and teachers. The exchanges on professional levels help but on political levels—in terms of real political effects—the results are illusory.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read much poetry?

AMICHAI

I mostly read poetry, a lot of poetry, and every now and then a novel or book of stories. When I was younger I used to read a lot more fiction. I also read newspapers and magazines. Some of the newspapers in Israel are quite good, with excellent sections on cultural and political commentary.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read critical theory? Philosophy? Theology?

AMICHAI

No, I never have. I wouldn’t tell a young writer not to read theory, but I’ve never felt I could do much with it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been translated into numerous languages—quite extensively into English. How do you feel about your work in translation?

AMICHAI

I am, really, quite at ease with it all. I’ve visited the United States four times to teach writing and I am invited to read all over the United States. I read from translations when I read, but I always make a point of reading at least two or three of the translated poems in Hebrew. The poems I read in translation, interestingly, move away from me, away from being my own. Sometimes I feel a kind of surprise when I read them, like listening to my voice on a tape recorder—at first you don’t know whether it’s your voice. Sometimes the poem completely separates and becomes a poem in English, which I hear as a poem in English that works on its own, as if it were a poem by someone else. I am not one who constantly laments what’s been lost in the translation of his poems. First of all, if I believed too much would be lost if a poem were to be translated, I wouldn’t have it translated. I think it’s a bit hypocritical for poets to say poetry can’t be translated. It can, of course—just not all of it. But my translators have carefully chosen those poems that can be best translated. I have rhymed and metered poems, deeply based in complicated layers of the Hebrew language, which haven’t been translated. If something gets lost in a translation, something gets lost. But much is gained also.

INTERVIEWER

You’re frequently categorized as a “love poet” . . .

AMICHAI

Yes. Or a “Jerusalem poet.” I hate that. “Love poet”—as if I have some special expertise at love, it makes me sound like a pimp! The concept of categorizing myself as a poet is repugnant to me—my reality is involved in so many things around and inside me. But people—academics, journalists—categorize because it’s much easier for them to do so. There’s one writer in Israel, Aharon Appelfeld, who is very well known in the United States too, who’s been labeled a “Holocaust writer.” If he writes a love story set in a kibbutz no one would read it—he’s suppose to write only about the Holocaust. If I write a poem or part of a poem that deals with the Holocaust I’m told that I’m a love poet or a Jerusalem poet and that I shouldn’t be writing about something that isn’t within my territory—you’re made into a kind of salesman who’s not supposed to sell merchandise in someone else’s business. When Woody Allen makes a movie that isn’t comic, a movie dealing with tragedy, he’s laughed at—he’s supposed to be funny all of the time. I am, though, a love poet in this sense: I have a strong sense of “the other” in my poems, not too dissimilar from Montale’s. An awareness of others, often another, a woman, enables me to perceive reality in still other, different ways—other antennae of feeling, vision. This way I see and feel more too.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself as a poetic innovator?

AMICHAI

I see myself as a poet. I’ve always been acutely conscious of form, how form relates to expression. I’ve always been aware of breaking my language open—at a historical point when it was ready to be broken open— into its enormous potentials of expression. I suppose I was postmodern almost from the time I began writing poetry. I’ve written in many forms. I’ve always been attracted to the quatrain, a form that was prevalent in medieval Hebrew and Arabic poetry. I learned the form primarily from Samuel Ha-nagid, a medieval Jewish rabbi-poet in Spain during the Moorish reign, who used a very concentrated metrical line, with intricate rhymes. I use rhymes, I also use the sonnet form. Actually, if I’m correct, the first sonnets to be written in a language other than Italian after Petrarch were written in Hebrew by a friend of Petrarch’s, a Jewish poet writing in Italy. I’ve written in free verse—of course the poetry of the Bible is written in open forms. I’ve also used English and German forms, stanzaic forms, sonnets, but I never imposed these forms onto my language—instead, I transposed them into Hebrew, combining and mixing them with Jewish and Arabic forms. I like mixing different techniques and forms. A modern or postmodern composer might take the heart of a Bach fugue and break it open, expand it; what I do is put jazzy languages and techniques within classical forms, juxtaposing different, sometimes competing, language and forms. I usually feel, right from the beginning of a poem, the shape, the form, it will have—even before images or before particular words. I feel the form or shape almost visually, like a piece of sculpture—I can touch it. Then I fill in the form with my subjects from the entire world of my subjects.