Commentary Magazine

Poetry in Israel

Israel is probably one of the few remaining countries where verse, far from being a dying technique, has managed to stay at the vital center of literary culture. To an American, who is accustomed to having his poetry in coffee houses, summer workshops, graduate seminars, and other suitable places of solitary confinement, it is pleasant if puzzling to discover abundant signs in Israel of the presence of a body of contemporary verse that is read as well as written. Israel may conceivably have the highest per capita production of poetry in the world—especially if you count (slim) volumes of verse and not total number of lines—and it is an even safer bet that it has the highest rate anywhere of poetry consumption. A popular book of poetry sells out a first printing of 3,000 copies within a few months. This figure in itself may not seem particularly impressive, and it scarcely suggests that sonnet cycles are hawked in the streets of Tel Aviv like hot felaffel. But if one considers that the Jewish population of Israel is about two million, and that, of those, considerably less than half know Hebrew well enough to read it for enjoyment, a printing of 3,000 in Israel looms as large as perhaps half a million copies of a book published in America. Compared to the successes of Hebrew poets like Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman, even Robert Frost looks like a mere coterie figure.

A typical Israeli bookstore window is likely to have three or four new volumes of verse in its most prominent display, along with a book or two on Biblical archeology, a biography of some public figure, perhaps a popular American novel in translation. It is hard for the visiting American to get used to the idea that there actually exists something very much like a best-seller in poetry. This year, for example, Natan Alterman published Summer Festival, his first book of verse in seven years. Like his previous volume, it was a sharp disappointment to most of the critics. But Alterman, who wrote some remarkable poetry back in the 40's, has managed to attract a large and loyal following, and the appearance of Summer Festival, whatever the intrinsic merits of the book, was a real cultural event. Israel's leading intellectual monthly, Molad, devoted a long article to the book and its role in the poet's development, giving it the kind of attention that an American monthly would allow only to a widely-discussed novelist—say, Bellow or Mailer—upon a long-awaited reappearance in print. When I was in Israel last summer, I saw the Alterman book in almost every bookstore window, including even the little neighborhood shops whose main stock was school supplies and textbooks.

This last detail suggests one important aspect of the relative popularity enjoyed by poetry in Israel: a substantial number of Israeli poetry-readers are quite young. We should not, however, jump to the conclusion that the audience for Hebrew poetry is therefore constantly growing. I suspect that many of those who become devoted to it in their high-school and university years abandon it with other sins of their youth as their lives get caught up in the more prosaic concerns of career and marriage. But even if the interest of this group in poetry is in many cases temporary, it constitutes a kind of cultural phenomenon not easy to imagine in our own country.


The distance between cultures is vividly illustrated by a story I heard this past summer from Lea Goldberg, the distinguished Hebrew poet. On her last visit to Beersheba, she went into a bookstore to look for children's books. The storekeeper, as soon as he realized who she was, gave her the most cordial reception he could (something a customer can by no means take for granted in an Israeli store). In the course of their conversation, the shop owner asked Miss Goldberg if she could guess what kind of book was his biggest seller; the answer, of course, was poetry. This would not be surprising in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but Beersheba is a kind of frontier city in the northern Negev, largely populated by recent immigrants. The storekeeper had to explain that most of his customers were soldiers stationed at the large army camps in the area. (In Israel, it must be remembered, this group includes women as well as men, and it would be somewhat younger than an American counterpart since the compulsory period of military service usually occurs right after high school.) Now, there may be some truth in the complaint often voiced in Israel that young people have abandoned the intellectual idealism of the pioneering Zionists for a narrow, self-serving pragmatism; one is in fact likely to discover considerable evidence in support of this accusation among the young Israelis with whom one talks. But the anomaly of ballads in the barracks and distichs in the duffel bags should cast some doubt upon the adequacy of such facile, moralizing judgments.

I don't mean to suggest that where hostile critics have seen young Israelis as insensitive and unreflective careerists, we should now imagine a generation of soulful seekers after truth and beauty. To begin with, this group of poetry-readers, however large relatively, remains a distinct minority of all Israeli youth. The reasons, moreover, why poetry should be important to a considerable number of Israel's young intellectuals, and why it should play such a major role in Hebrew literature, are multiple, and their interrelation is neither simple nor clear. Perhaps the worst place to begin to look for an explanation is in that dubiously charted region of national character. The relative importance of poetry in Israel may be in some degree the result of cultural traditions; it surely has something to do also with the problematic role of Hebrew in the life of an educated Israeli; but the whole phenomenon must be understood ultimately in terms of the distinctive nature of Hebrew poetry.

Despite the juggernaut progress of Americanization through Israel in everything from IBM cards to supermarkets, there are important areas of cultural life still rooted in Central-European and East-European traditions. The three most significant antecedent cultures for Israel, at least as far as literature is concerned, are Russian, German, and the world of traditional Judaism. In each of these cultural milieux, poetry has been accorded a far more important place than it ever has been given in America, or, for that matter, than it has enjoyed in England since the time of Byron and Scott.


The poetry with which Jewish tradition filled the inner life of its adherents was, of course, the poetry learned from sacred texts, rabbinic as well as Biblical, the liturgical verse adorning the various services, and the Sabbath and festival table-hymns. There is a real, if sometimes devious, connection between this traditional use of poetry as an expression of religious experience and the kinds of inner needs which Hebrew poetry serves today. Much Hebrew verse since Bialik has been religious in its ultimate concerns, though perhaps most often in the manner of the great Hebrew poetry of Job, quarreling with God rather than praising Him. It is a revealing fact that the two major figures in the oldest generation of Israeli poets, Avraham Shlonsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg, have produced a considerable body of deeply religious work, Shlonsky in an intensely personal mode far to the Left of institutional Judaism, Greenberg to the messianic Right of it in the language of prophetic vision and the public symbols of national destiny. Religious concerns are often at the root of poems by younger poets as well, though the expression may be more oblique, less likely to couch itself in traditional terms.

The persisting influences of German and Russian traditions are more straightforward if less substantive. There was a time, one recalls, when a furor for verse-making was expected to seize virtually every good introspective German during his student years, and a continuing acquaintance with serious poetry was something generally assumed of cultivated persons in a nation of Goethe-quoters. Jerusalem is not Heidelberg, but one may see, for example, in the Israeli student abroad, who makes room in his 44 pounds of air luggage for a cherished volume of Alterman or Amihai, a shadow cast by the pale, vatic youth of a vanished Germany. Similarly, Russian cultural influences, though generally on the wane, are probably the background for the kind of public importance poetry has in Israel. While Israel has nothing to match the passionate involvement of Russia's outdoor poetry readings, the public reading and discussion of poetry have not been entirely relegated to the esoteric audiences of poetry “centers” or to the self-consciously educational environment of the university. A response to poetry like the standing-room enthusiasm evoked by Yevtushenko's public readings in Russia a few years ago is at least still a possibility in Israel. The topical interest, moreover, of Yevtushenko's verse suggests a further connection with Israel's cultural situation as opposed to our own. In America, serious writers have tried to come to terms with recent events of national relevance chiefly through fiction and—perhaps more successfully—through reflective essays or reportage. In Israel, as in Russia, the idea persists at least in some circles that poetry can, and perhaps ought to, grapple with contemporary history. Some Hebrew poetry, to be sure, has emerged from the encounter with history very much the worse for wear artistically, but it is significant that poetry as a mode of response to life can still be ambitious, has not retreated wholly to the involutions of private experience and the nuances of aesthetic discriminations.

But what seems to me more important than any cultural tradition in explaining the vitality of poetry in Israel is the very distinctive kind of life Hebrew words assume when they are put together imaginatively in a poem. Hebrew, precisely because its resuscitation as a language for modern daily use has been so successful, is in one sense now fighting for survival. That is, the Hebrew everyone reads, writes, and speaks is to a great extent a translated language (from Yiddish, German, Russian, Arabic, English, French) in which the modes of semantic subtlety and suggestiveness indigenous to it are drastically weakened. The newspapers and popular magazines, for example, are written in a sort of international journalese that wrenches Hebrew from its native patterns of idiom and syntax and that, at its worst, makes the tongue of the prophets sound like an Esperanto imitation of the style of the New York Times.


On a higher level, the educated Israeli finds that his native tongue is constantly put into competition with the very differently developed Western languages in areas where it must seem less than adequate. It is easier to write a good philosophical essay, a sociological study, a piece of literary criticism, in English or German than in Hebrew, because Hebrew is deficient in certain types of specialized vocabulary and particularly in the means to discriminate subtly different levels and categories of abstraction: it lacks, in short, some of the very linguistic tools that make precise analytic thinking possible. (A very intelligent Israeli who grew up in Czechoslovakia actually told me that when he returned to Prague for an extended visit, his Czech university friends congratulated him on having established himself in Israel, but, after some conversation, regretted the fact that thinking in Hebrew had “made him stupid.”) The advanced student in almost every discipline except Judaica ends up doing the bulk of his required reading in English, and this is likely to be the case with his professional reading later on. That Hebrew should be a second fiddle in such circumstances is inevitable, simply because it doesn't have all the right linguistic strings to play on. More regrettable are the many instances in which Israelis adopt or imitate a foreign cultural product mainly for its appeal as attractive, imported goods. It seems a little pathetic, for example, that to a startling number of educated Israelis, Time is the indispensable weekly news magazine. No conceivable form of Hebrew could compete with Timese, but it is unfortunate that the two should have to compete in anyone's mind, that an Israeli should have to follow the events of the great world in a foreign cultural idiom whose meretricious cleverness is essentially unassimilable to his own language.

The educated Israeli, in sum, finds himself maneuvering intellectually in a broad Western culture to which his own language, both structurally and lexically, is not entirely suited. He frequently has to use a de-Hebraized Hebrew that misses the best of both worlds, and for many of the needs of his intellectual life he ends up depending upon a foreign language. Now, against this general background of linguistic uneasiness, poetry offers the native speaker of Hebrew, to paraphrase Coleridge, the best Hebrew words in the best Hebrew order. In a country where so much culture is translated, both in fact and in effect, the truism about the untranslatability of poetry looms with a larger than ordinary significance. Israeli fiction in this respect is a borderline phenomenon—all the younger writers have their peculiar problems about being distinctively Hebrew stylists. But it is poetry that clearly liberates the potential expressiveness of Hebrew words, so choosing and placing them as to utilize their finest nuances of meaning, striking the rich plangencies of allusion inherent in the literary history of the words, even drawing on a large vocabulary never used in speech because it does not correspond to the practical needs of the translatable everyday world.

An Israeli with serious literary interests may find Camus (in translation) or Faulkner (in English) more deeply relevant than all the Hebrew novels on the failure of the old Zionist ideals, but there are areas of his most intimate experience which only Hebrew poetry can reach because it alone speaks to him with the subtle intimacy of his first language. It is sometimes suggested that young Israelis read poetry because they are searching for “identity.” What this vague explanation actually means, I think, is that poetry gives a mouth to their muteness; feelings and thoughts partly muffled by the predicament of their language are released, crystallized into the precious clarity of artfully ordered words.

There are, moreover, some remarkable possibilities for artful ordering inherent in Hebrew words. I suppose it is absurd to claim that one language is intrinsically more poetic than another, but one can say of Hebrew that its unique history makes it a supple instrument for certain species of poetic expression that have never been, or no longer are, available to poets in the major Western languages. This of course does not mean that the use of Hebrew can in any way guarantee a poet's artistic success: even some of the most gifted Hebrew poets have been known to clutter their books with more than a fair share of metric trash. But the body of really good poetry that has been written in Israel is quite impressive, and the high quality of much Hebrew verse can be attributed at least partly to the poets' success in tapping the distinctive resources of the Hebrew language.


More than anything else, what makes Hebrew poetry different is the vital presence of the Bible—through remembered words, phrases, verses, whole passages, themes, and symbols—in the mind of every genuinely literate user of Hebrew. Though much of the Biblical vocabulary, idiom, and grammar has disappeared from modern speech, the language of the Bible remains perfectly familiar in a way not easily imaginable for the average speaker of English, to whom the much more recent past of his own literature—Chaucer, or even Spenser—is barely intelligible. With the Bible always in the background, a skillful Hebrew poet can shift perspective or tone, introduce irony, focus two or three meanings on a single point, with a carefully weighted allusion to a Biblical text, perhaps simply by means of a borrowed phrase or word. Lines of Hebrew verse which may sound flat or tritely rhetorical in translation often are charged with imaginative power through allusion. When Natan Alterman, for example, writes that “Woman's love is treacherous,” a single word makes the line transcend the banality of its English equivalent. His term for “treacherous” ('aquba) never occurs in ordinary modern Hebrew; it appears adjectivally in the Bible only three memorable times, and only once, as here, in the feminine form, in Hosea—“The city of evil-doers is smeared [or “crooked,” 'aquba], with blood.” For the literate reader, then, Alterman's 'aquba trails after it a wake of blood (specifically, the recalled Biblical word midam), and so the woman's treacherous love assumes overtones of violence and, if the whole verse is remembered, moral perversion. This apprehension of the word's darker implications is strengthened by the recollection of another Biblical verse, Jeremiah's “The heart is most treacherous ['aqob] of all.”

The elaborateness of my explanation for this simple turn of allusion may make it seem a difficult virtuoso trick, like writing sestinas. In point of fact, however, such coalescing of associations in a word or phrase is so natural and easy in Hebrew that poets sometimes have to struggle to keep out allusion where they don't mean to have it. Hebrew love poetry illustrates this point with particular clarity. The power of the Song of Songs has so captured the Hebrew poetic imagination that a poet virtually has to make a conscious effort in order not to allude to the splendid Biblical model when he writes a love lyric in Hebrew. Even a poetic expression of revulsion from a demonically carnal woman (Bialik's “The Hungry Eyes”) naturally works itself out as an anti-Song of Songs, following the Canticles' convention of vertical description of the beloved's body, downward from her hungry eyes and fierce lips to the insatiable sexual darkness below. The imaginative availability of the Bible, which can make such artful parallels and inversions possible, may tempt the Hebrew poet to slide from poetry to pastiche. This was the besetting ill of the earliest generations of modern Hebrew poets, and it remains an occupational hazard of Hebrew verse, cropping up frequently, for example, in the contemporary biblicizing poet Yonatan Ratosh, the central figure of the so-called Canaanite group that was much discussed a decade ago.

What is especially relevant, however, to our concern, is that Hebrew can sustain a very viable poetic mode which looks quite like pastiche, though it differs radically from pastiche in the creative energy with which it selects, fuses, and transforms different source-materials. This stanza from a poem by Lea Goldberg illustrates a kind of poetic strategy typical of Hebrew but unfeasible, I think, in most other languages:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains
And the mountains are desolate.
How you flowered in them, my soul,
My wildflower in the clefts of the rock!

The section of the poem from which the stanza is taken describes a moment of existential terror, and the sudden plunge of consciousness from daylight into what the poem calls “blood-darkness” is beautifully caught by the second line here, which amputates the verse from Psalms—“I lift up my eyes to the mountains/ From whence cometh my help”—and substitutes mere desolation. This kind of studied reversal of a well-known text could be done in another language, but the continuing modulation of compressed allusions in the two subsequent lines is uniquely Hebrew. The word for “how” in the third line is not the standard eikh but eikha, the variant regularly used in the Bible when the word occurs at the beginning of a formal elegy. The allusion here, through a single syllable, is subgrammatical, yet it carries with it echoes of fallen cities, scattered splendor, and Lamentations, which in turn play against both the wondering excitement of the exclamation and the gentle affection in the remembrance of Song of Songs—“My dove in the clefts of the rock . . ./ Let me see thy countenance . . ./ For thy countenance is comely.”


It is worth noting that this mosaic of allusions occurs in the work of a poet whose prevailing tone is personal, quietly melodic or conversational, and who has rarely been concerned in her verse with tradition, history, or ideology. The traditional idiom, however, of classic Hebrew literature—not only the Bible, but to a large extent the prayer book and rabbinic legend as well—is so much the common possession of the Hebrew literary imagination, even in a post-traditional era, that it lends itself quite naturally to the most private uses of expression. In this connection, the case of Yehuda Amihai, the most popular new poet of the 50's, is especially instructive. Amihai is the most influential of the younger poets who, partly in emulation of modern British and American models, have attempted to introduce the rhythms of ordinary speech and the flatness or harshness of everyday language into their verse. Such a program was clearly necessary for the younger generation in order to close the gap they felt between poetic convention and lived experience, though the success of the program has been at best a mixed one—Hebrew Audenized can produce disastrously unrelieved poetic bleaknesses. What is interesting about Amihai is that this avowed poet of fragmented, tarnished realities—“Cripples and the unemployed/ Are the songbirds in the poets' trees/ And not the cuckoo and the nightingale”—should stud the jagged textures of his poems with shining bits from classical Hebrew texts.

One of the important expressive effects of Amihai's verse derives from the pointed contrast between traditional idioms and the colloquial poetic environment in which they occur. One poem, in which a soldier with orders for the front takes leave of his girl, begins, “The smell of gasoline ascended in my nostrils.” After yoking ancient sacrifice and modern technology in this bizarre fashion, the speaker goes on to identify his tenderness for his beloved with that of his pious father for a ritual object: “Your soul, my girl, I'll put in my palm/ Like a festival citron in soft wool—/ So, too, my dead father did.” In the next three stanzas the soldier expresses his feeling for the weeping girl through disarming colloquial understatement (“Wipe your face and stand by me/ And smile like in a family photo”); then he concludes by telescoping another traditional phrase into the grim menace of his own world: “The jet plane makes peace in its heights/ Over us and over all those who love in the fall.” The echo, of course, is from the final words of the kaddish—“May He who makes peace in his heights establish peace over us and over all Israel.” The finely adjusted tension here between the poet's statement and the recalled text is typical of Amihai. He is neither quarreling with his source nor merely playing with it, though he occasionally does both in his use of allusion elsewhere. Rather, the fractured piece of liturgy expresses a kind of wistful regret for that world of faith in which God made peace on high—in the poet's world, lovers between battles must depend instead upon circling jets for their fleeting moments of precarious happiness together.


Yet poetry, though it may consist partly in allusions, must exist entirely in words, and the nature of Hebrew words themselves makes them uniquely suitable for the poetic rendering of certain aspects of experience. Many Hebrew words carry a distinctive force that is related to their allusiveness, but not identical with it, as can be seen in this brief piece by the gifted young poet, Dan Pagis:

Primal chaos still is twisted in the
Power-frozen rock. The rock hasn't split.
Silence, petrified, rules it.
The darkness expects.
                                Imprisoned is the tremor.

And already the veins of red are running in
     the rock
Pounding like mute lightnings.

Some of the inadequacy of my translation is merely a result of the rigidity of English syntax. (The quaintly poetic inversion, for example, in the fifth line is natural and eloquent in the original because Hebrew, even in prose, allows more freedom in subject-predicate order.) But where the English version fails crucially is in the first two words of the poem. They constitute a nearly exact translation of the original tohu reshit (very literally, “chaos of beginning”), with only the background of the words—Greek cosmogony instead of Hebrew—changed. It might be argued that the verbal connection with Genesis in the original makes the Hebrew poem conceptually tighter: the same darkness that hovers over the chaos in the first chapter of Genesis “expects” portentously in the fourth line here. The essential difficulty of the translation, however, is in the taint of pretense that clings to “primal chaos”—or any English phrase like it—and of which the Hebrew equivalent is entirely free. Perhaps in the 17th century it was still possible to use a formula like “primal chaos” with genuine poetic resonance. But after the Miltonizing poets of the 18th century, after reams of bad Romantic and Victorian poems, after science fiction, cheap rhetorical novels, perhaps even advertising, the words have become almost pure fake-poetic. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the continuity between the Bible and the modern spoken language acts as a brake against this kind of progressive deterioration of words. Reshit, for example, is a perfectly normal conversational word, as in the common phrase, reshit kol (“first of all”), and yet its appearance as the initial word of the Bible, b'reshit, can scarcely be forgotten. Tohu reshit, therefore, manages to be a natural usage, with no trace of the false sublime in it, while referring directly and precisely to a level of reality that is cosmic and mythic.

Because the whole body of ancient and medieval Hebrew literature continually sets man over against God, the created world over against the void, and time over against eternity, the language is rich in words that express ultimate things. It is worth noting, moreover, that despite the flood of Greek and Latin words absorbed by Hebrew in the Hellenistic period, most of this vocabulary of the ultimate grows from indigenous roots. The Hebrew terms for genesis, apocalypse, infinity, eternity, are all made up of simple lexical components still very commonly used in everyday speech; and in respect to their form and sound—none is more than two syllables—as well as to their history, these words are scarcely obtrusive even in a modern colloquial context. Such a vocabulary is so native to Hebrew language and literature that even the inflated pseudo-Biblical rhetoric of the Hebrew Enlightenment could not vitiate it as, by contrast, the English stock of terms for ultimates has been progressively cheapened since the latter part of the 17th century by writers cultivating the “high celestial way.” When a contemporary English poet trots out a world-embracing word, he generally has to do it with an embarrassed grin or a defensively intellectual glare. A Hebrew poet can still use such terms with a straight face and even with unaffected, colloquial directness.

Thus Amihai, in another of his early war poems, describes his girl against a background of practice gunshots, “walking through the streets/ Wearing the jewels of apocalypse.” The English version of the last phrase may have its own kind of effectiveness, but the final word jolts the reader in a way not quite in keeping with the original takhshitei hakets. The term translated as “apocalypse”—kets—is one of the two simple Hebrew words for “end.” Tradition has firmly linked it with eschatology—the End of Days, or kets hayamim—but it has none of the polysyllabic pomp of the English equivalent, nor, of course, the mystifying ring of Greek strangeness and the dark aura of New Testament vision inseparable from the English word. Kets is associated with the end of history and the “end of all flesh” (kets kol basar is the phrase used in the Noah story), yet it has a denotative immediacy that also can suggest the end of more particular things than the whole world—the end of the poet, say, or of his beloved, the end of the brief period when the two were one flesh.


This leapfrogging between personal experience and cosmic expectations is a frequent movement in Hebrew poetry, but by no means an inevitable one. The verbal accessibility of ultimates is part of a larger pattern of distinctiveness in Hebrew vocabulary: both abstractions and traditionally “poetic” words—that is, words which characterize unusually intense inner states or highly impressive sensory data—remain quite usable poetically.

Hebrew abstractions, at least those that are not awkward neologisms, lend themselves to verse metrically, because most of them are simple iambs or anapests, and connotatively, because they generally remain much closer in form and implication to their concrete origins than is the case with the heavily latinate abstractions of English. A poem by Lea Goldberg, for example, closes with this summary of being surprised by joy: “Since then I am a pool in the night's heart—/ In their arbitrariness generous heavens/ Have sunk into it all the stars.” “Arbitrariness,” though an exact equivalent for the Hebrew, is barbaric not only because it shatters any possible meter, but because it is associated in English with a kind of analytic discourse quite incongruous with the sensuous immediacy of the poem. The Hebrew shrirut does not have the same long history of use as a precise, purely conceptual term; modern Hebrew actually borrows it from a favorite idiom of Jeremiah, shrirut-lev, which is traditionally rendered as “hard-heartedness” or “stubbornness.”

Perhaps the best example of the continuing viability of “poetic” language in Hebrew is the work of Uri Zvi Greenberg. Despite his frequent diffuseness, he manages to make one repeatedly aware of the intrinsic magic of words. One central instance is his love for brilliant and violent colors and the words that refer to them. He calls upon half a dozen synonyms for “effulgence,” fills his pages with gold (for which there are at least three synonyms in Hebrew), sky-blue, crimson (the Biblical argaman, or royal purple), “shining-red” (hakhlili, an enigmatic color-word that occurs in the Bible only once, in Genesis 49:12). It is not easy to explain why, in contrast to what has happened in other languages, such vocabulary in Hebrew should manage to retain a high degree of imaginative life, but surely one important reason is that the words are so ensconced in their traditional contexts, from Genesis to the Zohar, that the luster of their classic associations has not been dulled by usage—the words themselves seem able to survive even the rhetorical cheapening to which they have been subjected by second-rate Hebrew writers from the Enlightenment onward. In a modern Hebrew-speaking culture, then, where the language in its everyday use is flattened into gray regularity, poets can still use descriptive and emotive words that tower splendidly, inviting the ascent of the imagination.

The business of poetry, it has often been observed, is to relate the unrelated, to pull disparate fragments into significant wholes. To the Israeli, in his peculiar predicament of apparent but not absolute cultural uprootedness, this act of relating is especially vital, and the language of Hebrew poetry, as I have tried to show, renders it especially fit as an instrument for making meaningful connections. It is not only that the Israeli must repeatedly test out the problematic relevance of past Jewish experience to his own emotional and intellectual life. Like all Jews, he must also find some way to respond to the terrible central fact of Jewish history in our time, which remains outrageous, unthinkable, unassimilable. Some of the finest Hebrew poems of the last twenty-five years are expressions of highly personal experiences, not directly “about” the Holocaust, and yet finally unintelligible without reference to it. What happens in these poems is indicative of the larger uses that Hebrew poetry serves. The past is imaginatively linked with the present; the reverberations of historical catastrophe are caught in the exploration of private crisis; the unassimilable elements of both individual and collective experience are thus for a moment controlled, ordered, related. Ultimately, then, what makes poetry important in Israel is that the sensitive Hebrew reader can find in it a way of responding humanly to his world—to its beauty as well as to its terror—which is simply not available to him in any other medium. At a time when genuinely human responses are not easy to come by anywhere, this function is more than a cultural luxury: the purposes served by the best modern Hebrew poetry may not fall so far, after all, from the high purposes of the great Hebrew poetry of the past.

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