Amichai, Yehuda 1924–2000
Amichai, Yehuda 1924–2000
PERSONAL: First name sometimes transliterated as "Yehudah"; born 1924, in Germany; immigrated to Palestine, 1936; naturalized Israeli citizen; died September 25, 2000; children: David, Emanuella.
CAREER: Poet and writer. Military service: British Army during World War II; member, Israeli defense forces, 1948, during Arab-Israeli war.
MEMBER: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (foreign honorary member).
AWARDS, HONORS: Israel's Prize for Poetry, 1982.
Selected Poems, translation from the Hebrew by Assia Gutmann, Cape Goliard Press, 1968, published as Poems, introduction by Michael Hamburger, Harper (New York, NY), 1969.
Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai, translation from the original Hebrew by Gutmann, Harold Schimmel, and Ted Hughes, Penguin (London, England), 1971, published as The Early Books of Yehuda Amichai, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale, NY), 1988.
Songs of Jerusalem and Myself (poetry), translation from the Hebrew by Schimmel, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela, translation from the Hebrew by Ruth Nevo, House of Exile (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1976.
Amen (poetry), translation from the Hebrew by the author and Hughes, Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
On New Year's Day, Next to a House Being Built, Sceptre Press (Knotting, England), 1979.
Time: Poems, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.
(Editor with Allen Mandelbaum) Avoth Yeshurun, The Syrian-African Rift, and Other Poems, translation by Schimmel, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1980.
Love Poems (also see below), translation from the Hebrew by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, Harper (New York, NY), 1981.
(Editor with Mandelbaum) Dan Pagis, Points of Departure, translation from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1982.
The Great Tranquility: Questions and Answers, translation from the Hebrew by Abramson and Parfitt, Harper (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale, NY), 1997.
The World Is a Room, and Other Stories, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1984.
Travels (bilingual edition), English translations by Nevo, Sheep Meadow Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1986.
The Selected Poetry of Yehudah Amichai, translation from the Hebrew by Mitchell and Chana Bloch, Harper (New York, NY), 1986, revised and expanded edition, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1996.
Poems of Jerusalem: A Bilingual Edition (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems, selected and translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.
Poems of Jerusalem; and, Love Poems: Bilingual Edition, Sheep Meadow Press (Riverdale, NY), 1992.
I Am Sitting Here Now, Land Marks Press (Huntington Woods, MI), 1994.
Poems: English and Hebrew, Shoken (Jerusalem), 1994.
Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry, 1948–1994, Translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshave, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
Exile at Home (poetry), photographs by Frederic Brenner, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1998.
Open Closed Open: Poems, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2000.
Akhshav uva-yamim ha-aherim (poetry; title means "Now and in Other Days"), [Tel Aviv, Israel], 1955.
Ba-ginah ha-tsiburit (poetry; title means "In the Park"), [Jerusalem], 1958–59.
Be-merhak shete tikvot (poetry), [Tel Aviv, Israel], 1958.
Be-ruah ha-nora'ah ha-zot (stories), Merhavya, 1961.
Masa' le-Ninveh (play; title means "Journey to Nineveh"), 1962.
Shirim, 1948–1962 (title means "Poetry, 1948–1962"), [Jerusalem], 1962–63.
'Akshav ba-ra'ash, 1968.
Mah she-karah le-Roni bi-Nyu York, 1968.
Pa 'amonim ve-rakavot, 1968.
Ve-lo 'al menat li-zekor (poetry), 1971.
Mi yitneni malon (title means "Hotel in the Wilderness"), 1972, reprinted, Bitan (Tel Aviv, Israel), 2003.
Me-ahore kol zeh mistater osher gadol (poetry), 1974.
Translator of German works into Hebrew.
Amichai's works have been translated into thirty-seven languages, including French, Swedish, Chinese, and Spanish.
SIDELIGHTS: In the later years of his life, Yehuda Amichai came to be recognized as one of Israel's finest poets. His poems—written in Hebrew—have been translated into thirty-seven languages, and whole volumes have been published in English, French, German, Swedish, Spanish, and Catalan. In an online review for the East Bay Express, Stephen Kessler noted that Amichai had "long been one of the planet's preeminent poets…. Jewish down to the bones, his humanity is broadly universal, obsessed as Amichai [was] with time and death, war and peace, love and memory, joy and suffering." New Republic essayist C.K. Williams found in Amichai's oeuvre "the shrewdest and most solid of poetic intelligences."
Born in Germany in 1924, Amichai left that country at age twelve with his family and journeyed to Palestine. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war he fought with the Israeli defense forces. The rigors and horrors of his service in this conflict, and in World War II, inform his poetry, although, to quote Kessler, the political slant is "elusive," addressing the issues of Arab-Israeli relations in metaphorical, rather than ideological, terms. By the mid-1960s Amichai was "already regarded in many circles in Israel as the country's leading poet," to quote Robert Alter in the New York Times Magazine. Amichai's reputation outside of Israel soon soared, Alter explaining that the author was "accorded international recognition unprecedented for a modern Hebrew poet."
In his novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place, Amichai struggled with "the torment of being buried alive in the irrelevant past." The novel's hero is torn between returning to the German town where he grew up and staying in Jerusalem and "immersing himself in a love affair with an outsider who has had no part in it." In his review of the novel for the New Yorker, Anthony West explained: "The alternatives are both impossibilities. The past is still going on back in Germany, and it is inescapable in Israel: the knowledge of what men are and what they can do that was acquired in the years of Hitler's 'final solution' cannot be discarded or ignored, and it is no easier to live with when one is in the country of the ex-butchers than it is in that of the ex-victims."
While serving in the British Army, Amichai was influenced by modern English and American poetry, and, according to Alter, the author's early work bears a resemblance to the poetry of Dylan Thomas and W.H. Auden. "[German poet Rainer] Rilke," wrote Alter, "is another informing presence for him, occasionally in matters of style—he has written vaguely Rilkesque elegies—but perhaps more as a model for using a language of here and now as an instrument to catch the glimmerings of a metaphysical beyond." Although Amichai's native language was German, he read Hebrew fluently by the time he immigrated to Palestine.
Chad Walsh commented in the Washington Post Book World that "a Jewish poet, like a Greek, has the enormous advantage of an immense history and tradition which he can handle with an easy familiarity, and play with as a foil to the homogenized culture that is spreading over the globe like a universal parking lot. This combination of the old and the new speaks very powerfully in Amichai's poetry and makes him, as it were, a contemporary simultaneously of King David the psalmist and [popular television news journalist] Eric Seva-reid." Amichai once raised a similar point about the ease with which he handled different cultures and traditions in an interview published in the American Poetry Review: "I grew up in a very religious household…. So the prayers, the language of prayer itself became a kind of natural language for me…. I don't try—like sometimes poets do—to 'enrich' poetry by getting more cultural material or more ethnic material into it. It comes very naturally." Other critics noted the writer's talent for bridging the gap between the personal and the universal. Grace Shulman, writing in the Nation, observed: "Amichai has a rare ability for transforming the personal, even private, love situation, with all its joys and agonies, into everybody's experience, making his own time and place general."
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai brings together poems published between 1955 and 1985, the poet's early work translated by Stephen Mitchell and his later work by Chana Bloch. In a New York Times Book Review assessment of the collection, Edward Hirsch described the Amichai of the 1950s and 1960s as "more formal and metaphysical … a tender ironist influenced by W.H. Auden … and by such poets as John Donne and George Herbert." In contrast, the Amichai of the 1970s and 1980s, according to Hirsch, is "in some ways a sparer and more informal poet whose colloquial free verse rhythms seem modeled, perhaps, on William Carlos Williams and whose profuse imagery and lightning-flash analogies may be compared to Deep Imagism."
According to Hirsch, one of Amichai's central works is a long autobiographical poem that has been translated into English as both Travels and Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela. Hirsch described the poem as a "miniature Jewish version of Wordsworth's Prelude, charting the growth of a poet's soul from the vantage point of middle age." Travels traces the poet's life by comparing it to that of major figures from Jewish history. Hirsch wrote that the poem "dramatizes [Amichai's] sense of being poised between his father's life and his son's, his struggle to feel worthy and whole,… and his assessment of the way his own life is tied to the fate of Israel." Furthermore, Hirsch stated that Amichai "is a representative man with unusual gifts who in telling his own story also relates the larger story of his people."
Amichai's collection titled Yehuda Amichai, A Life of Poetry 1948–1994, is a comprehensive work covering verse written during the Arab-Israeli war through poetry "beautifully translated" by Benjamin and Barbara Harshov, noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. While Amichai "historically belongs to the 1948 generation in Israeli literature," wrote Gila Ramras-Rauch for World Literature Today, she placed Amichai's work "in effect … with the Statehood Generation of the 1960s … stripping the language of its heavy historical gear and enhancing its accessibility to contemporary readers." Elizabeth Gunderson commented in Booklist that Amichai has the ability to "take on the burden of history, but the load rarely strains his work or makes him appear omnipotently beyond the reaches of human skirmishes." With any lifetime oeuvre, critics seem tempted to define periods in an artist's work. However, Ramras-Rauch found this difficult to do in Amichai's case: "From its inception it was not the poetry of a young man. His daring images, his subtle irony, his subdued tone have been his hallmarks."
Open Closed Open, published in Israel in 1998 and in English translation in 2000, has been described as Amichai's magnum opus. The sequence of twenty-five poems was characterized in Publishers Weekly as "a searching late book from a writer who acknowledges the high stakes of writing and of life as lived daily." To quote New Republic contributor Williams, the book "comprises a sustained outburst of inspiration, and it has a … complicated relation to wisdom and to matters of the spirit." In works rich in simile and metaphor, Amichai employs the rich spiritual tradition of the Jews—and the modern anxieties of the Jewish state—to comment on the wider human emotions of religious doubt, parental love, and commitment to the world. As Kessler observed: "The poignancy of our earthly sojourn, its ephemeral sweetness, the pregnancy of the smallest human gestures, the haunted beauty and richness of the most mundane things and events—none of this is lost on the poet. He dares to tackle cosmic themes in domestic terms." Williams concluded: "To sojourn with Amichai in the vast, rugged, sympathetic domain of his imagination is to be given leave to linger in one of those privileged moments when we are in a confidential and confident engagement with our own spirits, when we know with certainty that such a process of imaginative self-investigation is proper and just, regardless of the substance or the occasion of our thoughts."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Abramson, Glenda, editor, The Experienced Soul: Studies in Amichai, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1997.
Abramson, Glenda, The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1989.
Alter, Robert, After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, Dutton (New York, NY), 1969.
Amichai, Yehuda, Not of This Time, Not of This Place, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1978, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 57, 1990.
Lapon-Kandelshein, Essi, To Commemorate the Seventieth Birthday of Yehuda Amichai: A Bibliography of His Work in Translation, Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature (Ramat Gan, Israel), 1994.
American Poetry Review, November-December, 1987.
Booklist, October 1, 1994, p. 230; March 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Open Closed Open, p. 1313.
Commentary, May, 1974.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1991.
Kenyon Review, winter, 1988.
Library Journal, July, 1969; July, 1977.
Nation, May 29, 1982.
New Republic, March 3, 1982; July 3, 2000, C.K. Williams, "We Cannot Be Fooled, We Can Be Fooled," p. 29.
New Yorker, May 3, 1969.
New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1965; July 3, 1977; November 13, 1983; August 3, 1986, Edward Hirsch, "In Language Torn from Sleep," p. 14.
New York Times Magazine, June 8, 1986, Robert Alter, "Israel's Master Poet," p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, August 29, 1994, p. 66; March 27, 2000, review of Open Closed Open, p. 71.
Tikkun, May-June, 1994, p. 96.
Times Literary Supplement, October 17, 1986.
Village Voice, July 2, 1985; April 14, 1987.
Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, February 15, 1970.
World Literature Today, spring, 1995, pp. 426-427.
East Bay Express Online, http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ (September 24, 2000), Stephen Kessler, "Theology for Atheists."
New Republic, October, 9, 2000, p. 28.
Poetry, December, 2000, p. 232.
Times (London, England), October, 13, 2000, p. 25.