Israeli poet, critic, editor and translator Natan Zach (born 1930) is credited with beginning a stylistic revolution within the world of Israeli poetry. He maintains an active role in educating and shaping the poets of the world in his position among the faculty in the Humanities Department at the University of Haifa in Israel.
Zach was born of a German father and an Italian mother on December 13, 1930, in Berlin, Germany and immigrated to Palestine in 1935 when he was five years old. The family soon settled in Haifa, and little is recorded in English regarding his formative years. His first poem was published in 1950, and he was enrolled in various educational institutions from 1952 until he received his BA from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1967. From 1968 until 1979 Zach lived in England and did his doctorate work at the University of Essex in England. He was granted his Ph.D. from that institution in 1970. He then returned to Israel to lecture at Tel Aviv University and was later appointed as a professor at the University of Haifa.
Zach was appointed Artistic Co–Director of the Ohel Theatre in Israel in 1960, and stayed with them until 1965. During the same period he served as Lector of the Dvir Publishing House in Tel Aviv for five years from 1959 until 1964. He was an advisor for the Chambre Theater in Tel Aviv in 1967, and served as the London news editor for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from 1967 through 1979. He has acted as Co–Editor of the Igre Literary Year Book in Jerusalem since 1984, and has worked in Haifa, Israel as a professor of comparative literature since 1993.
Zach is not only a poet, but is also a celebrated translator from English and German into Hebrew. He has translated (among others) the poetry of Else Schüler and Alan Ginsberg. In addition to poetry he wrote a prose piece titled Death of my Mother, and his work has been published on its own and in periodicals around the world including Atlantic Monthly (U.S.), Stand (UK), Caracters (France), Hortulus (Switzerland), and all major Israeli periodicals.
Zach has been an ardent civil–rights activist. In 1988 he and fellow literary critic Nissim Calderon were scheduled to head the advisory committee for the International Poetry Festival celebrating Israel's 40th Anniversary, but felt that the festival would not be able to separate itself from the government's military actions at the time on the West Bank, and they feared that supporting one would be supporting the other. In their letter of resignation posted on The New York Review of Books website, Zach and Calderon wrote, "A Government … [whose acts] may only be described as State Terror… no longer merits that poets come to a festivity hosted by it to read there from their poems." Their resignation and inflammatory letter launched a great deal of controversy. The remaining contributors either resigned or expressed their intention to boycott the festival, and as a result it was officially cancelled.
Zach has been known since the mid–1950s as the leader of the Hebrew Modernistic Revolution. Contemporary Authors stated that he is known "for having introduced a sparse, colloquial style of poetry, which broke away from the formal, musical form that was prevalent in Hebrew poetry in the 1930s and 1940s." Yair Mazor, in his 1998 analysis of contemporary Hebrew poetry published in World Literature Today, discussed Zach's hand in the birth of what he describes as a "tempestuously esthetic revolution in the territory of modern Hebrew/contemporary Israeli poetry." Mazor discussed the Likerat (Toward)—a group of young poets and critics spearheaded by Zach that admired and aspired to the poetic principles of artists such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and e.e. cummings. Zach's most significant contribution to this movement would be the publication of his 1959 article Reflections Upon Nathan Alterman's Poetry, a treatise in which he criticized Alterman's poetics in favor of "a 'poetics of modesty': simplicity in theme, syntax, and diction; understated rhetoric, avoidance of symbolistic intricacy, and flexible rhyme patterns; metrical and rhythmic structures that follow and reflect the flow of conversational language, refraining from lofty, elevated, cerebral, and flashy poetic devices and structures while employing irony in a subtle, distilled fashion; in short, an appealingly simple poetics without undue simplification."
Despite having written prolifically since the 1950s, only two of Zach's titles have been released in English: Against Parting (1967) and The Static Element (1983), which includes selections from Early Poems (1955), Various Poems (1960), All the Milk and Honey (1964) and North Easterly (1979). Critic Alan Mintz, in a New Republic review of The Static Element—Zach's personal responses to World War II which were written between 1955 and 1979—described Zach's belief that "[p]oetry had to be brought back close to the bone of modern consciousness." The style Zach favored was conversational and spare, an aggressive departure from the traditional style of Hebrew poetry.
While Zach is a major Israeli poet, he has never been as well known outside of his native land as his contemporary Yehuda Amichai, who has been extremely popular with the international reading public. Zach is considered by most critics to be a superior craftsman to Amichai, but his reputation has been irreversibly affected by the fact that his work is more difficult to translate from Hebrew into English. The reason for this lies literally in the translations. While Zach's work remains largely un–translated, Amichai made sure that his poems were well–translated and widely available to the international community. He also spent a great deal of time participating in reading tours of the United States and Europe. Mintz explains, "Because Zach's [poetic messages] depend on fine manipulations of tone and idiom, his verse does not go over into English easily." Mintz believes that the popularity of Zach's works will grow in the future as more translations are completed because his poetry is international and modern, rather than exclusively Israeli in both content and style.
Zach's use of colloquial Hebrew set him apart from both his predecessors and his contemporaries, as did his use of secular literary allusions. Despite his general lack of exposure, the Jewish Virtual Library records that individual poems from Zach's published works have been widely translated and consumed, making the journey from Hebrew into languages including Arabic, Dutch, English, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish, Vietnamese, and many others.
Honored Among Many
Zach was awarded the Bialik Prize (Israel's most prestigious literary award) for 1981, and received the Israel Prize (Israel's highest award for excellence in all areas of human effort) in 1995. He also won the Feronia Prize for poetry—an Italian award for international poets issued in Rome.
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The New Republic, Volume 189, October 1983.
World Literature Today, Volume 72, Number 3, Summer 1998.
"Authors of the 11th Prague Writers' Festival," 11th Prague Writers' Festival 2001,http://www.pwf.pragonet.cz/2001/authorsen/14 (January 2, 2004).
"Because Man is the Tree of the Field," Jewish Heritage Online Magazine,http://www.jhom.com/topics/trees/zach (January 2, 2004).
"Natan Zach," Israel—Poetry International Website,http://www.israel.poetryinternational.org/cwolk/view/20207 (January 2, 2004).
"Natan Zach," Jewish Virtual Library,http://www.us—israel.org/jsource/biography/zach (January 2, 2004).
"Prof. Nathan Zach," University of Haifa—Faculty of Humanities,http://www.theatre.haifa.ac.il/staff/zach (January 2, 2004).