Alterman, Nathan

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ALTERMAN, NATHAN (1910–1970), Israeli poet. Alterman, who was born in Warsaw, settled in Tel Aviv in 1925. He published his first poem in 1931. Alterman achieved distinction as a poet on two levels: as the author of popular satirical verse which reflected the political aspirations of the yishuv in its struggle against the policies of the British authorities in the 1940s, and as a sophisticated modern poet who was recognized as one of the leaders of the country's literary avant-garde.

His role as a poetic spokesman for the national struggle began in 1934 when he became a regular contributor of political verse to the daily Haaretz. In 1943 he switched to the Labor daily Davar where, in his weekly feature Ha-Tur ha-Shevi'i ("The Seventh Column"), he attacked the British authorities, and described the struggle of the Haganah and the Palmaḥ to break the embargo on Jewish immigration and gain national independence. Many of these verses became part of Israel's patriotic repertoire; poems banned by the British censors were passed from hand to hand by an eager public. Alterman also wrote lyrics that were set to music and were popular features of the program of Matateh and other satirical theaters.

After 1948 internal social and political themes became the dominant feature in Alterman's public verse. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, he advocated the views of the Movement for an Undivided Ereẓ Israel, expressing them in prose rather than poetry. Alterman's literary reputation rests upon his more aesthetic works. Originally associated with the A. Shlonsky group of modernist poets, and influenced by both French and Russian symbolists, he soon became the leading "imagist" poet of his generation. Characterized by brilliant wit and imagery, his idiom followed the rhythms of spoken Hebrew.

Alterman constructed a mythical world of his own, subject to its own rules, and made up of two components. One is the poet's lost Eden, a primeval land in which wild beasts and primordial forces of nature rage in a violent blaze of color and sound, from which he was expelled for some unknown original sin and into which he is forever striving to regain entry. In contrast to this elemental landscape stands his mythical city, mechanized, hostile, and decadent, and at the same time morbidly alluring with its aura of catastrophe and death. A central motif of Alterman's poetry is the inevitable clash between these two components which can only be resolved in a final moment of awareness at the very brink of death and oblivion.

Alterman's love poetry is also expressed within the context of this romantic agony. The women he depicts are either idealized ethereal products of a primordial Eden, or jaded daughters of the city, or a combination of both. Again, fulfillment or reconciliation can only occur at the brink of death.

Alterman's first poems show signs of a dichotomy in his conception of poetry. On the one hand, there is the realization that poetry is incapable of penetrating the essence of things, often expressed by the declaration that it is perhaps better to cease writing; on the other hand, some of Alterman's verse suggests that poetry is so powerful it can prevail over the paradisaic world's elemental forces and accurately depict them. Hence poetry must be built upon fixed rules and regulations. Alterman, therefore, considers symmetrical repetition the supreme value of order and beauty. Each of his poems has a fixed number of stanzas and sentences, a rhyme scheme, and a constant number of feet.

Simḥat Aniyyim ("Joy of the Poor," 1941) signaled a radical change in Alterman's poetry both in language and conception. The most marked innovations in this collection are the figures of speech, symbols, and allusions taken from traditional Jewish literature, folklore, and liturgy. The primordial forest and the timeless city are now superseded by images drawn from the Jewish folk tradition of Eastern Europe. Alterman makes no attempt to conceal the affinity between his poetry and the collective national experience, with its clear historical indications of impending disaster. The central poetic idea is that the barriers ordinarily separating the living from the dead through love and trust can be broken. These two attributes offer the hope of rebirth out of doom and destruction only if one courageously confronts death.

In the Shirei Makkot Miẓrayim ("Plagues of Egypt," 1944), Alterman continues to develop his historiosophic views, applying them not only to the Jewish people but also to humanity. The poet intentionally removes the biblical Ten Plagues from their historical and national context, and turns them into a prototype of the eternal and cyclical history of mankind with its wars and renewal. The main innovation in Ir ha-Yonah ("Wailing City," 1957) is the application of the abstract concept of history to one particular and fateful chapter in the history of the Jewish people – the years of the Holocaust, illegal immigration to Israel, and the struggle for national independence. Alterman's diction here is often prosaic and even relies on slang. At the same time he also uses the ballad form more typical of his earlier poetry and characterized by dramatic monologues and theatrical flourishes.

Alterman's plays include Kinneret, Kinneret (1962); Pundak ha-Ruḥot ("The Inn of the Ghosts," 1963), a poetic drama concerning the artist between the opposing worlds of life and death, home and inn, and art and life; Mishpat Pythagoras ("Pythagoras' Law," 1965), about a computer with human sensibilities; and Ester ha-Malkah ("Queen Esther," 1966). Alterman also wrote Ḥagigat Kayiẓ (1965), a collection of poems, and a book of critical essays entitled Ha-Massekhah ha-Aḥaronah (1968). Alterman's translations of Molière's plays appeared in three volumes in 1967. He also translated some of Shakespeare's plays. His collected works appeared in four volumes called Kol Shirei Alterman (1961–62). For English translations of his poems, see B. Hrushovsky, in S. Burnshaw, et al. (eds.), The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself… (1966), 109–19; Ariel, no. 14 (1966), 43–55; Poetry, 92 (1958), 236 ff. A detailed list of translations into English appears in Goell, Bibliography, 2–5.

[Matti Megged]

All 15 published volumes of Alterman's works have now been republished and have achieved great popularity. In the field of literary criticism Mivḥar Ma'amarim shel Yeẓirato shelAlterman ("A Selection of Works by Alterman") edited by A. Baumgarten (1971) has appeared, as well as Ha-Ḥut ha-Meshulash, a collection of articles edited by M. Dorman (1971, 1975), and Maḥberot Alterman (1977–81), which includes hitherto unpublished material, a bibliography of his work, and studies on him. Recent years have seen new editions of his poetry, such as the collection Shirim mi-she-Kevar (1999), a new edition of four plays (Maḥazot, 2002), in addition to various reprints of his translations of classical plays. A bilingual Hebrew-English collection, "Selected Poems," was published in 1978, followed in 1981 by "Little Tel Aviv." Individual poems have been published in 20 languages.

[Anat Feinberg (2nd ed.)]


A. Ukhmani, Le-Ever ha-Adam (1953), 169–75; Y. Zmora, Sifrut al Parashat Dorot, 2 (1950), 225–64; S.Y. Penueli, Sifrut ki-Feshutah (1963), 249–58; D. Kenaani, Beinam le-Vein Zemannam (1955), 220–54; D. Miron, Arba Panim ba-Sifrut Bat Yameinu (1962), 13–108; D. Sadan, Bein Din ve-Ḥeshbon (1963), 124–30; B. Kurzweil, Bein Ḥazon le-Vein ha-Absurdi (1966), 181–257; M. Shamir, Be-Kulmus Mahir (1960), 99–117; Zach in: Akhshav, 3:4 (1959), 109–22; Ẓuri, in: Massa, 2, no. 11 (1952); 3, no. 17 (1953); 4, nos. 1, 2 (1954); Waxman, Literature, 5 (1960), 22–24. add. bibliography: Z. Mendelson, Natan Alterman (1973); Y. Nave, Biblical Motifs Representing the "Lyrical Self" in the Works of Scholem Aleichem, Natan Alterman, Lea Goldberg, Ariela Deem, and Shulamit Har-Even (1987); M. Shamir, Natan Alterman: ha-Meshorer ke-Manhig (1988); M. Dorman, Alterman vi-Yeẓirato (1989); Z. Shamir, Od Ḥozer ha-Niggun: Shirat Alterman bi-Rei ha-Modernizm (1989); A. Schiller, Caminante en su tiempo: la poesia de Natan Alterman (Spanish, 1991); M. Dorman, Natan Alterman: Pirkei Biyografyah (1991); R. Kartun-Blum, Ha-Leẓ ve-haẒel (1994); M.E. Varela Morena, Literatura hebrea contemporanea, 9 (Spanish, 1994); H. Shaham, Hedim shel Niggun (1997); Y. Ben Tolila and A. Komem (eds.), Konkordanẓyah shel Natan Alterman (1998); Z. Shamir, Al Et ve-al Atar: Poetikah u-Politikah be-Shirat Alterman (1999); H. Barzel, Avraham Shlonski, Natan Alterman, Lea Goldberg (2001); D. Miron, Parpar min ha-Tola'at (2001); D. Ider, Alterman-Baudelaire, Paris-Tel Aviv, Urbaniyut u-Mitos (2004).