Shlonsky, Abraham

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SHLONSKY, ABRAHAM (1900–1973), Hebrew poet, editor, and translator. Shlonsky holds a central position in the development of modern Hebrew poetry and modern Israel poetry in particular. His work marks the transition from the rhetorical, didactic, naturalist type of poetry of the European period to the modernist, symbolic, and individualistic poetry of the Palestinian and Israel periods. Modernism entered European and Russian poetry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but reached Hebrew literature somewhat later. Although symbolism and expressionism had some influence on Hebrew literature before Shlonsky's day, the subsequent shift to these types of poetry is primarily due to him. His contribution to the development of modern Hebrew literature goes beyond his achievements in poetry. By his manifold literary activities as editor, translator, polemicist, popular lyricist, editor for the theater, and author of children's literature, he set the literary tone for an entire generation.

Shlonsky was born in Karyokov, Ukraine. He always stressed the fact that he was born at the beginning of the 20th century, which qualified him as a 20th-century poet. The family were *Ḥabad Ḥasidim, deeply attached to Judaism and to *Aḥad Ha-Am's cultural Zionist ideology. His father was interested in folk music and composed the popular melody to Saul Tchernichowsky's poem "Saḥaki, Saḥaki." In her youth, Shlonsky's mother was active in the socialistic revolutionary movement in Russia. At the age of 13, Shlonsky was sent to Ereẓ Israel to study at the Herzlia High School. He returned to Russia shortly before the outbreak of World War i and continued his studies in the Jewish secular high school in Yekaterinoslav. He began writing poetry in his youth, and his poem "Bi-Demei Ye'ush" appeared in *Ha-Shilo'aḥ in 1919.

In 1921, after wandering through Russia and Poland, Shlonsky returned with a group of ḥalutzim to Ereẓ Israel, where he worked on road building and construction, spending some time in kibbutz *En-Harod. Much of the atmosphere of that period is found in Shlonsky's cycles of poems: Gilbo'a, Amal, Be-Ikvei ha-Ẓon, and Yizre'el. Shlonsky dubbed himself "the road-paving poet of Israel." He did not confine himself to poetry out of conviction of the need to contribute to other literary fields and is to be counted among the writers of dialogue of the young Hebrew art theater, the lyrics of the Hebrew satiric theater, the famous limericks of the Purim balls of "Little Tel Aviv," and even the jingles for advertising Israel products. However, his major contribution was in the development of linguistic tools and devices for the writing of modern Hebrew poetry and his poetry itself.

In 1922, Shlonsky's first Ereẓ Israel poem appeared in the weekly periodical Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir, and in the same year he moved to Tel Aviv. Asher *Barash and Jacob Rabinowitz, publishers of the literary miscellany Hedim, drew him into their circle, considering him an outstanding representative of the younger generation of Ereẓ Israel poets, along with Uri Ẓevi *Greenberg and Yiẓḥak *Lamdan. In 1924 Shlonsky went to Paris to study. When the newspaper Davar was founded in 1925, its editor-founder, B. *Katzenelson, invited him to become a regular member of its editorial staff. Shlonsky took over the literary section of the newspaper, but this proved to be too narrow a framework for him and he joined the weekly literary magazine Ketuvim, which he edited jointly with E. *Steinman. This soon became the organ of authors who opposed the Writers' Union and the literary establishment. Despite its high caliber, Ketuvim was not financially solvent enough to support its editor and writers. In 1928 Shlonsky joined the staff of Haaretz, with which he remained until 1943, when he joined the editorial staff of Mishmar (founded in 1943). Upon the demise of Ketuvim, Shlonsky, who was one of the leading authors of the literary group Yaḥdav, founded the weekly Turim (first series 1933; second series 1938). He edited Dappim le-Sifrut, a literary supplement of the Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa'ir weekly, and was the first editor of the literary page of the daily Al ha-Mishmar, and the quarterly Orlogin, which appeared from 1950 to 1957. Linked to the Mapam party, he was one of Israel's leading intellectuals participating in the left-wing world peace movement and heading Israel's delegations to world conferences of the movement. In addition he maintained personal contact with Soviet writers. From the late 1950s he became more outspoken in his criticism of the Soviet attitude to Israel and to Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. He was the initiator of the publication of the Hebrew translation of Boris Gaponov's Georgian epic Oteh Or ha-Namer.

Shlonsky's Poetry

Shlonsky's poetry was molded out of the world in which he lived. Scenes of horror of World War i, riots against Ukrainian Jews, the inherent contradictions of the Russian revolution (messianic yearnings on the one hand and chaos accompanied by outbursts of cruelty on the other) are themes in his poetry. He set out to avenge the "Elef Yegonot" ("Thousand Griefs") which he witnessed "Be-Misholei Eloha" ("In the Paths of the Almighty"). His poem "Devai" ("Sorrow") contains the lepers' song of protest, giving expression to their bitter condemnation of the world order, their rebellion, and their yearning for "spring." The poems in Ba-Galgal (1927) are bitter cries, and in Be-Elleh ha-Yamim (1930) Shlonsky reacts to the terror of the riots in Palestine at the end of the 1920s. With Avnei Bohu (1934), the product of his encounter with the Western European city, his poetry takes on a new meditative, existentialist dimension. The poems evoke the loneliness and anguish of modern man in the industrialized city. Shlonsky feels that it is his task to cry out and awake the world's sleeping conscience. Revolutions do not come about only by the sword; poetry also has great value in "preparing the hearts." He refuses to reconcile himself to the image of a generation full of deceit and illusions that does not revolt against the folly of mankind before its demise. Above all, he is appalled at the apathy of man toward a child's tears, death, suffering, and the impending catastrophe.

The horrors of the approaching Holocaust are expressed in Shirei ha-Mappolet ve-ha-Piyyus (1938). Another visit to some European capitals reproduced with greater force the feeling of alienation, orphanhood, and fear: "From a village fence, my eyes are pierced/by the four fangs of the swastika." Childhood fears, scenes of horror, and pogroms again float into the poet's consciousness, "Still today, even today, when they knock upon a door,/I fear to open, lest the night will enter." "The poems of the squared fear" take up the central motif of man's perverseness and his strange restricted and frightened world. The image "squared fear" developed out of Shlonsky's urbanistic poetry, whose foundations were laid in previous books, especially in Avnei Bohu. Here the European city, which Shlonsky likens to Sodom, is a frightening vertigo which forebodes evil and is haunted by the mad frenzy of passion and the shadow of the gallows. At the edge of night, however, the poet seeks the light of "bereshit ḥadashah" ("a new genesis"). He rediscovers the simple, sensual joys of life and the exultation of nature's wonders, which form the reconciliation motif of the poetry.

Al Millet (1947) is a direct continuation of Shirei ha-Mappolet ve-ha-Piyyus. Shlonsky begins the book with "Bereshit Ḥadashah," the same poem which concluded the previous book. The poems which follow sing of reconciliation with the world, the renewal of the love covenant with simple things, and the return to childhood, to the security of nature, and to the goodness of fertility. Shirei ha-Leḥem ve-ha-Mayim, which take up similar themes, conclude this phase in Shlonsky's writing.

The period of the Holocaust which followed is filled with fear and confusion. Shlonsky kept his silence – "It is a silence of a face against a gate covered by night." The poems in Mi-Maḥashakim ("From Darkness"), published a few years after they were written, express his helplessness and bewilderment during those terrible days. After the Holocaust, Shlonsky regained his art (Ki Tashuv). The poet's skill returned, enabling him to sing of the world's delights. The poet who believed that he was part of a generation which lived without fairy tales now rediscovered what he was unable to see in the days of darkness, but he did not return to love the world by ignoring or denying what had occurred. He affirms the world in spite of the horror, and consequently his love for it will be firmer and more secure. The poems in Paris ha-Aḥeret ("The Other Paris") tell of the new confrontation with the city that had once enchanted the poet.

In Shlonsky's collected works, a number of poems entitled Mi-Sefer ha-Yoreh are placed after the poems of Al Millet. These poems are related to those of Sefer ha-Anakh but the unanticipated occurred: Sefer ha-Anakh does not continue. Once more the foundations and certainties crumbled and confusion and amazement befell the poet. The familiar symbols are the tortured comparisons of the "capriciousness of the sword," storm, distractions, the hidden, the cloudy, and mute evil in Shirei ha-Mappolet.

Avnei Gevil (1960) contains Shlonsky's "mature poetry," although distinct elements already present in his early poetry survive. He does not return to motifs used in his early poetry, but transforms these motifs in keeping with the climate of a different period. This sense of time gives a contemporary quality to the book in that it breathes the atmosphere of the 1950s and its fear of a cosmic holocaust. The "fear of death" poems are permeated with a chilling silence ("Shirei ha-Meruẓah ha-Ra'ah") and the poet believes that there is wisdom in stating facts without an outcry and receiving judgment without a protest. The resignation to fate is not fatalism but a higher wisdom which recognizes the futility of protest. The proselike lines in some of the poetry ("Ne'um Peloni al Shekhunato") are written under the influence of the new literature and are an indirect result of Shlonsky's perception of the times, which unintentionally brings about such forms of expression. Similarly the break in rhythm and the abandonment of rhyme and melodies spring from the poet's literary strength – not from his weakness. The revival of the poet's creative power does not come about only from the changes which take place within the poet, but reflect those which occur in the objective reality. It is not easy for a poet of Shlonsky's caliber to free himself from the memory of his past experiences, yet he cannot sustain his creative ability without constant contact with the present. Therefore, the blend of various elements, always the mark of great poetry, is found in Avnei Gevil. These elements are the synthesis of old and new, of the poetry of personal experience with that of creative wisdom, of excitement and reckoning, and of emotion and significance.

Mi-Shirei ha-Perozedor ha-Arokh ("From Poems of the Long Corridor," 1968), a book of meditative and emotional poetry, contains poems of reflections on life and death. "The long corridor" is the symbol of a hidden world, a world of secrecy and surprises, a "Kafkaesque" world. Man passes along a corridor with doors on each side; behind him the doors are open, in front of him they are closed. The poems, raising more questions than they answer, containing more doubts than certainty, are a statement of yearning rather than accomplishment, of protest rather than reconciliation. It seems that Shlonsky wished to contradict his previous works, not to lean on his past great achievement, but to struggle in an indirect way with the "questions of the day."

Like all innovators in literature, Shlonsky never favored complete disassociation with literary tradition. He advocated the blending of tradition and new values with the cultural heritage of the nation. He refused to cast off all the remnants of the past and begin from the beginning. A true innovator, he drew upon the best existing literature, yet built his original creative world. His innovations stem from his contempt for the worn and worthless clichés which had replaced vivid diction. He rejects forms of expression which no longer describe reality because deep changes have occurred in the life of society.

In the 1930s Shlonsky wrote many articles explaining his demand for a poetic renewal. He sarcastically attacked the low standard of literary achievements which pretended to give expression to the Ereẓ Israel way of life. He claimed that in an eventful era, poetry cannot exist only on "still waters," but that the literature of an uprooted generation should be as stormy and bewildering as the generation itself. It should be as full of contradictions and fears as the period in which it was created. "Man has turned his manner of life on its head… destroying the heritage of his past," wrote Shlonsky, "no father-mother; no tallit and tefillin; none of the old relationships between male and female; hardly anything of the conceptual system of the past exists, yet he insists on seeking his self-expression in the old workshop." The poet who rejects the current "poetry of the present experience" strives to create a poetry which is nurtured on the wellsprings of the experience of the generation.

This attitude was already found in Shlonsky's early poems. "Hitgallut" ("Revelation"), opening his collected poems, is the young poet's "platform" as he begins his odyssey. He knows that he must fulfill the mission of bringing the message of the "new thing" to the world. The young poet, standing on the threshold of the new world, sees the old world's slow destruction. He does not rejoice at this calamity. Torn between two worlds, he understands up to what point reality forces the culmination of the old, yet he cannot blind himself to the sorrow of its decline. Shlonsky writes of the new life using new forms. Hebrew poetry was not accustomed to the rhythm, the inner structure of the poem, and the modern tonality, yet his system of imagery is based on traditional concepts. He compares the roads to the straps of the tefillin; the country, "her skin like parchment, a parchment for the Torah," "is wrapped in light like a tallit," and houses stand like phylacteries. The poem "Yafim Leilot Kena'an" ("Canaan Nights are Beautiful"), he says, will be sung like Sabbath hymns. The symbol of the *Akedah recurs several times.

Shlonsky found a most fitting new tone in the Sephardi pronunciation, in a rhyme which suits daily speech, and in new phonetics and new accentuation. In this field he was a pioneer.

Shlonsky's last volume of poems, Sefer ha-Sulamot, was sent for publication on the day of his death in 1973 and appeared posthumously the same year.

In 1977 The Correspondence of Abraham Shlonsky by Aryeh Aharoni was published. It consists of letters in Hebrew which Shlonsky sent during the last decade of his life to Jews in the U.S.S.R. who sought to establish contact with the cultural life in Israel and renew their ties with Hebrew literature. They were brought back to Israel by immigrants from Russia. The letters reveal the great lengths to which Shlonsky went to accede to their requests and deal mainly with Hebrew literature and poetry. In one of them he refers to the miracle of the revival of Hebrew in the U.S.S.R.

Every book of poetry Shlonsky published was a significant literary event. His works are Devai (1924), Ba-Gilgal (1927), Le-Abba-Imma (1927), Be-Elleh ha-Yamim (1930), Avnei Bohu (1934), Shirei ha-Mappolet ve-ha-Piyyus (1938), Al Millet (1947), Avnei Gevil (1960), and Mi-Shirei ha-Perozedor ha-Arokh (1968). All except the last two works were later published in two large volumes. Other works are the collection Shirei ha-Yamim (1946, mostly translated poems, some original), the three children's books Alilot Miki Mahu (1947), Ani ve-Tali (1957), Uẓ Li Guẓ Li (1966), and many translations from the best in world literature. The latter include translations of Shakespeare's dramas King Lear (1956) and Hamlet (1946), four of Chekhov's most important plays, Pushkin's poems "Eugene Onegin," and "Boris Gudonov" (1956), Gogol's Revizor (1935) and The Marriage (1945), Charles Da Coster's "Till Ollenspiegel" (1949), Romain Rolland's "Colas Breugnon" (1950), Michael Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don, Isaac Babel's stories, and many more. He also translated much of world poetry, mainly from modern Russian lyric poetry. The correspondence between Shlonsky and Zila Shamir was published in 1997 as Mikhtavim le-Meshoreret Ẓe'irah.

For Shlonsky's works in English translation, see: Goell, bibliography, index, and the ithl website at


A.B. Yoffe, Ha-Meshorer u-Zemanno (1966); I. Levin, Bein Gedi ve-Sa'ar (1960); J. Fichmann, in: Moznayim, 15 (1952); D. Kena'ani, Beinam le-Vein Zemannam (1955); I. Cohen, Sha'ar ha-Soferim (1962), 323–31: S. Lachower, Avraham Shlonsky; bibl. [1922–1950] (1951).add. bibliography: A. Weiss (ed.), Avraham Shlonsky: Mivḥar Ma'amrei Bikkoret al Yeẓirato (1975); idem, Ha-She'ifah el ha-Merkaz be-Shirat Shlonsky (1980); Y. Goral, Shirat Shlonsky (1981); I. Levin (ed.), Sefer Shlonsky (1981); A. Hagorni-Grin, Shlonsky ba-Avutot Bialik (1985); H. Halperin, Me-Agvaniyah ad Sinfonyah: Ha-Shirah ha-Kalah shel Avraham Shlonsky (1997); R. Shoham, Poetry and Prophecy: The Image of the Poet as a "Prophet," a Hero and an Artist in Modern Hebrew Poetry (2003).

[Abraham B. Yoffe]