Not Like a Cypress Summary
by Yehuda Amichai

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(Poetry for Students)

"Not like a Cypress" was first published in 1958 in Two Hopes Away, a collection of poems by Yehuda Amichai; it also appears in the 1996 collection The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. The poem at first appears to be a work through which the speaker examines various facets of himself, describing himself first as what he is not and then providing a contrasting image that comes closer to what he is. The self that Amichai describes initially appears to be a personal description, but because he digs deeply into the truths about himself, the speaker touches the universal elements that make up all people.

Close reading of the poem reveals the element of death in it. Whether this poem was written as a reflection on the poet's own mortality or about his experiences with war and killing or the loss of his beloved father is not clear. The word "exit" is present in both the first and the last stanzas, so it is difficult to dismiss the theme of death or loss. That Amichai has hidden this theme, embedding it creatively so that readers must search for it, adds to the power of the poem.


(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1-5

In the first line, "Not like a cypress," the use of the negative keeps readers in suspense. They know more is to come. Because the speaker is stating that he is not like something, readers know, or at least imagine, that the speaker must be preparing to tell them what he is like.

In the second line, the speaker qualifies the first line with "not all at once, not all of me." In other words, he catches his readers by surprise. In this line, the speaker limits the image of the first line. He is somewhat but not completely like a cypress. Again, Amichai arouses the curiosity of his readers. What parts of the cypress are like the speaker? What parts of the speaker are like the cypress?

In the third line, the speaker does not attempt to answer specific questions about the cypress but moves to another image that offers clues to what the speaker is like. He is "like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits." This image is offered in contrast to the cypress tree. Readers are led to compare the two images. A tree is stiff; grass is willowy and soft, more reflective of the changes in the atmosphere in which it exists.

The second part of the line is puzzling. The introduction of the word "thousands" offers a sense of comfort, as in protection by sheer mass, as in a field in which there are thousands of blades of grass. The speaker transforms that feeling with the word "cautious," which implies danger that may be real or merely perceived. In addition, the caution is applied to the phrase "green exits," which symbolizes a sense of leaving or getting away.

Lines 4 and 5 carry a similar feeling of caution but a more playful one: "to be hiding like many children / while one of them seeks." With these lines, the speaker introduces the childhood game of hide-and-seek, carrying with it a sense of caution but without a sense of danger. The caution is gentle because it is encapsulated in the desire to win a childhood game.

Lines 6-13

The pattern of the poem is set in the first stanza, in which the speaker establishes what he is not like and then provides the reader with an image that better defines him. This pattern is repeated in the second stanza: "And not like the single man, / like Saul, whom the multitude found / and made king." The story of Saul appears in the Bible. Saul was the first king of Israel, a mighty warrior, handsome and popular, who ruled from 1020 to 1000 B.C.E. According to some stories, however, Saul was also weak and was eventually defeated. The speaker in the poem insinuates that he does not want to be like Saul.

The poem continues by replacing the image of Saul with that of something more natural, more neutral, and more nourishing.

   But like the rain, in many places
from many clouds, to be absorbed, to be drunk
by many mouths, to be breathed in
like the air all year long
and scattered like blossoming in springtime.

Saul, in contrast, was a soldier who fought and...

(The entire section is 1,178 words.)