The Poem

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“Wildpeace” is a free-verse denunciation of war in elegiac mode. It is one of several poems pleading for peace by a poet who fought in two major wars and survived a bloody century. His fate was to always be in the location of some of the most violent conflicts. Though “Wildpeace” is one of Yehuda Amichai’s shorter poems, it is direct and pungent.

The poem is divided into two stanzas; the first has eighteen lines, and the second, no more than a coda, which reiterates and punctuates the larger statement, has only four. Without any tricks of rhyme or confining meter, impact is achieved by graceful rhythms. Some are the simple cadences of everyday life, while others echo stately pronouncements from antiquity. Likewise, words and images of both secular diplomats and holy prophets intermingle.

The poet’s cynicism is clear but never harsh. He distrusts the usual mechanics of peace: cease-fires that are often broken before the ink on peace documents is dried; the grand visions of ancient prophets whose knowledge cannot possibly encompass the modern apparatus of warfare; the platitudes of duplicitous statesmen. Eloquent words from Scripture about beating swords into plowshares are often quoted, even while a perverse society sends a message to the young, still in their playpens, that it is manly and commendable to murder for one’s country.

While Amichai has little use for the platitudes and clichés of the official peacemakers, and no faith in their lasting success, he still expresses the wistful hope that eventually the world will be exhausted with carnage and nauseated by the endless parade of orphans all wars leave behind, orphans who provide an unbroken line of desolation from antiquity into the modern age. At that time, finally, on fields formerly saturated with blood, peace may descend like the unpremeditated wildflowers of the field, which no one plants or tends. While the poet’s experiences in battle may have exhausted him, they have not yet led him to abandon hope. The life force that runs through nature may succeed where the words of prophets, messiahs, poets, diplomats, and statesmen have failed.

Forms and Devices

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Amichai, a strong poetic voice in the latter half of the twentieth century, came to Israel from Germany as a youth. His first language was German, though his poetry was written in modern Hebrew. The American poet Robert Frost observed that poetry itself is what is lost in translation, and the philosopher George Santayana believed no poet could be great who did not write in the language of his mother’s lullabies. It is extraordinary that, despite these seeming obstacles, Amichai’s poetry has been enthusiastically translated into over thirty languages, and Israelis themselves have regarded him as a national treasure.

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, Amichai learned biblical Hebrew at an early age. He also read medieval mystical poetry, along with Jewish writings from the Diaspora in modern European languages. Later he discovered the major British and American poets, who expressed themselves in contemporary idioms. With this cultural backdrop, he came to his own writing with capable equipment.

Because modern Hebrew is a resurrected language developed from an ancient tongue previously preserved only in religious and scholarly usage, its words have connotative strata reaching back thousands of years. Contemporary referents are constantly playing themselves off against ancient associations. Biblical refrains, Talmudic allusions, and lamentations from the Diaspora still lurk behind modern Hebrew words. Much ironic tension in modern Hebrew poetry results from the historical and sacred associations of a Hebrew word confronting its now secular usage. For example, in Amichai’s poetry a lamb is never...

(This entire section contains 795 words.)

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simply a farm animal providing wool for clothing or food for nourishment. It is the metaphor of biblical poets for all gentle creatures brutally slaughtered.

Even while regarded as one of the most accessible of the major poets of his time, Amichai occasionally resorts to an old rabbinical trick of employing ambiguity to provoke deeper thought in his readers. His reference in “Wildpeace” to “the heavy rubber stamp” lends itself to several interpretations. Yet he has never required an elaborate set of footnotes to be understood.

There are several reasons Amichai’s poetry has survived the perils of English translation. The poet himself sometimes assisted in the task, and he was fortunate in his translators, among them the British poet Ted Hughes and the American academician Chana Bloch. The major translators have found corresponding rhythms appropriate to Amichai’s tones and humors. His poems abound in metaphors and images from almost everyone’s daily experience. He may ironically or sardonically employ a newspaper headline, a slogan from a billboard, a truism, or even a fragment from an old but familiar religious liturgy. Like other Israeli poets of his generation, he was influenced by the lively inventiveness of late twentieth century American poetry.

Even so, the prosaic words and images, even when used with whimsy, are not the primary appeal of this poetry. Its power derives in considerable degree from its juxtaposition of the traditional with the modern. Though he departed early on from the orthodox religious practice of his parents, Amichai always unmistakably remained both a Jewish and an Israeli poet. Like the Irish novelist James Joyce, whom he admired, Amichai never rejected the language and symbols of the faith of his childhood, though he could no longer accept the dogmas. Even when they are most identified with his own time and place, his verses constantly interact with the Bible, the Talmud, and the synagogue liturgy.

In “Wildpeace” a crucial line declares that it is not “a cease-fire/ not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb” that will bring the peace the poet desires. “Cease-fire” is a favorite jargon word of contemporary bureaucratic diplomats and peace negotiators, while the image of a peaceable kingdom, where carnivorous beasts will lie down harmoniously with their prey, comes from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. Yet Amichai made a subtle shift in the image; instead of the lion, the regal beast of the prophet’s vision, the poet has substituted the wolf, a chief emblem of the Nazis, evildoers who, even in a messianic kingdom, would make unacceptable bedfellows.

Children’s toys seem comfortable objects, and child’s play is practice for adulthood, though blessedly still free of responsibility and cloaked in fantasy. Yet the poet’s picture of a boy with toy gun merges disconcertingly into the figure of a girl’s doll, which the vendors have promised is so lifelike it will open and close its eyes and say “Mama.” “I know that I know how to kill, that makes me an adult,” writes the poet. Yet even from childhood the boy is being conditioned to look ahead to the day when he will prove his courage and manhood by killing the human beings that little girls, with their own playthings, are preparing to love and nourish.