Yehuda Amichai (ah-mee-KI), deemed by countless critics and scholars to be Israel’s master poet of the twentieth century, was born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1936, where they sought refuge from the persecution of the Nazis. Amichai was educated in provincial Hebrew schools and became a teacher in them after graduation. In World War II, Amichai served as a soldier with the British in Europe, an experience that provided inspiration for many of his writings. Shortly after the war, Amichai was once again called to military service, joining the fight for Israeli independence. Initially, he enlisted as a member of the Palmach (commando troops) of the Haganah, an underground Jewish militia. Later he saw active duty as an Israeli soldier, both on the Negev front and in the battle for Sinai, both major campaigns in the Arab-Israeli war of 1947-1948. Shortly thereafter, Amichai became an Israeli citizen.
Having grown up in a strict Orthodox Jewish household, Amichai obtained a solid background in Hebrew language, theology, and culture that strongly informs his writing. After completing military service, he embarked on a career as a writer, determined to contribute his distinctive voice to the fledgling Israeli literary movement. Even though his English was impeccable, he opted to write exclusively in Hebrew, a gesture of reverence to both Jewish faith and culture. Because of his strong early ties—both intellectually and politically—to Great Britain, Amichai’s early work shows the pronounced influence of the British metaphysical school. Many of his early poems pay homage to the elaborate metaphorical conceits and precise, ornate diction of seventeenth century English masters George Herbert and John Donne. However, his penchant for linguistic concision and emphasis on imagery in his poems clearly reflect the influence of English and American modernists such as W. H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.
Despite his English-language influences, Amichai was first and foremost a Hebrew writer. By 1962 he had already published two volumes of poetry in Hebrew, Akshav u-ve-yamim aherim (1955; now and in other days) and Ba-ginah ha-tsiburit (1958; in the park), as well as a collection of short stories and a play. By the mid-1960’s he was already enjoying the reputation among his contemporaries in Israel, to quote The New York Times Magazine critic Robert Alter, as “the country’s leading poet.” The English translation of his 1963 novel Lo me-’akshav, lo mi-kan appeared in 1968 as Not of This Time, Not of This Place and increased public knowledge of the Israeli writer in the United Kingdom and the United States. The novel chronicles the experiences of a former Israeli soldier who, after World War II, struggles with the question of whether to return to his native Germany or to remain in Jerusalem to build a new life. Because of the novel’s poignant subject matter and provocative autobiographical elements, it was well received by critics in both the United States and the United Kingdom. By the end of the decade, Amichai’s position as a key figure in contemporary Jewish literature was firmly established.
In addition to the English-language publication of Not of This Time, Not of This Place, 1968 also saw the appearance of Amichai’s first major English-language poetry collection, Selected Poems, translated by Assia Gutman. Gutman, Harold Schimmel, and British poet Ted Hughes contributed translations of Amichai’s work to his next English-language collection, Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai (1971). Other English translations of Amichai’s poetry include Songs of Jerusalem and Myself (1973), Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela (1976), and Amen (1977), the latter volume translated by Hughes. The...
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two most definitive compilations—both published by Harper—areThe Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (1986) and Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 (1994).
Amichai’s works also enjoy a prestigious international reputation. His poems have been translated into almost forty languages, including French, German, Swedish, Spanish, and Catalan. Critic Stephen Kessler has praised Amichai as “one of the planet’s preeminent poets. . . . Jewish down to the bones, his humanity . . . broadly universal,” while poet and essayist C. K. Williams noted in The New Republic in 2000 that Amichai’s writings embody “the shrewdest and most solid of poetic intelligences.” Preeminent American critic Edward Hirsch has likened Amichai’s poetry to the works of seminal English Romanticist William Wordsworth, while also noting its stunning similarities to the works of key modernist William Carlos Williams. Hirsch has called Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tudela a “miniature Jewish version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude” and described Amichai as “a representative man with unusual gifts who in telling his own story also relates the larger story of his people.”
Patuah sagur patuah (1998; Open Closed Open: Poems, 2000) is generally regarded as Amichai’s magnum opus. Publishers Weekly praised the book as one of the major poetic works of the decade, and in his obituary for Amichai, C. K. Williams eloquently reflected that:To sojourn with Amichai in the vast, rugged, sympathetic domain of his imagination is to be given leave to linger in one of those privileged moments when we are in a confidential and confident engagement with our own spirits, when we know with certainty that such a process of imaginative self-investigation is proper and just.