Yehuda Amichai Amichai, Yehuda (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yehuda Amichai 1924–

German-born Israeli poet, novelist, and dramatist.

Amichai writes of love, death, and war, within the context of the Jewish experience. M. L. Rosenthal calls him "Israel's best-known living poet." His deceptively simple diction, a blend of classical and contemporary Hebrew, reveals a haunting sense of dislocation. Although he is known as the author of the novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place, several volumes of his poetry have also recently been translated.

(See also CLC, Vol. 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Warren Bargad

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is Amichai's unique poetic voice that has proved so appealing through the years, a voice consistently in consonance with the spirit of his people and his times. Not merely contemporary in a topical or linguistic sense, Amichai has displayed a charm and a wit which have endeared him to both an Israeli and an international reading audience…. Though they are generically and stylistically varied, Amichai's works … reverberate with relevance and insight, with aesthetic challenge and enjoyment.

One of the most distinctive elements of Amichai's poetry is its disarming simplicity. In reading his poems, one often has the feeling of reading a diary without days, a record of someone's personal impressions or intellectual musings, set down at random. This perception is prompted by several of the poetry's central characteristics: the quasi-autobiographical voice Amichai often uses, the aphoristic nature of many of his lines, his patently casual, candid tone, and his way of creating sequence through seemingly disjuncted images or metaphors.

Two figures predominate in his poetry: the child and the lover. Both give rise to a tone of intimacy and innocence; both supply a resonance of sentiment and sensitivity; both seem temporarily well-protected and secure, insulated by parents' love and by lovers' passion. At the same time, however, they are obviously quite vulnerable to separation and loss. The child grows up, his parents are gone, the world and its wars are impassive to warmth and feeling…. One of man's basic struggles, says Amichai, is to realize that the "world" and "love" are not separate entities, that all are bound to recognize the ultimate ends of things, even of love itself. (p. 50)

However, Amichai's point of view is not really as tragic as it is sardonic, chiding, bemused. The poet's "I told you so" implies that whatever one's hopes and dreams, people are often turned emotionally into disappointed children or betrayed lovers, victimized not by oppressive social forces or flippant personal behavior but by the normal course of time and change….

If there is any philosophical message to be found in Amichai's poetry, it is that one is sure only of being and having been, never of where, how, or why one is going. But resisting both escapist hedonism and somber existentialism, Amichai's philosophy steers a middle path. A lingering despair combines with a sound sense of humor and a healthy appreciation of irony; the result is a kind of celebration of man's futile yet often amusing attempts to survive through intimacy and sensibility. Man is really a child lost in the world; the father he moves through life, the closer, paradoxically, he stays to childhood. As a man, as a mature creature in control of his being, he at best makes only dubious progress.

This central irony—the gradual recognition of essential changelessness along with the certain knowledge of time's unalterable advance—is evoked most poignantly in Amichai's elegies. In the famous "Elegy on the Lost Child," images of lovers, faces, landscapes and everyday household items such as doors, cups and chairs are presented in a slowly swirling, metaphorical spiral. (p. 51)

The real object of the search, "the lost child," is Amichai's symbol for all potential naiveté in pathetic conflict with the apparently fixed world order. At first the child merely appears to be "lost," but in the poem's development he becomes increasingly distant: he's "disappeared," he "cannot be found," and, finally, "he died in the night."… The paradox is highlighted structurally: the only real movement in the poem is the child's advance toward death. That, indeed, seems to be the motivation for the elegy itself. Yet it is not the child's death that is the source of...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)

Ted Hughes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To appreciate what [Yehuda Amichai manages to do in Amen], one has to imagine him as the chief character in a drama—chief in the sense that he is the one on whom we see the drama registering all its pressures. In this case, his speeches have the added authority that the role is real, and the drama is that crucial hinge of modern history—particularly the history of the West—which is the dilemma of modern Israel. (p. 10)

The dramatic role which Amichai has had to perform obviously demands unusual linguistic resources, for any adequate expression. Luckily for us who cannot read the Hebrew, he did not rest content with purely verbal means. What he has in common with Herbert, Holub, and Popa, is a language beyond verbal language, a language of images which operates with the complexity and richness of hieroglyphs. But the images are not drawn, in surrealist fashion, from the world of dreams. They are drawn, in Amichai's poetry, from the inner and outer history of Jewry. It is as if the whole ancient spiritual investment had been suddenly cashed, in a modern coinage, flooding his poetry with an inexhaustible currency of precise and weighty metaphors. Simultaneously, he has converted all the elements of modern Israeli circumstances to the same all-purpose coinage. And this is the language of his love poems. Nearly all his poems are love poems in one guise or another, many of them straightforwardly erotic—a modern Song of Songs,...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Howard Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As always, Amichai speaks (and often sings) in [Amen and Travels of a Latter-day Benjamin of Tudela] with a voice that is deceptively simple, understated, and utterly human. The poems in Amen are primarily short lyrics, lullabies, and laments, whose subjects revolve around the pain of longing and absence, the most haunting of human emotions….

[Travels of a Latter-day Benjamin of Tudela] consists of a series of fifty-six poems that have been simultaneously conceived of as a poetic autobiography and fiction. Benjamin of Tudela was a wandering rabbi of the Middle Ages who searched for lost or unknown Jewish communities. Like his historic namesake, this latter-day Benjamin has been profoundly influenced by his Jewish upbringing and environment, in which "My heart fasts nearly every week—whether I drop a scroll to the ground or not." Filled with opening and closing prayers, good and evil angels, and a God who provides both blessings and curses, this sequence … succeeds in recreating an accurate sense of both the inner and outer landscapes of Jewish life. At the same time the effects of this long poem are both individual and cumulative, as echoes resound between poems and Amichai's characterization of Benjamin begins to glow and comes to life. And, of course, there are a multitude of lines and images which take the breath away….

Howard Schwartz, "On Amichai's Poetry" (copyright © 1979 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Howard Schwartz), in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, May-June, 1979, p. 42.

Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The overall theme of Yehuda Amichai's Time is TIME itself] and what emerges is a sense of what it means to have lived past 50, to have undergone the fortunes and misfortunes of a lover of women, an incorrigible one at that, but also to have lived and fought through 3 wars in the 30 years of his country's brief existence. Moreover, Amichai is a Jerusalemite, which adds to the complexity of his vision…. [For] to live in Jerusalem, with its very complex history, and its immemorial experience, layer upon layer upon layer of speaking stones, adds to a person's sense of the past….

Amichai blends his own pathos, personal history, nostalgia, humor and a specially Jewish mixture of stoic resignation and acceptance, of history, people, personal unhappiness and very deep, almost undefinable happiness to his times, and that larger continuum he calls TIME….

There are many sweetly sad poems about love, mostly former loves, and lost loves, set in varied landscapes in Israel, poems of regret and sorrowing … the sorrows of the middle-aged lover; but the perspectives of Time are largely a taking stock of life and its closing years.

Jascha Kessler, "'Time'," in his radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los-Angeles, CA, September 19, 1979.

Vernon Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Yehuda Amichai] lives in history as a fish does in water…. [In Time the] theme of dislocation, of places wiped out behind him, while remaining nominal, haunts the verses of Amichai, who has been witness to the same kind of dispersal and replacement during all the days of his exile. As he says in one of his poems, "and since then the town / and since then the whole world."…

[Amichai] writes lyrics in Biblical cadences. Reading them, we may remember that Hebrew, largely the language of the Old Testament, is the ultimate source of what we admire as "free verse." By a miracle of continuity and empathy, the several translators of the vintage Bibles infused English with the tropes and cadences...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Anthony Rudolf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Along with Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa and Zbigniew Herbert, Yehuda Amichai is a member of that generation of poets who were late adolescents or young adults during Hitler's war and were deeply affected by it and by its contingent social, political, psychic and ontological consequences. Amichai is a deeply and unashamedly emotional poet, imbued with a strong streak of Jewish melancholy, yet able to be ironic about it and sometimes even to laugh. He always avoids the attendant dangers of bathos and sentimentality. His melancholic temperament naturally informs his relationships and his memories of them. It is reinforced and deepened by a historical sadness shaped in the crucible of the Jewish experience over centuries. That experience includes the Holocaust Amichai avoided by three years.

The voice that speaks in his poems, a voice with a striking resemblance to Amichai's own, is that of an affectionate if world-weary everyman who in the most personal way addresses and is addressed by the experiences of a small beleaguered country. At the same time, the universal 'lyric valuables' (I borrow the phrase from George Oppen) of Amichai's work in the main derive from the way he, time and again, renews and authenticates his elemental and interrelated themes—parents, his own childhood, his son, migration, war, memory, time, death, love—by means of an alchemical genius for generating extended metaphors, images, often drawn from the everyday manifestations of the religious civilisation which is Judaism, as well as from the newly minted idioms and slang of the spoken Hebrew of a secular state.

The Greek poet George Seferis once wrote: 'Wherever I go, Greece keeps on wounding me'. In the same spirit, all Israelis of Amichai's generation of immigrants carry the diaspora experience with them. But Israel too, and in particular Jerusalem—the navel of the universe according to Rabbinic tradition, and the Venice of God, according to an Amichai poem—is a major thematic presence in Amichai's poetry. (pp. 68-9)

Anthony Rudolf, "Mediterranean East: An Interview with Yehuda Amichai," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1980), Vol. 19, No. 11, February, 1980, pp. 68-77.

Gila Ramras-Rauch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Repetition and change are the basic elements of the self-periodization which marks Amichai's poetry. Basic images occur and recur, and time gives this process of self-mapping its added dimension and sense of personal reality. Paradoxically, time is both the connecting and disconnecting factor in the perennial dialogue which Amichai conducts with his existence…. On one hand, the growth of the speaker in the poems [of Time] is intrinsically connected to the landscape, the land itself, Jerusalem. On the other hand, time brings him closer to the personal landscape at the periphery of life's mainstream.

The sense of aging, death, the passing of generations, the prison of the body, the tyranny of memory, the thorns of existence—all these things haunt the poems. Life is experience in medias res. It is also a personal map with undeciphered signs—a source of enigma, doubt, self-mockery. (p. 330)

Amidst collected memories and changing perspectives, in the realization that the life lived is no longer than what will be lived, in the shade of declining masculinity and the mellowness of age, Amichai's poetry does not completely relinquish its quality of metaphor and dialogue. A certain introversion characterized his poetry in the last decade—its declarative utterances mingled with muted tones. Earlier, his poetry was marked by a volatile dialogue with the outer realities and personages: landscape, father, mother, war, the city, the beloved…. [The poetry in his present volume, Time,] is still based on relationships he weaves and reweaves. Yet the tone is more ironic, the irony directed at the self, the perspective more forcused, less open-ended, although his poetry never dwells in the very private or ambiguous realm. His frame of reference is broader, his memory or personal territory never leaves us wandering at a loss. He maps for us the stations in his life and love, recording the inner stream of a poetic observer for whom time has both a fluid and a cumulative feature. The speaker in Amichai's poems over the last three decades is the meeting point, the catalyst, the synthesizer and the historian of the personal portrait. With his words he attempts to reach the extremities of personal existence and the bodies which touched his orbit. (p. 331)

Gila Ramras-Rauch, "Near East: 'Time'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 330-31.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Love Poems" contains lyrics on love begun and lost, understanding and the absence of it, jealousy, separation and love transformed by memory. Situations fraught with emotion are presented with startling simplicity and economy of language. Detachment informed by an awareness of mortality pervades some of these poems; some speak objectively of human frailty in relationships: "People use each other/as a healing for their pain." Amichai offers advice and describes nights of love and longing, interweaving images of the Judean landscape and personal experiences of love.

"Nonfiction: 'Love Poems'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 24, 1981, issue of Publishers...

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Rochelle Ratner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Biblical themes and the Israeli landscape, which have always been strong elements in Amichai's poetry, are present in [Love Poems, a collection of poems he has chosen from his previous books, together with new pieces]…. The constant threat of war gives many poems a special urgency. Such references can also become superficial, though, as in "Once A Great Love." There is another side to Amichai as well: the man who speaks his love directly, without reference to place, history, or heritage. Unfortunately these poems (such as "My God, The Soul" or "A Dog After Love") often deteriorate into sentimentality. On the whole, the reader comes away with the impression that the guiding principle of this selection was...

(The entire section is 162 words.)