Yehuda Amichai World Literature Analysis
Early in his literary career, Amichai decided to write exclusively in Hebrew. Although he could have just as easily chosen to write in English or German, Amichai’s decision to compose in his native tongue may be described as no less than deliberate. The fact that much of his poetry deals with overtly political subject matter is reinforced by the awareness that its language of origin is Hebrew. Steeped as he was in the Western tradition, Amichai doubtlessly knew that to reach an audience outside of Israel his works would eventually have to be translated. However, it is clear that he opted nonetheless to write in Hebrew in order to make a statement. Amichai chose Hebrew not only because it was his first language but more important because an awareness of the choice adds legitimacy and urgency to the cause and plight of his people—the most prevalent theme in his work. Readers in other languages are forced to consider that they are approaching Amichai’s delicate syntaxes and nuanced metaphorical conceits in translation, not in their intended language. To adequately explore the depths of Amichai’s writings, readers must either learn Hebrew or at least place their wholehearted trust in a good translator—both of which draw increased attention to the language and to the cultural legacy with which it is inextricably entwined.
Amichai’s works are characterized not only by a brazen and unapologetic sense of nationalism but also by an amazing gift for metaphor. Rich, allusive, and complex as they often are, Amichai’s metaphors seek to immerse his reader in a universe of lush, profound, sometimes even elusive conceits. Imaginatively speaking, Amichai often asks much of his readers—but he gives them a great deal in return. One cannot step away from his poems in particular without thinking that their idea of what can be imagined, compared, or even contemplated has not been stretched to its limits by a reading experience that is both enriching and informative.
Stylistically, Amichai’s poems are perhaps best described as economical if not minimalistic. Decidedly sparse and devoid of all but the most essential exposition, Amichai’s poems rely instead on the originality and depth of his figurative language for their energy and focus. Just as likely to draw attention to the nature of readers’ responsibilities to their community, nation, or world as they are to the state of their souls, Amichai’s metaphors often seem to do the impossible—they simultaneously navigate the topographies both of state and of spirit.
Although noted for his terse, often enigmatic, lyric poems, Amichai showed his versatility by working in a broad variety of literary forms. Works like “Yerushalyim 5728” (“Jerusalem 1967”) and Travels of a Latter-Day Benjamin of Tuleda reveal the more expansive and epic dimensions of his poetry, while his novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place displays Amichai’s talent as a boldly polemical and stylistically innovative prose fiction writer. He also wrote a number of perceptive critical pieces for various magazines and journals, and his play Masa’ le-Ninveh (pb. 1962, pr. 1964) was first produced in Israel in 1964. He translated a number of works from German into Hebrew, showing his prowess not only as a writer but as a gifted linguist as well.
“My Father’s Death”
First published: “Mot Avi,” 1955 (collected in Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994, 1994)
Type of work: Poem
Through the playful language of a child’s nursery rhyme, a grieving son recounts his father’s passing and describes his own attempts to deal with the aftermath of this profound loss.
Initially included in his first volume of poetry, Akshav u-ve-yamim aherim, the deftly concise but remarkably incisive poem “My Father’s Death” deals with one of Amichai’s most pervasive themes—the labyrinthine implications of death on the experience of life. The brilliant translation of the poem included by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav in their definitive retrospective, Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry: 1948-1994, preserves the whimsical, childlike diction of the Hebrew version but also reveals a poem that is remarkably seasoned and deeply introspective.
Rhyme schemes are rare in Amichai’s poetry, which, generally speaking, is pointedly modernistic in its avoidance of traditional poetic devices. However, “My Father’s Death,” although ominous in theme, employs a series of rhymes, such as “places/ spaces,” “bow/ now,” “soon/ moon,” and “endeavor/ forever,” that are more evocative of Mother Goose than of William Carlos Williams. Nonetheless, the effect is both stunning and appropriate; Amichai masterfully uses a child’s language to disarm his readers of their adult defenses. He then proceeds to reinform those readers’ reckoning of one of life’s most tragic but inevitable experiences—the death of a father—in deft and startlingly perceptive terms. Of himself and his grownup siblings, all struggling to make sense of their father’s passing, the speaker remarks “We went to call [our father’s] God, to bow:/ May God come and help us now.”
Although the language of the poem is remarkably childlike, its insights are the exclusive domain of the adult. Seeking to understand the profundity of the idea that an all-wise and all-knowing God has called his father away to Heaven, the speaker is utterly at a loss to express himself in adult terms. Instead he opts for a language that has never failed him, that of the heartbroken child. Of the God who has mysteriously taken his father, the speaker reflects “And God takes pains, is coming soon,” and in both a profound and conciliatory attempt to comprehend God’s omnipotence can say only that after returning to paradise God “hung His coat on the hook of the moon.” By the final couplet of the poem, the speaker remains admittedly inept in his...
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