Jews’ Harps

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse by T. Carmi
    Penguin, 608 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 14 042197 1

It is not often that a reviewer can say that the book under review has altered his entire conception of the past. Yet that is what I have to say about this book.

It is, to begin with, the product of an extraordinary combination of love and scholarship. Not only is it the first anthology of Hebrew verse in any language to run from Biblical times to the present: it is a bilingual anthology, with the Hebrew and the English printed to face each other, and, though the English translations are not in verse, Carmi’s prose combines accuracy and grace to such a degree that readers without Hebrew will be able to enjoy the book almost as much as readers who have it, while those, like myself, who are in the process of learning the language or have only vague memories of it from the dim childhood past will find many hours of pleasure awaiting them as they patiently decipher the original with the help of the translations.

But the book is much more than a selection of the best Hebrew poetry of the last three thousand years. Carmi has prefaced the anthology with a fifty-page introduction which is both eminently readable and crammed with information. But even this is not all. The introduction forms only part of the apparatus. In addition, there is a concise essay on Medieval Hebrew genres, which directs us to poems and poem cycles within the anthology, an essay on the systems of Hebrew versification by Benjamin Hrushovsky, which is a model of its kind, a very useful bibliography, and, most interesting of all, a table of contents which is presented in the form of running comments on individual poets and poems. The book does not therefore fall into the usual two distinct parts, an introduction where the facts are presented and the editor explains the reasons for his choices, and an anthology of poems. The way the volume is conceived forces us to move backwards and forwards continually, as a note to poem A suggests a link with poem B, and a reference in poem B is drawn to our attention and compared to one in poem C, which guides us back to the essay on genres, which in turn sends us out to other poems in the anthology ... There may be other collections of poetry conceived in this way, but I have not come across them; certainly this is a model it would repay any anthologist to study.

The embedding of the poetry in its historical and literary context is particularly valuable here, for the double reason that we know, to our shame, so little about the bulk of Hebrew poetry, and that this poetry is more closely tied to a particular book, the Bible, and to the fortunes of the communities which produced the poetry, than is the case with any other major literature. The history of Jewish poetry is a unique phenomenon, but its very uniqueness has much to tell us about the very different conditions that have obtained in the literary histories of Japan, Greece, Germany or England.

There are, in fact, four overlapping influences shaping this poetry: that of the Jewish community to which the poet belongs; that of the larger, non-Jewish community in which this is embedded (Moslem Spain, say, or Czarist Russia); that of other Jewish communities at work elsewhere at the same time; and the continuing Biblical presence, of paramount importance to a people without a land. One is therefore likely to find conservative poetry written in Babylonia after a model which has not changed for centuries appearing at the same time as startlingly new imitations of Arabic secular poetry in Spain and as bitter lamentations, modelled on Biblical genres, written in Germany at the time of the terrible pogroms which seemed always to flourish in the wake of the Crusades. Thus, though the anthology is rightly chronological, we have the queer sense not so much of steady movement down the centuries as of eddying waters, spreading further and further afield, but whose source is always present in any sample.

Carmi dedicates the book to Dan Pagis, another Israeli poet and scholar (the two have appeared together in a Penguin Modern Poets volume), and one of the shortest poems in the book is Pagis’s ‘Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car’:

Here in this carload, I, Eve, with my
son, Abel. If you see my older boy, Cain,
the son of Adam, tell him that I

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[*] Voices Within the Ark, Avon Books (New York, 1980).