Angry Waves

C.H. Sisson

  • Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
    Viking, 173 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 670 81454 7
  • Hurricane Lamp by Turner Cassity
    Chicago, 68 pp, £12.75, May 1986, ISBN 0 226 09614 9
  • Selected Poems by Robert Wells
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £2.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 85635 669 7

The writing of verse is a disease to which too little attention has been paid by the public health authorities. The number of more or less unavoidable cases is small, but the contagion is everywhere. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai shows clearly, even through the medium of translation, that its author is among the small number in whom the disease was, if not congenital, at any rate not to be avoided by any reasonable precautions. From his earliest years he undoubtedly had, as he says,

blood that wanted to get out in many wars
and through many openings,

and one can believe him when he says:

        it knocks against my head from the inside
and reaches my heart in angry waves.

Indignation does not itself make verses, though there is Classical authority for saying that it does. Indeed it covers many acres of paper which can only be read with a yawn by the relatively small number of people who are looking for poetry, whatever comfort they may give to those who favour such roundabout methods of promoting a cause, good, bad or, like most causes, merely muddled. Amichai is a complicated character in whose make-up indignation, sometimes violent, is certainly a constituent, but only one of many, which contrast with and qualify one another. He is also a man of what might well be called political commitment, though it is not of a kind which shuts out all but a limited range of impressions. He is resolute only about being what he is.

What he is, historically and biographically, is summed up by Chana Bloch, in her ‘Foreward’, as follows: ‘Born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924, he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home with its strict religious observance and its protective God, as inescapable as family. His father was a shopkeeper, his grandfather a farmer, and his memories of childhood (the political circumstances notwithstanding) idyllic. In 1936 he came to Palestine with his parents, and his adult life has been lived in the midst of the convulsive struggle of Israel to become a state, and then survive and define itself ... He was formed, as he would say, half by the ethics of his father and half by the cruelties of war.’ The relevance of this story to his work is constant, and it is this which has given him an audience far wider than could have come to him through the mere accident of being a poet. ‘In a nation where only three million people read Hebrew, it is remarkable that each of his books sells about fifteen thousand copies. The poems are recited on public occasions, taught in schools, set to music.’ His work has been translated into 20 languages. He is thus, as Bloch says, ‘remarkably well-known outside Israel’, though it must be added that this is less remarkable than it would have been for a poet ‘so rooted in his own place’, had that place been anywhere else but Israel. The evident facility of circulation must owe something to the diaspora and to the grim history which has attracted so much attention over recent years.

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