English-speaking readers, like readers in about forty other languages, have enjoyed the poetry of Yehuda Amichai for decades. Much of his work translates beautifully, so readers across the world can find pleasure in his words, even as restated in another language. Readers fall in love with his unique combination of playful consideration of serious themes, his melancholy cheerfulness. We have, however, had to do our reading without the help of even one extended study of the poems. Amichai’s friend and translator, Chana Kronfeld, has just published a work, The Full Severity of Compassion: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Stanford) that provides English readers the help we need to fully appreciate the artistry of the late poet. It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified for the task than Chana Kronfeld.
And Kronfeld really does serve as a useful companion as we read. She adds to our understanding. To pick one example of many, Amichai’s poem, “The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Name,” in Steven Mitchell’s translation, ends
the army jet makes peace in the heavens
upon us and upon all lovers in autumn.
A person with some knowledge of textbook and prayerbook Hebrew (a person such as me) has no trouble recognizing the phrase, a distortion of the Kaddish prayer, even if we might not recall its origin in the book of Job (25:2). In the synagogue, worshippers address God who “makes peace on high,” and we ask for God to “make peace upon us and on all Israel.” In Amichai’s formulation, the words deflate any triumphalist religious or military pretentions. Military aircraft have their uses, but they can hardly create transcendent peace. Religious zealots and nationalist enthusiasts can celebrate military power, but in Amichai’s ironic quotation, this looks “dangerously childish.” Kronfeld points out these echoes, but then explicates Amichai’s use Israeli idiom in these lines, idioms that a prayerbook and textbook reader would miss entirely (I did). In the words “oseh shalom = make ‘peace’” a parent would urge a toddler to wave hello or goodbye. Furthermore, Kronfeld tells us, air force pilots “were notorious for showing off before their townspeople or kibbutz by ‘waving hello’ with the wings of the plane when passing above them.” Celebrating military power with a gesture named in baby talk appears both infantile and self-congratulatory. Distorting the language of the Kaddish, which serves as a mourner’s prayer, Amichai’s war plane makes peace by dropping bombs “on all lovers – Jewish and Arab alike – who find themselves in its range.”
Kronfeld’s insights into these words, and hundreds of other similar insights, make The Full Severity of Compassion a valuable companion to the poet’s works.
If she had only done that, it would have been enough, but Kronfeld does more. She defends Amichai against critical attacks from various lesser-known poets and academic assessors. Amichai is not an easy poet, as charged; rather he makes every effort to efface his artistry. Some poets show off their sophistication; Amichai conceals his. Some writers delight in showing the difficulties they have conquered; Amichai delights in seeming effortless.
Sometimes, deep in the weeds of academic quarrels, Kronfeld writes a graduate school sentence like: “Retheorizing political poetry through Amichai’s oeuvre and with Adorno and his recent interpreters, I think this prescription rather limiting: thematicism as the sole criterion for the political in poetry runs the risk of implicitly accepting the very same presuppositions about the lyric as those fostered by bourgeois liberalism” (43). I can imagine Amichai himself puncturing such sentences to his oddly cheerful way.
Kronfeld reveals how infuriated she feels when tone-deaf figures misappropriate Amichai’s poetry for full-throated celebrations of religion or conventional Zionism. Whether because they actually cannot tell what Amichai meant, or whether because they consciously decide to misuse his words, politicians and rabbis recite Amichai’s poetry at public events in support of the very institutions that he mistrusted. Amichai, after all, abandoned religious observance in his practice, transformed traditional religious language in his poetry, and mocked statist chauvinism.
Indeed, some Zionists and religious Jews earn Kronfeld’s scorn as suffering from irony-deficiency anemia. Kronfeld does not consider the possibility that other Zionists and religious Jews might appreciate Amichai’s ironic critiques of their own beliefs precisely as artful critiques. Long ago, some believers had a sense of humor about their own beliefs, and an ability to see the other side, too. Amichai himself appreciated, and sometimes restated, the poetry of Shemuel HaNagid, who, a thousand years ago, wrote apparently sincere religious works and also used religious language in astonishingly secular poetry. I believe such rabbis and Zionists still exist. I have even met some.
For all his distrust of military and political authority, Amichai does not make a good poster-boy for post-Zionist, anti-Zionist universalism. His wrote of his desire, as he went into battle, to die in his own bed, but he went into battle. He deplored war in part because the pain experienced by “them” has as much reality as the pain experienced by “us,” but he went to war. He wrote that he wished his son could join the Italian army, which does not actually have to fight, rather than the Israeli army, which does; but his son joined the Israeli army.
James Wood, in a perceptive appreciation of Amichai‘s work (”Like a Prayer: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai,” New Yorker January 4, 2016), reviews Kronfeld’s book and Robert Alter’s anthology, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Wood notes that “Some will find his politics, though compassionate and deeply rooted, too muted.” Too muted, because “[i]n his weaker writing,” Amichai fatalistically accepts the conflicts in Israel. Amichai writes that “Jewish history and world history / grind me between them.” Wood observes, “as if the soldier-poet, who helped found his nation, lacked all political agency.”
So Amichai did not imagine that he could escape from history.