Selections from the Yehuda Amichai Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Amichai’s comments on his poetry

In this speech, he says that he does not have specific topics that he writes about.  Writing for him is a way to orient his life with all the good and the bad, the happy and sad. Every poem is a private testimony in the events of historic time. In every poem there is at least one metaphor, one image, one saying that is taken from the concrete that he heard and saw or touched or smelled. In every poem there is a concrete seed that is not worked over, not digested, that is the source of the poetic energy.

“It is like seeing ancient objects in a museum. A jar or a jug serve as true records of ancient times because they were in their day part of actual daily life. Viewers today don’t need to know who the owners were in order to enjoy viewing them. It is the same with poetry. Whoever reads poetry does not need to know who the people in the poems actually were in order to feel the authenticity of the personal portions of the writer.”

"If there is a common theme in my poems beside their authentic connection to my life, my times and my place, it is the desire to make my poems healing and comforting without lying and without pretending to be either happy on the one hand or suffering on the other. I want to conclude by emphasizing that all the poems were written entirely for my own personal use. I began writing out of love for many poets before I started writing myself. But after two wars and loves I felt that only I could respond to my most pressing needs and only I could write for myself. Writing allows me to feel my life as one space that has no early and no late. Writing allows me to reach emotionally, distant points in my childhood without the feeling that I broke barriers of time and space.”

“The nation of which I am one of its sons and the land where I live, keeps the poetry from becoming nationalistic/chauvinistic. Poetry is necessary for life just like prayers were in their time. Everything happens at the same time in this land. A person can stand on the balcony of his home and point to the opposite hill and say “here next to this hill I planted the first kiss in my youth and a little to the left I was hit by the first shellings in one of the wars.”

Amichai on the role of poetry

When I learned about the topic “Literature as Celebration” I had mixed feelings. I thought this to be a kind of forced optimism in an utterly pessimistic world, an optimism to be achieved only by dialectic acrobatics like whipping up a light foam out of dark sadness.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. After an endless procession of conferences and symposiae dealing with the moral role of a writer in our time and the humanistic duties of writers to be involved and engaged, suddenly we were allowed to celebrate the world like a great discovery and to celebrate our creative egos without guilt feelings. Of course, such demands of the writer are atypically guilt loaded middle class ideals. Because in fact every writer comes involved out of necessity in his life or in the life around him, be it good or bad, so I am very thankful to the Dublin Arts Council for having the unusual theme for its conference.

I come from a part of our world where history is in its making. Its effect is so dominant and so dynamic that even a very private love poem is or becomes engaged in the world. Many writers feel like prophets of the Bible. Most of them are self-appointed prophets. God does not appoint them anymore. The greatest prophets were never fortune tellers or forecasters of the exact future. They were highly sensitive intellectuals or moral fanatics who would judge the future based on the deeds and misdeeds of their fellow-men and their rulers. Prophets of wrath were those who envisioned a bad ending when times seemed too good. Prophets of consolations were those who had visions of redemption when things got bad or disastrous.

The one thing which writers of modern times still have in common with the ancient prophets is that they always write against the grain of present-day occurrence, against the mood of people and their establishment. At best they are able to turn despair into hope and make pain and suffering more bearable. I would like to give a few examples from the Bible that show this as a continuing practice.

When Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise and the most famous divine curse was delivered on the soil—to grow thistles and thorns out of the sweat of man’s brow—the curse after many, many years was turned into a two-sided celebration: eternal sweet longing for the Garden of Eden and a habit of celebrating and romanticizing the curse itself. Even wiping off “the sweat of the brow” has become a ceremonious gesture; there is beauty seen in the peasant leaning on his hoe or plowshare—joy in the work, songs of workers and slaves sweating and toiling. And above all, there is a celebration of nature. The fall season celebrates decay and death with colorful trees. Many songs are written and sung about a meadow in summer, green and covered with sheep and lovers, although beneath it there is the endless holocaust of little creatures killing and being killed by the thousands and millions.

Then we have Job, this great sufferer of mankind describing his pain and anguish with the most beautiful poetry. God’s brutal answer intimidating Job is full of descriptions of the great marvels of creation the whale, the behemoth-ox, and the lessons of birds and other beautiful creatures.

And what about Bala’am, the prophet who was actually commissioned by his Moabite king to curse the tribe of Israel encamped in the desert (in those days people still believed that curses were as effective as blessings, the very essence of involvement and engagement!). So Bala’am looked over the tents to find the right angle for his curses almost like an artillery commander, but wherever he stood he started to celebrate the tribes, their God, and their encampment—“How beautiful are thy tents oh Jacob.” In the Bible, of course, this is described as a great divine miracle, but today we could explain this on the grounds of poetic creativity, where even a dangerous enemy is described in a celebratory manner.

The book of Lamentations is the last example. In this book the poet-prophet laments the destruction of the Holy Temple and the royal city of Jerusalem. Soon he finds himself singing the beauty of the now destroyed city.

That’s the point where I would like to return to the theme of our conference. We celebrate what we have lost and what we are going to lose. Most love poems and eulogies are like that. Loss turns into song. We even use the exactitude of describing pain to describe our own happiness. You only have to listen in a doctor’s office. How well uneducated people describe their pain and suffering! On the other hand they will be very banal in describing their happiness and good feeling.

A few months ago I stayed for some months in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. A few days after Christmas there appeared small notices posted on trees and in supermarkets all over the Village telling about a young man who disappeared after a party. The notice had a few dates and a recent photograph. After a week a new edition of announcements was posted beside the older one, with further details—two or three photographs and more personal data. By the time I left New York, a few months later, there were six or seven additional notices, each more detailed than the last. We learn of the languages he spoke, his birthmarks, his special ways of expressing himself, places where he liked to walk and bars where he loved to hang out. All these announcements became like a sequence of poems growing increasingly emotional, almost a celebration of one lost young man’s life.

Isn’t that the very motor of writing poetry? Isn’t that celebration in the most profound meaning of the word? Take for example a classical lullaby in which a mother puts her child to sleep by singing to it.

Sleep, my child, sleep
Father has gone to work hard
The wind is howling
The door is broken
But sleep my child sleep
Father is gone to war
The enemy is coming
The street is on fire
But sleep my child sleep

This sounds ridiculous, almost sarcastic. But this mother is not soothing her child with false promises of butterflies and angels and good fairies. Instead she sings the hard facts of reality in such a sweet and rhythmic manner that they themselves become soothing. When you accidentally hit your head on the door and after the first moment of silent screaming and swearing you start saying, “my head, my head, my head” many times until the very repetition, the naming on the injured part becomes a sing-song, sob-sing and the beginning of the healing process.

I am aware of the fact that this kind of healing-celebrating-theory can be taken ad absurdum, as in a funny story I once heard: An old lady was traveling by train on a hot summer day. She was constantly sighing and moaning “Am I thirsty, am I thirsty!” A man who was sitting in her compartment couldn’t stand her moaning anymore, so he went to the dining car to fetch a cold drink. She was extremely thankful and he went back to his paper. But after a few moments she started to moan again, saying “Was I thirsty, was I thirsty.”

There is no end to singing our losses, even our longings become a loss to be eulogized and praised. We celebrate ourselves, sad literature becomes a kind of poster on which we show in vivid colors what life is like, like an advertisement for new people to come and see and share our lives, public relations for God and his creation. To do so is by no means false or hypocritical.

There is nothing like poetry for expressing this celebration. Poetry still is the deep-main-stream of literature. Poets are deeply involved and therefore able to sing. Poets are the foot soldiers of literature; they are out there in real battle.

Finally, poets generally start so low that for them to become “high” means to have reached the level of ordinary “normal” people. Their dull everyday lives, their having families and raising children and their working hard while constantly being attacked by big troubles and small worries—all this become a poet’s material for praise, for lament and for celebration.