Saturday, November 27, 2004

Yehuda Amichai, Poet of the Day, 11/28

In the middle of these geopolitical musings, it’s good to be reminded that there is more to history than big theories, bigger pictures, and sweeping arcs that seem to have little to do with the day to day. So I turn to one of my favorite poets, Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000). Amichai knew all too well the consequences of history and politics. Born in Germany, his family immigrated to then Palestine in 1935. He fought with the British in WWII, fought in the Israeli War of Independence, and served in the Army in 1953 and 1973. Though his experiences in the grand schemes are never far from his work, his best poetry is often the most intimate. This is evident in a beautiful small poem with a grandiose title:

HISTORY

A man all alone in an empty room

practices on a drum. That, too, is history.

His wife irons a flag for the holiday
and his son cries out in his dream.

A man discovers his name in a phone book
and is terrified.

A great man subdues his desire,
and his desire dies.

A wise man sees the future,
but the future sees him and yearns

to go back to the womb.

A man who is content with his lot weeps
into a sophisticated network of pipes, nicely concealed.

A foreign language passes by in the street
like three angels from long, long ago.



--Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (University of California Press, p. 156), trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell

Yet, even here the individual, the man practicing his drum, can not escape the sophisticated, yet concealed, network--the historical, the political, the biblical, which quietly appear in the last two lines. Amichai is acknowledging that history can be a private, often lonely, matter, but we can never quite escape its powerful sweep as it pushes humanity towad some unknown end.

Just this past Sunday, the New York Times published a few “inspired scraps” that were found in Amichai's archives, which were bequeathed to Yale. Here is one particularly nice piece:

I would like to accept human creations,
even intricate ones
like a great love or a complex machine,
as natural things, like a rock, like a flower.

His “human creations” are easy to accept because his poetry, like all great poetry, is as natural as life itself.

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