First-person Plural

Haim Gouri calls his new work 'a return to the voice of the collective,' after his emphasis on very personal poetry in recent years.

When Haim Gouri has difficulty recalling some detail or citation - which happens very rarely - his wife Aliza hastens to his aid. They have been together for 61 years; they met in the middle of the War of Independence, at the bedside of an officer whose leg had been amputated in battle. Aliza was a welfare officer and Gouri was the deputy commander of a company in the Palmach, the pre-state elite commando force.

But Gouri usually has no difficulty remembering. Perhaps, it is the opposite: He has difficulty forgetting. And now, as he approaches his 86th year, there are many, many memories. Sixty years have passed since his first book of poetry, "Pirhei Esh" ("Flowers of Fire"; Sifriyat Hapoalim), was published, and now he is bringing out a new one called "Ebal" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad), named after the Mount of Curses mentioned in the Bible.

Why Ebal? Why the Mount of Curses?

Gouri: "This book is a kind of summary of an entire life. A book of soul-searching. And the curse is the curse of a cruel, tragic life, a life of blood and the sword. Wars, hatred, failures. A life of contradictions."

A man born into a pacifist family, who eventually participated in four wars: Could anyone who was born at that time, and was educated as Gouri has been educated, behave differently? At the end of one of the poems in the new book, he writes: "And the face-scratching alternative followed in our footsteps, / continued to disturb us, that everything could have been different on this hill, / had we only listened to its voice."

He says that history is full of conditional sentences. Regret is, therefore, a central motif in the work. As a motto preceding one of the poems, Gouri chose something said by his mother, Gila: "The difference between one person and the next is in the number of moments of regret he experiences."

"'Ebal' is a book that has undergone innumerable changes," says Gouri. "I myself was taken aback by the manuscript. I showed it to my friend Menachem Brinker [an Israel Prize laureate in Hebrew and world literary research] and he said to me: 'Gouri, don't change a single letter. Poetry always comes from pain and absence.'"

There are poets who wrote their best poems in their youth and others who improved over the years. Gouri, on the other hand, wrote wonderful poems in his youth, and continues to write equally wonderful ones in his twilight years. In the new book there is, on the one hand, evidence of life experience and mature sobriety, and on the other, the passion and enthusiasm of a young poet, all contained in this vibrant, effervescent and contemporary collection. Perhaps because Gouri never tried to lead poetic revolutions, but always knew how to renew himself. He has always been attentive to the poetic changes of each era.

"Poetry changes all the time," Gouri explains. The changes "are in form, in style, in the school of poetry, but also due to the friction with history."

And thus, along with his marvelous ability to cite by heart entire passages from the poetry of his predecessors, Gouri is also careful to keep up, when he can, with the voices of the new generation, often requesting booklets of new poetry to be sent to him. He says that he finds quite a lot of good things among them: "It's like identifying a good fabric, it's enough to feel it a little and you already know." But he also comes across work that arouses great disgust in him.

What disgusts you?

"What scares me is the loss of associative sequence, the shallow language, without the layers that enrich it. The loss of the language of mirrors. People who write without being familiar with what was written before them. As though they're the first in the world. After all, nobody was born from the sea. This is egoistic writing, it's not poetry. It's something that you can write for the guys, but it can't leave an impression, or speak to future generations. Poetry, even poetry with humor, is a serious thing and must be treated as such."

'Lyrical space'

It is generally said that poets like Gouri and the members of his generation wrote collective, national poetry, until Natan Zach came along and began to speak in a personal voice, the voice of the individual. Gouri does not agree with that description of poetic processes, at least not entirely. In his opinion, this is false.

"Poets of my generation wrote clearly personal poetry all their lives," he says. "Amir Gilboa, O. Hillel, Ozer Rabin and others. There was both this [collective] and that [personal], the great Hebrew poets of all generations did that."

So Zach didn't change anything?

"There's no question that Zach is a very important poet in Hebrew poetry. His poetry and his articles brought about changes in form and taste. I just read 'Kol Katavav' ("All His Writings") and [critic] Ariel Hirschfield is correct in the things he wrote. When you read the entire opus, you understand the continuity and the power of this poetry. But some of the post-Zach phenomena have narrowed the lyrical space. Zach is not responsible for that. But it happened and it's not a good thing. Poetry must have all options open to it."

And today, do you write personal poetry or poetry of the collective?

"After writing very personal poetry in recent years, in this book I also return to the voice of the collective, or as I call it, 'first person plural.' I don't speak in anyone's name. I have no power of attorney. As I say in one of the poems 'I cannot be a mouthpiece for these silent ones,' but I feel the need to try."

Indeed, Gouri has been wondering about this need all his life. "It's something that I haven't been able to understand: what turns a person into a poet," he explains. "Amos Oz once said that all writing originates in some wound. That's true, but there are many wounded and few poets. I've never solved this riddle of writing."

He is not nostalgic about the past, but is definitely pained by the total loss of the sense of togetherness, the sense of a common fate, of brotherhood in this country.

"What is the meaning of all these reality shows?" he asks. ""Survivor," "Big Brother," those fat people who are trying to become thin [in the Israel version of "The Biggest Loser"] - in these shows, there is one winner who takes all. The one who overtakes the others. And how does he do it? With all kinds of lies, deceit and despicable acts toward his friends. It's total privatization. I feel that we have gone from difficult times to bad times."

He says he does not evade political issues, but recalls that a journalist whose name he does not want to mention came to speak to him without having read the book in whose honor the interview was being conducted, and the first question he addressed to Gouri was related to the Sebastia affair [involving clashes over a settlement in the West Bank in 1975]. Gouri says that he did not hesitate for a moment and immediately got up and left.

And still, the question of purity of arms is now being discussed. Is there such a thing as a "moral army," in your opinion?

"Unfortunately, and to our great shame, in all of Israel's wars those things happened, harming civilians and captives, looting and other despicable acts. This issue has always existed. Even in the War of Independence deeds were done that [poet Natan] Alterman called 'war crimes.' But there was the diametrical opposite as well. At the time I heard about one pilot in the first Lebanon War. He was flying above one of the battle zones, and the 'greens' - the ground forces - absorbed heavy fire and shouted for help over the communications network. But the pilot asked them for specific identification points and refused to fire into a settled area randomly. In the investigation, he castigated himself and said: 'Who appointed me the king who decides who dies and who lives, the greens call for help and I don't help?'

"And this is the question: How many are you 'allowed' to kill in order to save your men? An army has to maintain criteria of human morality insofar as possible. Morality is something that is above any particular war."

It is clear that Gouri has a lot more to say, but he has an appointment with Israel Radio. After the radio interview he will be taking part in a gathering in honor of the new book at Bialik House. A very exhausting day. At least Gouri has no parking problems. He is allowed to park free of charge in all the Ahuzot Hahof parking lots in Tel Aviv. After all, he is an honorary citizen of the city. Who said it doesn't pay to be a poet?

Haim Gouri was born in October 1923 in Tel Aviv. He studied at the Kadouri agricultural school, and upon finishing his studies he joined the Palmach. In 1947 he was sent to Hungary to organize the Holocaust survivors to come to Palestine. During the War of Independence he was a deputy company commander in the Palmach's Negev Brigade. In 1949 he published his first book of poetry, "Flowers of Fire." Since then he has published 14 more books of poetry, as well as books of prose, articles, popular songs, translations and a literary autobiography. For years he was identified above all with songs like "Bab el-Wad," "Shir Hare'ut" (Song of Friendship) and "Hinei Mutalot Gufateinu" (Here Lie our Bodies) which became milestones in the shaping of the ethos of comradeship and heroism in the Israel Defense Forces. He studied Hebrew literature, philosophy and French culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.All his life he was involved in journalism, first at the newspaper Lamerhav and later at Davar. The Holocaust greatly influenced his work. As a journalist he covered the Eichmann trial and afterward published the book "Mul ta hazkhuhit" (View of the Glass Booth). Afterward he created a documentary trilogy about the Holocaust that included the films "The 81st Blow," "The Last Sea" and "Flames in the Ashes." The first film was an Oscar nominee. Recently the Jerusalem Cinematheque obtained rights to the films from Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot. The films were digitalized, and Gouri has reedited them.In 1988 he was awarded the Israel Prize for Poetry. Today he lives in Jerusalem with his wife, Aliza. They have three daughters, one grandson and five granddaughters. This year, in honor of Gouri's 85th birthday, Even Hoshen publishers will bring out "Ve'at sihat hayom betokh dami" (And you the topic of the day in my blood), a bibliophile's edition of 85 love poems written by Gouri through the years, with drawings by Avigdor Aricha. Only 85 copies will be printed.