A Poet's Poet

In his newly released anthology of essays on Hebrew poems and poets, Natan Zach reaffirms his standing as a literary legend in his own time.

Eli Eliahu
Eli Eliahu
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Eli Eliahu
Eli Eliahu

The phone rang one day in Natan Zach's home. On the line was a young girl who asked if she could speak to someone who had a connection to Zach. "You can," said Zach, "but it's not necessary." "Why not?" she wondered. "Because you're speaking to Natan Zach himself," replied the poet. The girl couldn't contain her amazement: "What, you're still alive?"

When Zach, 80, tells this story, he laughs. Probably because he, too, understands that the girl's amazement not only reveals her ignorance but also the fact that, in his own lifetime, Zach has gone beyond being a flesh and blood person to becoming a cultural symbol, one of the most famous, important and influential names in modern Hebrew poetry.

Natan Zach. Credit: Yuval Tebol

Zach's great influence on Hebrew poetry not only stems from the verses he himself has written, which three years ago were collected into three thick volumes, but also from his position as a critic. Zach has done for Hebrew poetry what T.S. Eliot did for English poetry: He has been a major innovator, a trailblazer, a poet whose work is based on theory and whose theory goes hand-in-hand with great poetry, an intellectual who had the wisdom not to write intellectual poetry, and a poet who knew how to stir emotions without being sentimental.

The critical articles Zach has written throughout the years, and published in various newspapers and periodicals, have now been collected in a 473-page book, "Hashira Sheme'ever Lamilim" (The Poetry Beyond the Words; published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad ). It contains essays on the poetry of Haim Gouri, Yehuda Amichai, Dahlia Ravikovitch and many others, and includes "Thoughts on Alterman's Poetry" - the notorious piece he wrote in 1959 assailing the style of Natan Alterman, which reigned unchallenged then in Hebrew poetry.

Zach's writings about other poets are very passionate. When he praises, he does so out of a great sense of brotherhood, and when he criticizes, he does so very wisely. He is not afraid to take on highly acclaimed poets like Gouri or Leah Goldberg, to praise fledgling poets, or to shine the spotlight on outstanding poets whom he feels did not receive proper attention in their day, among them David Fogel and Haim Lensky.

He praises the poetry of David Avidan, for example, but doesn't refrain from pointing out its weaknesses: "His marvelous powers of expression and wording were essentially his greatest accomplishments, but his Achilles' heel as well," he writes. "The ability to say (almost ) anything about (almost ) anything, in razor-sharp language, drawn from sometimes seemingly infinite resources of linguistic ingenuity, inventiveness and plays on words, did not always leave the sensitive, vulnerable and tortured man room in which to stutter."

About Amichai, who gave him the manuscript of his first book, "Now and in Other Days," so that he could assist in its publication, he writes: "The harmonic values of this poetry, and first and foremost love, values imprinted with a seal of mature emotion and natural goodness, are its main experience, which the poet reveals in each and every poem."

Collecting the essays afforded Zach an opportunity to reread what he had written and to change his mind about previous diagnoses he now feels were mistaken. In 1960 he wrote of Ravikovitch, after she had published her first book, "The Love of an Orange": "In her best poems, Dahlia Ravikovitch is a wise and original poet who knows how to imprint a clear personal seal on her writing even when she writes in a style borrowed from ancient sources. In the weakest of them, on the other hand, you confront a very pretentious backdrop, which in various ways tries to cover up for the fact that she has nothing to say." But in a footnote in the new book, Zach writes: "Here the writer failed with a foolish diagnosis regarding a book that is one of the most wonderful by a poet of its generation."

Today, Zach prefers not to discuss the essay about Alterman. "I've said everything I had to say," he says. "It's an article that deals with rhythm in poetry, and in any case, there are very few people who have a profound understanding of it." After he wrote that essay, he assumed the role of Alterman's "nemesis," and the essay was interpreted as a kind of "patricide."

In both his latest book and in his 2009 autobiography, "From Year to Year It," Zach expresses his deep admiration for Alterman, going so far as to say that he doesn't remember a single one of his own poems by heart, but can recite a poem by Alterman from memory.

Whatever the case may be, the essay has already assumed mythological proportions in Hebrew poetry circles. The generations succeeding Zach's have learned from it that this is how one great poet takes over from another and how one poetic language replaces another. But Zach published his essay five years after the publication of David Avidan's book "Lipless Faucets" and four years after the publication of Yehuda Amichai's "Now and in Other Days." In other words, a change in the pattern of writing Hebrew poetry was the order of the day and the order of the language, rather than part of a planned revolution.

"And my advice to you, my friends, don't write poetry unless you're deeply committed to it. If you desire the minuscule amount of fame that this country is capable of offering - material compensation is not even worth mentioning - write romances and stories from the bedroom."

The new collection is dedicated to both Ravikovitch, who died in 2005, and to Avot Yeshurun.

"These are the two people to whom I was most closely connected," explains Zach, "both as human beings and as poets." Ravikovitch, he says, is the greatest female poet to ever write in Hebrew. Below the dedication appears a sentence in Yiddish, "Ahava shtarker fun eisen," love is stronger than iron.

"In Yiddish it sounds better," he says. "In Hebrew I think of iron, and Operation Cast Lead immediately comes to mind, and lead leads me to dust, and wars really do lead to ashes and dust." [In Hebrew the words for "lead" - oferet - and "dust" - afar - come from the same root.]

"I'm not a political person," he notes. "For many years I didn't write a political poem. In the [1982] Lebanon War, I couldn't restrain myself and then the poem 'Ki Ha'adam Etz Hasadeh' [Because Man is a Tree of the Field] emerged, and became a national song of mourning [when it was put to music]. Each time I would walk down the street and hear it from people's windows, I would run home in order to check who had died."

But Zach doesn't treat even the poetry he wrote during the first Lebanon War as political poetry.

"I prefer to call it protest poetry," he says. "Political poetry has an agenda, a party bias. I never belonged to a political party, except in 1949, when I was an officer in the War of Independence and they forced me to register for Mapai [the forerunner of Labor]. I still have the Mapai registration card. But since then, I haven't had any registration cards - not from political parties."

"Arguments and debate, even when they are right, are not poetry," Natan Zach writes in one of the book's essays. "A political poem must contain an experience of personal pain," he now explains, "internal opposition to a situation of bereavement and wars. A political poem is successful when the poet is mourning something that existed and was lost."

And what about a poet like Uri Zvi Grinberg, who wrote political poetry suffused with personal pain, from the other side of the barricade, the right side?

"Grinberg was a great poet," says Zach. "But all his attacks against the left in his poems, with the curse: 'Let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you,' that's not good poetry.

"I met Grinberg quite a few times," he continues, "I used to walk him home. All along the way he would talk endlessly and not let me get a word in edgewise. When we arrived at his house he told me that he wanted to walk me back to my house. I became indignant - to walk the entire way with him again and to listen to that talk? What if he wants me to walk him back to his house again after that?"

Zach recalls his meetings with other poets too. "Most members of my generation are already pushing up daisies," he says. "I have too many memories, I could live with fewer. It's not good to live a long time, when all your friends are dead. That's why I like the 11 years I was in England. I have few memories from there. It was a sequence of calm and quiet days, in an apartment overlooking a lot of trees."

"The future Israeli artist may often have to keep his ears plugged, may have to be more secluded, stronger, more isolated, in order to be more of a person. 'The person beneath the sky' of the future may have to be stranger, too, in order to write what in past conditions could have been written by a person more similar in his habits and lifestyle and pastimes to those around him. In a word: He'll have to be more singular." (From the essay "Literature Without a World," 1963.)

Already back in the early 1960s, Zach felt that Israel's cultural environment was changing beyond recognition and that not only would the number of poetry readers gradually diminish, but also that writing good poetry would become far more challenging with the years and would demand greater sacrifices. "Only strong people who can isolate themselves and not expect any reward or any quick fame, only they will be able to write poetry," he explains now. "A poet has always been a rare creature, now even more so. This entire instant culture in which we're living today doesn't aspire to quality. That's how it is. Instant coffee isn't like coffee that you drink in a Bedouin encampment, which they go to a lot of trouble to prepare.

"Who would read S. Yizhar's book 'Days of Ziklag' [from 1958] today? A demanding book, both in terms of language and linguistic inventions and in terms of length, and yet it was the most important contribution to the War of Independence literature. I met S. Yizhar at the time at Hakibbutz Hameuchad publishers, and he told me that Alexander Sand, the editor, had shortened the book by a third."

Poet Meir Wieseltier recently said that he doesn't like poetry set to music because it forces a different melody on the natural melody that the poem contains to begin with. In the work of Zach, who says he comes to poetry first of all from the world of music, there is always a great deal of internal musicality, the natural musicality that in effect enables him to give up meter and orderly rhyme in favor of a freer rhythm. Does he also feel uncomfortable about having his poetry set to music?

"If you accept Wieseltier's view," he says, "then you have to abolish Berlioz, who composed music for the songs of Theophile Gautier, and Schubert, who composed music for Goethe, and Beethoven, who composed music for Schiller in his Ninth Symphony, or Kurt Weill, who composed music for Brecht. The alliance between music and poetry has existed since the days of ancient Greece. It's not an Israeli invention."

In addition to the many of Zach's poems that have been set to music, they are also translated into many languages. "Now the best translation of my poems has been published," he announced, bringing out a thin pamphlet of poems. A brief perusal reveals that the poems are written in Chinese.

How do you know that this is the best translation of your poems? Do you know Chinese?

Zach laughs, and says: "No. For that very reason I can't identify the mistakes, so it's the best translation. When they translated me into Spanish, for example, and I understand a little Spanish because I know Italian, I saw that in the poem 'Evening Song,' in which I say 'When she told me my girl,' the translator wrote 'my partner.' What do you mean 'my partner'? I was a young man when I wrote that poem. After the Sinai Campaign I was married for two years, but afterward I didn't make that mistake."

"When loneliness is not fear poetry is born," he wrote once.

"On the other side of my bed, where there should be a woman, there are books," he says. "I sleep with books. I'm also thinking about making a request to have my grave widened so that I can put all my books in there."

Even today he visits the Jaffa flea market every week and searches out bargains. He pulls out a yellowing booklet that he bought there recently and his eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. "Three shekels in the flea market," he says. "Unbelievable." It's a booklet called "Hakvutza," a collection of essays about kibbutz life, and Zach is excited because one of the essays is by A.D. Gordon.

"I once bought a book by [Nobel Prize laureate S.Y.] Agnon at a sale at Haifa University," he says. "It turns out that when he traveled to Prague he stayed with Felix Weltsch, Kafka's good friend, and gave him this volume, in which he inscribed a poem. A poem by Agnon, you understand; maybe the only poem that Agnon ever wrote; and not only that. All his life Agnon denied any influence by Kafka and claimed that he wasn't acquainted with that group, and here it turns out that he knew them well. And Haifa University sold it, and when I ask the head librarian, he says, 'So what? We have a new edition of that book, we don't need it.' I'm living among barbarians. One day my books will also be forgotten, but maybe there will be some crazy Zach who'll walk around the flea market and buy them."

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