No Eulogy Can Do Justice to Poet Natan Zach or His Oeuvre

A powerful, internal musicality informed the verse of the great rebellious Hebrew poet who passed away last week, allowing many of his works to be put to music, thus lending them new life

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Award-winning Israeli poet Natan Zach, who passed away on November 6, 2020, in 2006
Natan Zach. Had asked that his grave be made wider than usual so that his books could be buried along with him, a request cannot be granted. Credit: Dan Keinan

It’s impossible to write a eulogy for Natan Zach. Who can outdo, in poetry or in prose, the words of “Ki Ha’adam Hu Etz Ha-sadeh” (“For Man is a Tree of the Field”), which he wrote a year before the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War – a poem put to music that became a hymn for all those who died in an unnecessary war, penned by a very non-political poet. Nobody still remembers that the poet was referring to himself – not only to mankind in general. He promised that the furrows of dirt would not be sweet to him.

In one of his last interviews, Zach, who died Friday at the age of 89, had asked that his grave be made wider than usual so that his books could be buried along with him. Like a Chinese emperor and his soldiers; like the pharaohs and their treasures. This request, both ironic and evoking awareness of his own worth at one and the same time, will not be granted.

The most an Israeli poet can aspire to is an official commemoration that is devoid of content, a few more years of grace in the curriculum required for the high school matriculation exam in literature, followed by oblivion.

“Ki Ha’adam Hu Etz Ha-sadeh” (“For Man is a Tree of the Field”)

The academic world will remember him well for a while, but later the fashions will change and other poets and poems will be dissected with the critics’ scalpel. Regrettably, what will remain of Natan Zach for the Hebrew-speaking collective are the poems set to music, whose original authors are of no interest. The fact is already now, “For Man is a Tree of the Field” is described on a website of lyrics of Hebrew songs, as “a song by [singer] Shalom Hanoch.”

Zach wouldn’t like that. From the beginning of his career he recognized his importance as a poet – as early as 1953 when he shared a book of verse with acclaimed poets Moshe Dor and Aryeh Sivan – and certainly in his first independent work entitled “First Poems,” published in 1955. That collection, along with the early works of David Avidan, heralded Israeli modernism.

The circle associated with the Likrat (Toward) journal, considered the first Israeli literary group, which already then included Yehuda Amichai and Avidan, gave rise to a new Israeli poetics, but the one with the best gift of expression was Zach.

In his eyes, the greatest of the Hebrew modernists was David Fogel, whom Zach wanted to crown as the most important of the poets preceding him. But at the time, in the 1950s, when books of poetry were a mandatory item on the Israeli bookshelf and highly regarded poets gathered disciples and epigones around them – it was Nathan Alterman who was the unquestioned king. And then, in 1959, when very few people had even heard of him as yet, Zach declared war.

The great revolt of Hebrew poetry, in the form of Zach’s article “Thoughts on Alterman’s Poetry,” published in the periodical Achshav (Now) in 1959, stunned the local literary scene. It was an act of patricide, but also a defiant and condescending act of criticism by a man who was very knowledgeable about world literature, a man whose essay writing had been polished in academia, and who was very familiar with the great poetry and literature of Europe in the original languages.

The Yekke (German Jewish) pedantry that characterized his contacts with poets whom he considered less worthy than he was hurled entirely at Alterman. Zach criticized the overly beautiful language, the perfect rhyming and meter that he found stale, the victory of form over content, the writing of overwrought and impersonal poetry.

Natan Zach with singer Nurit Galron, in 2009. She often performed works by Zach that were put to music, along with other well-known performers.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Zach aimed that very same pedantry at himself and his own works. He was, until his final works, part of the great modernist project that aspired to release poetry from the bonds of romanticism, to make it clear and concrete, intellectual and self-explanatory, and not automatically playing in the reader’s mouth and brain, as sometimes happens when you read a poem by Avraham Shlonsky or Alterman – who were also considered great rebels against Bialik in their day.

If Hebrew culture in general followed two main paths – that of Haim Nahman Bialik, “enlisted” and nationalistic, sometimes subordinating the poem to the needs of the hour and the public, and uncompromisingly ethnocentric, and that of Shaul Tchernichovsky, which opens a window to the world, to other cultures and to the constant commitment to the poetic and personal “I” – Zach was Tchernichovsky’s successor, while Alterman identifies entirely with Bialik.

Supreme attention

But the principal debate, the rebellion and the literary scandal, were expressed at the time in terms of a battle between generations, and in those days, as we know, the world did not belong to the young. Alterman, according to historians of Hebrew poetry, was very insulted and invited the young poet to a reprimand session, which was joined by disciples of the reigning king. One of them shouted “idiot” at Zach, but Alterman himself knew and said: “An idiot he’s not.” If he was insulted by Zach’s condescension and his proven intellectual superiority, Alterman knew how to keep most of his feelings to himself, and eventually forgave the rebel.

Zach himself continued to write poems to Alterman, as though he still needed the primal father he had murdered with his pen, because without him – what could he rebel against?

In 1960, when Zach’s third book of poetry, “Shirim Shonim” (“Different Poems”) was published, it included worlds of knowledge among which he roamed undisturbed and with great joy. A supreme poetic intellectuality that was poured out only rarely in a yearning for an old-fashioned aesthetic (after all, when he so desired, he knew how to rhyme as well as everyone else), and also revealed the powerful, concealed internal musicality of his free verse. This magical ability turned him into one of the poets whose poetry was set to popular music, with original musicians and performers endowing him and his texts with a new and unexpected life.

He didn’t always like the results. He didn’t like “Kshe’elohim Amar Bapa’am Harishona” (“When God Said The First Time”), with music by Matti Caspi, at all. “Klavlav Ho Bidi Bam Bam,” a favorite of young children, also loses in song what Zach wanted to create in poetry: an etude on the gap between content and form.

“Shir Ahava” (“A Love Song”), sung by Nurit Galron, who often performed works by Zach that were put to music, corresponds with Bialik’s “Take Me Under Your Wing,” as only poets know how to correspond with dead poets. It also corresponds with the internal realization that the many metaphors for love don’t create a better poem than one’s very pondering over the possibility of creating a poem. It must be deciphered from the written text, instead of singing with Galron. Zach always knew that good poetry demands supreme attention and also has to be worthy of it.

“What can / a few words change / even if they were said in seven languages,” he wrote in “E-havana” (“A Misunderstanding”). Another work of ars poetica that is both universal and personal. Zach was well aware of what words are capable of changing, and knew how to tell in poetry about the life of a man for whom Hebrew was not his mother tongue, in all the languages he knew. And he embarked on journeys in search of lucidity and clarity, which for him and for other modernists were the essence of the truth in their work.

Natan Zach. He was part of the great project that aspired to release poetry from the bonds of romanticism, to make it clear, intellectual and self-explanatory.Credit: Alex Levac

Angry guru

Zach was far more than a poet. He was a translator and editor (of the literary journal Yochani and various poetry collections). A philosopher of the country’s young local culture (in his wonderful book of essays “Airlines,” published in 1983, he rightly complained about the dominance of false romanticism and the disease of imagery not only in poetry but in Hebrew prose as well), he was also a razor-sharp and insulting critic who, with unconcealed enjoyment, savaged poets Lea Goldberg and young Yona Wallach, among others. He was an angry guru of novice poets and occasionally verbally violent – a man who didn’t get along with most people, they say.

Faithful to the rebellion until the end, he did not “mobilize” to save the homeland with short and vocalized lines. The complete opposite of Alterman. And if Zach expressed dissatisfaction with the right-wing government at its inception, he did so rarely – and nevertheless became a darling of the left, one of the symbols of an elite that already seemed, in the late 1970s, too old-fashioned and entrenched and therefore rotting and poisonous.

In his latter years even that title was taken away from him, in an interview filled with embarrassing, wicked and depressing declarations on the TV program “Hamakor” in 2010. The man who always tried to be precise even in his spoken words, compared Ethiopian Israelis, descendants of a sublime culture, to the “Moroccans” who came from “the caves.” He definitely deserved all the criticism he received for that.

The elite still managed to crown Zach with the prestigious Israel Prize and with a professorship at the University of Haifa, and continued to sing his songs, or to gossip about his public outbursts of fury – occasionally as a result of overconsumption of alcohol. As opposed to a poet whom he didn’t admire at all, Yehuda Amichai, his poetry did not push the boundaries of the Hebrew language.

The last decade of his life was not kind to Zach, and yet his important critical work was assembled into a thick volume in 2011 – “Hashira She-me’ever La-milim” (“The Poetry Beyond Words: Critical Essays 1954-1973”) – a final act of remorse, a step that refined and improved some of the criticism, and he even edited the formative article of that rebellion.

In the past 10 years he may have gotten the impression that the philosophy of the revolt has been learned well, but that Hebrew poetry also has room for romantics and rhymers, for ground-breakers who did not have the privilege of belonging to European culture – and for Natan Zach and his successors as well.

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