Poem of the Week / Could an Older Man Have Written This?

The young Natan Alterman on the pull of poetry.

Haaretz archive

(Untitled)
Natan Alterman

Still the music returns you abandoned in vain

Still the path stretches on, long and wide

And a cloud in its sky and a tree in its rain

Are expecting you still, passerby.

The wind will rise and like swings in their flight

Bolts of lightning will flash overhead

The lamb and the she-deer will both testify

That you stroked them and pressed on ahead,

That your hands are quite empty, your city remote

And you’ve bent your knee many a time

To a green grove, a woman’s glad throat

And a treetop with raindrop-lashed eyes.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. From Kokhavim Bahutz (“Stars Outside”), Yachdav, 1938; Machbarot Lesifrut, 1945; Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1995. Usually known by its first words in Hebrew, "Od hozer haniggun."

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Natan Alterman’s “Collected Works,” published after his death at the age of 59 on March 28, 1970, filled 16 volumes of poetry, political commentary in verse, drama and translations. The Warsaw-born poet has always been a node of controversy for Hebrew poets. In an article published in the journal Akhshav (Now) in 1959, Natan Zach led a rebellion against Alterman’s aesthetic with its formal perfection; just this month in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz Alex Ben Ari slotted sentences from Zach’s critique into the forms of three of Alterman’s poems, including this one, which he began: “I’m not fond of the metrical verse / That is locked and just drags another ...”

From 1934 to 1943, the period when Alterman began publishing poems, he wrote verse commentaries in Haaretz called Rega’im (Moments). He then moved to the Histadrut Labor Federation daily Davar where until 1967 he produced his critical rhymed “Seventh Column;” David Ben-Gurion called him “the conscience of the nation.”

After the Six Day War, he was active along with other intellectuals and public figures in founding the greater land of Israel movement and criticized Ben-Gurion for being too eager to give up territories. Haim Gouri, who was also in that group, later changed his mind and recently wrote: “I am not commenting on the dead. I do not know what some of the great figures of Hebrew literature who signed that manifesto for the greater land of Israel would say today.”

And even “great figures” were once young poets writing about nature, sex and the urge to keep moving. This poem opens Alterman’s first volume of poetry, “Stars are Out,” published in 1938. The book was a hit and remains an indispensible part of the canon. The poem is in spoken Israeli Hebrew, but the anapestic metrical foot (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable), as well as the imagery of forests and thunderstorms, hew to European traditions.

The argument of the poem is that the speaker is always called back to the music – writing poetry – though he prefers the experiences of wandering. Inherent in this are two pulls on the ideological elite of his generation: toward the intellectual production of culture and toward nature and the land.

Click here for the Hebrew words and a selection of renditions, or here to listen to Chave Alberstein's version.

Musing: *Could a middle-aged or elderly person have written this poem?