Memoir / Writing for the Exiles and the Dispossessed

In this literary autobiography, the eminent Israeli poet Natan Zach gives readers a taste of the international writers scene of the 1950s and '60s

Hagit Grossman
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Hagit Grossman

Meshana Leshana Ze: Pirkei Biografia Sifrutit ("From Year to Year It: Literary Biography"), by Natan Zach, Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing (Hebrew ), 321 pages, NIS 90

Natan Zach is the witness I've been waiting for. His literary memoir "From Year to Year It" is an exciting historical book that fills the vacuum surrounding the early days of Israeli poetry with important facts. Within Zach's memory, the dots connect and fill the lacunae; entire moments now take shape and make their voices heard.

In one chapter, Zach tries to answer the question of what poetry is. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce considers poetry to be whatever the best poets believe it is. American poet Robert Frost says poetry is what gets lost in translation. And Zach says: "Poetry is everything that cannot be expressed in speech or prose."

Further along, he writes: "Poetry lacking compassion - and this is just my own personal opinion - which sings only of the ugliness and nullity of experience, or autistic poetry that boils down to its author's narcissistic problems, as well as poetry that relinquishes any communicativeness, is, in the best case, only masochist or 'decadent.' Poetry of this sort very often loses not only its audience of readers but also its grip - on whatever life remains to it."

At the end of the chapter, Zach concludes: "Let us then bid farewell to the jocular and saddening generalizations and focus on what Foucault says: Literature - including poetry - brought to the savage world individuation instead of collectivization. The individual instead of a mass society."

The first part of the book (the two subsequent sections are a collection of articles written by others about Zach's poetry ) begins in 1951, when Zach, who was born in 1930, was demobilized from his military service and established the Jerusalemite literary group Likrat, together with Benjamin Harshav (Hrushovski ), Aryeh Sivan and Moshe Dor. Later they were joined by writers and artists who included Dahlia Ravikovitch, Yehuda Amichai, David Avidan, Ben-Zion Tomer, Moshe Ben-Shaul, Yehezkel Shelah, Maxim Ghilan, Shimon Sharav, Yitzhak Livni, Yosef Bar-Yosef, Yigal Efrati, Yossi Stern and Menachem Gueffen.

The revolutionary Likrat group changed the face of Hebrew poety. Its members rebelled against the lyrical pathos of the Zionist poets. In 1959, for example, Zach published a manifesto that criticized the poetics of Natan Alterman, then one of the country's most prominent poets. Likrat's members held that to describe external reality, one had to stick to its essence and to describe it with a free and flowing rhythm. This meant not dressing it up with pretty words, but sticking to the experience itself. In contrast to Alterman's rhyming and cadenced works, which employed the registers of high Hebrew, the Likrat poets believed in using the simple, popular language of conversation, combined with higher language as well.

In 1950s Israel, there were few possibilities for artistic development and recognition, as the kibbutz - which had ideological hegemony over Israeli society - denied a person's right to be an individual. Many artists who traveled in Zach's circles at the start of his career were pushed to the cold, dark edge, and some went crazy or even committed suicide. Zach's writing, especially about those years, is fascinating and often amusing, even when he tells painful stories about those suicidal artists.

He is blessed with the ability to tell a story with enjoyable lightness. As someone who knows the reading public well, he does not wish to make the book heavy going; he breaks his stories down into anecdotes, and every anecdote is a jewel.

Culture with no soul

A vacuous culture is always produced out of a lack of knowledge. Therefore the first stage of the book is used to expose the archaeological levels of Hebrew poetry in this country. It starts with the pan-Semitic "Canaanites," and goes on through the new immigrants, who "destroyed Canaanitism because they had immigrated to 'Zion,' sometimes against their will, and who did not know the first thing about anything that had happened to its inhabitants, did not speak its language and - at least most of them - did not fight in its wars." (Later one can read Nissim Calderon's interesting article about how "the Israeli context for Zach is first of all a place of exiles and the dispossessed." )

Throughout the book Zach lashes out at ignorance and forgetfulness. He writes of small details that come together to create a complete image of a Hebrew-Israeli culture, one that included important works and impressive artists but is now defunct. The book is also important because Zach sets before his readers some of the best of his wisdom and knowledge about poetry, as well as the thoughts of great writers like T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg and Avraham Shlonsky, the latter of whom had written: "Because we must not relinquish the virtue of nobility in poetry. And what is nobility if not restraint, a mask, cruel meticulousness about the external and distance. Storming, but inwards: Constrained fire, but in the bones. And not in the depiction of inwardness, only not in the face of the inward!"

Thus, the book is saturated with the wisdom of poetry and good advice to its readers, some of whom are presumably writers as well. For example, Zach offers us the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault: "In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears." Adds Zach: "Sometimes the author, too."

Zach repeatedly rails against capitalism, whose representatives he calls "urban criminals." In his stories they are depicted as enemies of culture who systematically destroy bits of history. Indeed, Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas, writing about New York in his autobiography "Before Night Falls," says that when buildings are slated for demolition regardless of their content, history or significance, and when every library or other cultural institution may become an ice cream parlor the next day, the culture has no soul.

For Zach, an example of such a stark "urban crime" in Israel is the destruction of Cafe Cassit, where Zach and many other Tel Aviv artists would gather during the state's early decades, and whose new owners threw away the photos and paintings that had decorated the coffeehouse walls (including a painting by the great artist Yosl Bergner and another by Uri Lifshitz, and a photo of Moshe Dayan in the company of poet Natan Alterman ).

"But the worst abomination," writes Zach, "was the replacement of the Shlonskian name Cassit with the terrible name Idelson 10, and this only because the new proprietor had established a chain named after his first cafe at 10 Idelson Street."

The book also includes excerpts from Zach's poems, like this one:

"We gave our whole lives to those buildings;

leaders addressed the workers,

the workers built, organized strikes, fell from the scaffolds,

willingly gave their lives for the sake

of the complicated ideas at their disposal.

We worked sunrise to sunset, the little light was not ours

but leftovers from the light of another generation" (translated by Vivian Eden ).

The works of many other poets are also quoted in the book. These back up the literary anecdotes, so that the events recorded here are expressed not only as prose memories, but also as poems reflecting the reality described. In a special way, the poetry becomes profound written testimony about the story contents.

In a sense, Zach is not just a Hebrew poet, but an international poet whose homeland is Hebrew poetry. As an international figure, he has met so many 20th-century artists, philosophers and poets from around the world that it almost seems he has conversed with them all. For example, there is Leonard Cohen, "whom I met for the first time at Cafe Cassit in the late 1950s or the early 1960s. He showed me the Penguin anthology in English of the best Canadian poets, with his own poems in a prominent place. That was before he started composing music for his poems and writing lyrics. But it was the latter that brought him his international fame. As an incidental comment, amusing or gloomy, I would add that on that night Cohen asked me to put him up at my place, because he could not afford to pay for a room in a hotel. And I did."

Another fascinating description is of poet Paul Celan's visit to Israel in 1969 (the year before he jumped to his death off a bridge over the Seine ). Zach describes how Celan read poetry here to an audience of more than 1,000.

This book is another reminder of the extent to which Israeli society is still in its early stages. It has not yet arrived at a profound comprehension of its own history, and therefore it has not yet understood itself. That's precisely why it is necessary to continue writing that history. Zach's memoirs fill significant cultural gaps, and now all Israelis - whether or not they too are poets - can benefit from the light these memoirs shed on cultural life during the first decades of the state's existence.

Hagit Grossman is the author of "Ash Whales," a book of poetry published by the Keshev poetry press.

Natan Zach: “How colorful this world is.”Credit: Nir Kafri