No, the Ancients Were Not Zionists

The noble Haim Gouri, above all a poet: He refused a prize for Zionist art because his latest work does not fit that definition.

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When did poets find out language could be written? ”Writing,” bronze tympanum, 1896, by Olin L. Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.
When did poets find out language could be written? ”Writing,” bronze tympanum, 1896, by Olin L. Warner, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Credit: Wikimedia

Those Poets

Haim Gouri

Who were the first poets?
When did they start speaking their poems,
between fire and iron, between spade and spear?
What was their language?
When did they find out it could also be written?
Time, which doesn’t remember their names,
has left them in their anonymity.
This isn’t fair.
After all, they were our ancestors, the ancients!
They did not know from whom to learn the magic,
the treasuries of images, the hunger for beauty,
for that melodic disquiet,
around the campfires, in the virgin forests, in the rock caves,
on the riverbanks.
Certainly there were glinting and enchanted girls
who didn’t take their eyes off them,
who stood in line to get their autograph,
if there was already writing then.
And certainly there were silent youngsters, jaws clenched,
from the next generation, from the avant-garde, awaiting their moment,
who were accused of making poetry obscure to its audience.
Even then there was something mysterious about those poets,
which never left them and sought the meaning of things,
why those poets, in a dybbuk’s grip, restless,
found time in those expanses to speak their poems
to those attentive to them,
alongside literary critics, who often make them miserable.

From “Though I Wished for More of More,” Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House – Daniella De-Nur Publishers, 2015. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

We’d happily eat our words but the odds that the Nobel Prize for Literature jury will look in the direction of Israel this year seem slim. However, if there were a literary prize for a noble poet, Gouri would be a leading candidate and we hope he would accept it.

Earlier this month Gouri, 92, refused a 50,000-shekel prize (about $12,000) conceived by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev for Zionist works of art. The award was to be for the latest of Gouri’s more than 20 volumes of poetry, “Though I Wished for More of More.”

In a letter to the judges on the prize committee, he explained that he did not think that this book – a personal meditation on his long life and memories -- was appropriate for the prize.

Gouri is a courteous man, not only by Israeli standards but by any standards, so because he knew some of the people on the jury (this is such a small country) and wished to avoid offense, he did not write his opinion of the prize but did suggest that the prize might be given to a young poet. In a television interview, he said he refused the prize because it disqualified 20 percent of Israel’s citizens: Arabs.

Born in Tel Aviv in a Zionist Socialist home, Gouri is an icon of Israel’s literature. He was there and expressive at all the key junctures in its history. He fought in the Palmach and in the Israel Defense Forces in subsequent wars, with many of his poems about combat experience becoming classics. He made documentary films about the Holocaust and covered the Eichmann trial for the labor Zionist newspaper Lamerhav.

Initially he supported the settlement project in the occupied territories and later regretted it deeply.

Haim Gouri. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The vision of his early years has been disappointed: “Zionism, as is known, did not come to fulfillment via the Brotherhood of Nations,” he told Haaretz. “Israeli society, shamefully, is a society of intolerable class polarization."

His new book is tremendously moving and it was hard to select just one poem for the column. “Those Poets” takes a long view of his universal art and is also a witty commentary on the poetry scene, generous to those who merit generosity and critical of those who do not.

*Musing: What would it take for you to refuse a prize worth more than five times the monthly salary in your country?