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The gentle and powerful poetry of Yehuda Amichai is known to a wide range
of readers, and loved with unmatched intensity. One of the reasons for this
emotional reaction is Amichai’s simple love of life and his awareness of
the profundity of the experience of daily living, intensified by the fact
that this living occurs in a country charged with meaning and continuous
moral choice. Poetry, he has said, is like a prayer, and indeed helps the
individual to come to terms with life in a way similar to that of prayer.
But Amichai’s poems are not prayers — in the sense that they do not repeat
formulas or accept predetermined solutions for problems. Every experience
is a prayer in itself, and each poem is a unique vision of an experience
in a moment of time. Whether Amichai is describing the process of carrying
his ex-wife’s bed down the street in Jerusalem or watching the Israelite
in front of him follow Moses through the desert, the poem is a sum of the
common experience and the unrepeatable understanding.
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Amichai moved with
his family from Germany to Israel in 1936 when he was 11. His salvation from
the Holocaust and his religious upbringing colors much of his approach to
experience, despite the immediacy and intensity of the day-to-day experiences.
And his experiences are many and intimately involved in the events of this
century. In World War II he fought with the Jewish Brigade of the British
Army, then joined the Palmach, fighting in the War of Independence on the
southern front. Following the war, Amichai attended The Hebrew University
of Jerusaelm, studying Biblical texts and Hebrew literature, and taught in
secondary schools. He died on September 22, 1990, in the Jerusalem he loved
so much, and immortalized in his work.
Amichai was a prolific writer and published
eleven volumes of poetry in Hebrew, two novels, and a book of short stories.
So far he has been translated into 33 languages, and there are numerous
books in English.
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My own interest
in translating Amichai emerges from a profound love of his poetry as well
as a love for the sound of his poems in Hebrew. When Robert Frost said that
poetry is what gets lost in translation, I suspect he meant the sound, the
music of the words. And despite the numerous and populartranslations of Amichai’s
poetry into English, it seems to me that this music has not always come through,
the simple melody of the Hebrew language. It is a music that follows contemporary
speech even while it is infused with the ancient tongue and its Biblical
Although Amichai’s poems are many and varied, my favorite come from the
sensual, the spiritual and the philosophical side of Amichai, when he grapples
with the significance of his own life and the lives of those heloves. His
final poems – gathered in Open, Closed, Open — seem to me to gather up many
of the themes he dealt with in previous works and bring them to a conclusion,
as if he is standing at the Day of Judgment. “Open for me the gates of righteousness,”
begins the prayer, and in these poems it becomes clear that many of Amichai’s
poems have echoed this prayer