The Language Beneath the Skin: A Meditation on Poetry and Mother Tongues
Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
I left Israel at the age of twenty-and-a-bit and only then did I realize how the fact of Hebrew as my mother tongue influenced every facet of my life. This was true on the street and in daily life. It was true when confronting bureaucracy and it was true at work and in school, in friendship and in love. But the question of my writing language, as a young Hebrew poet living in a French-speaking environment, was far more tangled. Would I continue writing solely in Hebrew? Might I write poetry in French? Can one even write poetry in a tongue that is not one’s mother tongue? And does it make sense to carry on writing poetry in a language with no local readership, surrounded by people who cannot read so much as a single word you’ve written? These ruminations were very much on my mind during my first years in Paris, the city in which I’d wind up spending ten long years.
I was not worried about the welfare of my Hebrew. On the contrary: I soon realized that my Hebrew was well-served by this temporary incubation. In other words, I was glad that my Hebrew was given the opportunity to exist in an environment apart from the press and the digital media, the commercials and the jingles, the quotidian language of the street. Instead, I could nourish it only with the words I actively sought out: the language of conversation and correspondence; the language of the books I was reading. I suppose that if I were a prose writer, the long-term separation would have been problematic. But since I write poetry, I mostly noticed the inherent advantages of my self-imposed exile.
Living far from the land of common Hebrew, I viewed writing poetry in that language as a private test case—or perhaps better yet: a vaccine—in which poetry serves as a language within a language. I took poetry to be a lingual artform that strives to sift through the random heaps of daily language, discarding the scrap and assembling a new, transcendent experience, in which language is the means and also the end. I felt that distance from Hebrew would help me explore the language from the outside, and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, enhance my ability to write in that language.
In short, a few months into my stay in Paris it became clear to me: I would write poetry only in Hebrew, even while living abroad. This may have been an overly radical decision, and in retrospect a somewhat mistaken one, but it was not an unusual one. It is the rare case for a modern poet (as opposed to authors and playwrights) to forgo his mother tongue and turn, for the purpose of poetry, to a new language. The act of clinging to a mother tongue is somehow tied to the soul of poetry, something at the root of the deep and mysterious bond between it and language, starkly differentiating it from other genres. I say ‘clinging to the mother tongue,’ because that’s just the way it is: the poet is always nursing at the breast of language.
The language in which a person writes poetry is the language in which he discovered the taste of lemon and of honey; the language in which he first spoke his name and first heard his mother sing a lullaby; the language in which he first called out to his father and the language in which he felt the first burn of fraternal jealousy; the language in which he felt the impact of a fist on the street, his voice clenched in a tight juvenile scream, an alto cry amid the scuffle. Why does poetry preserve these ancient memories over others? Maybe on account of the mystic nature of the lyrical word and the cryptic connection between the poetry a mature person writes and the soothing mantras of his youth. For lyrical poetry is but the development, later in life, of an old mantra.
As someone entrusted with the usage of modern Hebrew, a language that many of Hebrew’s most wonderful poets used though it was not their mother tongue, I must cast doubt on the emphatic statement made by Paul Celan: “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth.” And yet, in my own private experience, as someone who lived for many long years in a foreign land, someone who chose not to use its language for poetry, I identify with that statement with all my heart.
I could buy une tomate at my old grocer at the Daguerre Market and chop it up finely for salad, but there’s no tomate in the world that will ever make me feel the prickle of the red sourness across my gums as it does when I sound out the tones of that word in Hebrew, a word that is familiar down to the deep glands of my youth: a-g-v-a-n-i-a. Agvania.
I want to underscore: I’m talking about poetry. Writing fiction or plays or essays is a different story entirely. Most authors, playwrights, and essayists use their mother tongue, of course, but there are plenty of examples of writers who made the switch from one language to another: from Conrad to Nabokov to Beckett to, in our day, Aleksandar Hemon and André Aciman. The same cannot be said of poetry. It’s hard to think of a single Conrad or Nabokov of poetry; outside the realm of Hebrew I have a hard time coming up with a single example of a modern major poet who wrote in a language that was not his or her mother tongue. Even the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, who after being forced from Russia settled in the US and wrote marvelous essays in English, very rarely used his adopted language for verse (and rightly not: his English-language poetry cannot hold a candle to his Russian poetry).
When asked, after winning the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature, if he identified as a Russian or an American, Brodsky said: “I’m a Jew: a poet in Russian, an essayist in English.” The Jewishness of poetry is a rather common refrain. “All poets are Jews,” Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote, using Judaism as a metaphor for persecuted minorities everywhere. But there is also no shortage of immediate and non-metaphoric Jews among the ranks of modern poets. Poetic trans-lingualism, though, is genuinely rare.
When I was in Paris and still contemplating what language to write in, I looked for uplifting examples that I could cling to, role models that could guide me. In other words, I sought foreign poets who (at least temporarily) had set aside their mother tongues and started writing poetry in French. The more I looked, the more I realized how uncommon it was. Indeed, it was nearly non-existent—a fact made all the more surprising considering that Paris was, as Walter Benjamin put it, the “capital of the nineteenth century”; a central destination for exiles and immigrants and the site of many a poet’s cultural crusade. Foreign poets flocked to Paris and resided there for long periods of time; on occasion they settled there forever. Among them were those with a solid command of French, and it would follow that some of them, like the many authors who called Paris their home, would make the switch to the Gallic tongue.
Most fascinating of all is the case of Paul Celan. A Jewish poet born in 1920, his original name was Paul Pesach Antschel. (The pen name Celan is a sort of reshuffling of his family name.) He was from Czernowitz, in Bukovina, a German-speaking region that was made part of Romania after the First World War. His primary language as a child was German, though he learnt Hebrew in his youth (his Zionist father sent him to the Jewish school “Safah Ivriyah”).
In Celan’s own unique circumstances the choice of German as his sole language of poetic expression was hardly to be taken for granted: not only had he been raised on three or four other languages, and not only had he never lived within the boundaries of Germany, but the language that he chose to continue writing in after the war was the language used by his torturers, the murderers of his family. Perhaps for that reason, Celan made the matter of writing in the language of one’s youth an inflexible ideology. As mentioned, it was he who said that the poet who writes in a language other than his mother tongue is lying (an answer he gave when, after the war, he was urged to write in Romanian rather than German.) A hypothetical rumination: what would have happened if, in 1948, Celan would have chosen Israel, rather than France, as his home? Would he have written poetry in Hebrew or would he have clung exclusively to German in Israel, too? It’s compelling to compare Celan’s case with that of another poet, also a native of Bukovina—Dan (or Severin, as he was initially named) Pagis, who was born in 1930 in Rădăuți, some 60 kilometers from Czernowitz, Celan’s birthplace). Pagis was also raised in German and he, too, spoke several languages in his youth: Romanian, first and foremost, the national language, but also Yiddish and Russian. Unlike Celan, he had no formal Hebrew education as a child and hardly knew the language at all when he settled in pre-state Israel after the war. Like Celan, he was jailed during the war and committed to forced labor; he too experienced the horrors of the Shoah firsthand and saw with his own eyes the deaths of many of his neighbors and family members.
In Pagis’ poetry, much like Celan’s, the Shoah casts a dark shadow and there have been plenty of comparisons between Pagis’ “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car” and Celan’s “Psalm” and “Death Fugue” and “There Was Earth Inside Them.” Yet Pagis, as opposed to Celan, who was ten years his senior, did not write in his mother tongue but rather in a language he acquired later in life: Hebrew. And in contrast to Celan’s proclamation, Pagis, quite assuredly, did not lie in his lyricism, even though his poems were written in a language other than his mother tongue. That said, there can be no doubt that Pagis’ decision to write poetry in a language that he acquired only at the age of sixteen, by which time he spoke and wrote in three or four other languages, had a far-reaching impact on his Hebrew poetry.
But are these influences not the birthright of all modern Hebrew poetry? For in Hebrew, as opposed to all other modern languages, the move from language to language (nearly always in one direction: from the poet’s mother tongue to Hebrew) is quite common. When I take a modern anthology of poetry off the shelf—English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian—and flip through the bios of the poets at the back of each volume, I find that, of all the poets I’ve ever heard of, or in any way encountered, I can’t find a single one who wrote in a language that was acquired later in life.
In contrast, in Hebrew, up until a generation or two ago, this was the norm—nearly all of the Hebrew poets, starting from the birth of modern Hebrew poetry in the last decade of the nineteenth century and continuing on to those who started publishing poetry in the 1970s, wrote verse in a language that was not their first and occasionally not their second or third language. I’ve stopped at the 1970s because afterwards there was an essential shift (and to my delight, it included a change in the ethnic background of Israel’s poets, who were no longer only from Eastern and Central Europe, but also from north Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere).
It’s worth noting that even the first sabra poet, Esther Raab, who was born in Petach Tikva in 1894, grew up with Yiddish in her parents’ and grandparents’ home. She was taught Hebrew, though, from a very young age. During the early years of the modern Hebrew renaissance, the mother tongue of most Hebrew poets was Yiddish, and in some cases Russian or some other Eastern European language. Later, German joined the mix and later still, albeit more rarely, English and Arabic. There is nothing new in noting these facts: the effects of foreign poetry on the body of Hebrew poetry is a subject that has been researched at length, and it is well known that many Hebrew poets arrived at the shores of Hebrew from afar. Acquaintance and familiarity aside, though, it seems we have neglected a more essential and general element: the dramatic singularity of this situation, when considered from the point of view of poetry.
If for a moment we leaf through the history of twentieth century Hebrew poetry, we’ll find fascinating cases that have no likeness in other modern poetic cultures. Rachel Bluwstein, one of the “national” poets of modern Hebrew, one of the most distinct products of the Second Aliya—a pivotal wave of immigration to pre-state Israel—did not know, at least so the story goes, a single word of Hebrew at the time of her arrival at the port of Jaffa in 1909, at the age of 18. Not one word—of a language that she would yet master to the extent that she would become, two decades later, one of Hebrew’s central and most beloved poets! Whether this story is factual or a slight alteration of reality (for, in the interest of historical accuracy, it should be noted that she had learned a bit of Hebrew as a child), it is nonetheless clear that, as opposed to many of the men who arrived during that same period, Rachel, who like them shared a Zionist-Socialist ideology, had no yeshiva background. She had never studied Biblical or Mishnaic Hebrew, nor did she have any grasp of the spoken language when she settled in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.
Does this in any way detract from the delicate and tragic beauty of Rachel’s poetry? Of course not. Does this fact affect her linguistic choices, the nature of her writing, the style, cadences and forms? Without a doubt. Reading and researching Rachel’s poetry without addressing this rare lingual-biographical element would mean missing not only a central component of the poet’s cultural milieu, but also an element rooted in the heart of her work. For when Rachel wrote Hebrew poetry, under the influence of Anna Akhmatova, for example, her cultural and poetic sense of belonging was fundamentally Slavic. Even as she wrote in Hebrew, she was, in many ways, operating from within Russian culture. Her sphere of poetic reference was Russian in terms of ethos—the role of the poet and poetry in society—and thematically, stylistically, structurally, tonally and prosodically. In essence, Rachel took the poetic sensibility that she had formed in Russian, and imported it, as is, to her new and still-forming culture. In her adopted language she preserved the linear logic of the poetry she knew in her first language, and in that way she operated not only as a Hebrew poet, and not only as a Russian woman who shifted her writing tongue to Hebrew, but above all else—and the precise definition here is of great importance—as a Russian poet writing in Hebrew.
If we consider for a moment the overwhelming readership of Hebrew poetry of Rachel’s generation, we’ll find that the vast majority of the audience did just as she did: in their new language they duplicated the traditions and innovations of the poetry they knew in the languages of their youth—a body of work that they continued to read even as they became, concurrently, readers of Hebrew poetry. So it was during the generation before Rachel, and so it was during the following generations; in other words, up until the historical moment when the majority of Hebrew readers were native to Hebrew and no longer knew other languages with the intimacy of a mother tongue or a language of their youth.
Let’s skip forward a generation, to another Hebrew poet, no less central or beloved than Rachel: Lea Goldberg. Goldberg was born in 1911 to Russian-speaking parents in Königsberg and grew up in Kaunas, in Lithuania. Her mother tongue was Russian but she had a strong grasp of German from a very early age. On the streets of Kovno, she heard Yiddish and Lithuanian, languages she knew but not proficiently. She arrived late at the language that would be the language of her poetic expression; only when studying at the Gymnasia in Kovno did she learn Hebrew. It was her fifth language.
In 1932, just a decade after learning Hebrew, Goldberg published, in a local journal called Petach, her first poems; three years later, they were included in her debut collection, Smoke Rings. It is an incredible thing to behold: this young woman, in the span of ten years, went from learning the Hebrew alphabet to penning glowing Hebrew verse. Yet another case that likely has scant equivalent in modern poetry: a canonic and central poet, who wrote all of her poetry not in her mother tongue and not in her second or third language, but in a language that she acquired at age ten, with no prior background.
This linguistic predicament is easily explained by the history of modern Jewry at large and the annals of Eastern European Jewry specifically, but that would be too easy. At this point in time I’m interested in a different point of view: that of poetry.
Goldberg never fully abandoned Russian, the language in which she wrote her first poems, nor her second language, German. In her youth she lived in Germany for several years and even wrote her doctorate in that language. Some of her best friends in Israel were German or Russian speakers, and when conversing with her mother, alongside whom she lived all her life, she did so, until her final day, in Russian. She also prolifically translated prose and poetry from those two languages, her primary reading languages, and later added other source languages—French, English, Italian, and more. Listening to a recording of Goldberg, it is immediately clear to what extent her Hebrew, however rich and beautiful, was always an acquired tongue. Not just the diction and the heavy Russian accent: her manner of expression and word choice make it starkly clear that she never had a sensuous immediacy with Hebrew; the effortlessly available, sub-epidermal flow that characterizes a native tongue was just absent. Any native Hebrew speaker can note this without difficulty.
Does this in any way tarnish the great beauty of her Hebrew poetry? Of course not. Is it a fact that ought to be noted and considered when researching or reading her work? Without a doubt.
Goldberg, like Rachel before her, could be considered by most parameters a Russian poet writing in Hebrew. She too was deeply influenced by Akhmatova and later by Symbolist poetry. Writing poetry in Hebrew, under the influence of poets writing in the languages of her youth, she was in actuality advancing the dialectical development of modern Russian and German poetry—in Hebrew. Of course, she was operating within a Hebrew framework, and the “neo-symbolist” style she adopted in the forties and fifties owed much to the Hebrew influences of Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman.
Yet Shlonsky and Alterman themselves, though they learnt Hebrew at an earlier age than their colleague from Kovno, are also poets that are firmly within the Slavic poetic tradition. The domain of their poetic notions is principally Russian, in terms of ethos, poetic technique, and the specific character of Modernist poetry in which they were operating. Not long ago I watched a TV interview with Shlonsky. It was filmed in 1968, some five years before his death at age 73. And though I was familiar with his biography, and though I knew that for him Yiddish and Russian preceded Hebrew, I was nonetheless shocked to see and hear him: the strong accent, the cumbersome diction, the foreign intonation, even the body language and the twitching and the mane of hair; could there be something akin to this in French, Italian, English? Hard to imagine. What I saw before me was a Slavic poet operating in Hebrew.
During the following generation, the statehood generation, the unusual situation endured: Yehuda Amichai, for example, was born in Würzburg in 1924; his name, in his youth, was Ludwig Pfeuffer, and his first language was German. He began studying Hebrew at age 11. His peer, Natan Zach (originally Harry Seitelbach) was born in 1939 in Berlin. He came to pre-state Israel at age 6. Hebrew was his third language, after German (his father’s language) and Italian (his mother’s). To this very day Zach speaks Hebrew with a nurtured and distinct German accent, a lovely accent that reminds me always of my father’s family. But when I told friends in Paris that one of the central poets of modern-day Hebrew speaks his own language with a foreign accent and a diction that is German, they were shocked. Could a leading French poet speak French with a thick German accent? They could entertain no such notion.
It may be interesting to note the reverse of this cultural-linguistic phenomenon. For instance, the Yung Yisroel group, which was founded in 1951 by poets who came to Israel after the Holocaust and chose to carry on writing poetry in Yiddish. One member of the group was the young Binyamin Hrushovski—later, Harshav—who at roughly the same time helped launch the journal Likrat, the lean locomotive that would pull the train of Statehood Generation Hebrew poetry. The unrivaled leader of Yung Yisroel was Avraham Sutzkever, one of the greatest poets to have worked in this land in any language. Sutzkever, born in Smorgon, Lithuania, moved to Tel Aviv in 1947 and lived there till his death in 2010. For more than 60 years, then, he lived in a city that spoke Hebrew, a language he knew from childhood and in which he wrote his first poems as a child and teen. He was also friends with many Hebrew poets (with whom he often spoke Yiddish, the language of their shared youth) and yet he never made the transition to writing in Hebrew. He was well-aware of the repercussions of choosing to cling to Yiddish as his creative tool; he saw the thinning of the ranks in the readership of Yiddish poetry after the war, thinned almost to the point of extinction, and he knew that the language of the Diaspora was unpopular, to put it mildly, among his new countrymen. It was clear to him that his choice of language sentenced him to eternal seclusion from the readers of poetry in the land in which he lived. On countless occasions Sutzkever was asked why he did not write in Hebrew. He usually answered in mystic and historic terms rather than cultural-linguistic ones. “I made an eternal covenant with Yiddish,” he once said. He related to modern Hebrew poetry with familiarity and a touch of amusement and even condescension, like an older sister watching with a knowing smile the first clumsy steps taken by her toddler sister. The notion of a language beneath the skin is one that I lifted from one of Sutzkever’s last poems, written in December 1999, in which he says of Yiddish: “My language is beneath the skin.”
Defining the language of one’s youth as “the language beneath the skin” is a more sober statement than the Celan-ian definition of inevitable falsehood for all who write poetry in a language other than their mother tongue. And yet in both cases, of he who writes in the language of his mother’s murderers and he who writes in the language of the murdered, neither of the two great poets, Celan and Sutzkever, are unusual on the landscape of world poetry; their decision to continue to write in the language upon which they were raised seems natural and foretold.
And yet in Hebrew the situation is so unusual, with so many poets immigrating to Hebrew, that it is Sutzkever who, in his adherence to the world norm, seems so unique. The Yiddish-Israeli poet’s decision to cling to his mother tongue while living in Tel Aviv was viewed as highly peculiar by his peers and continues to be seen by many readers of Hebrew poetry as downright bizarre.
It’s worth noting: the cultural impact of this state of affairs is readily visible today, some one-hundred-and-thirty years after the bloom of modern Hebrew poetry. True, for decades the share of Israeli poets who have counted Hebrew as their native tongue has been on the rise. Since the seventies and eighties, the majority of Hebrew poets have been writing in their mother tongue. The years pass and Israeli poetry, for better and for worse, is becoming more and more “normal.” The first generation of poets born into Hebrew has largely passed (Haim Guri, Dahlia Ravikovitch, David Avidan, Yona Wallach…) or are in their eighth, ninth, and tenth decade of life. And as always it is not enough to cast an eye toward the poets but also the readership, which is, like the poets themselves, comprised of people whose native language is Hebrew, even if their parents spoke other languages at home (Arabic, Russian, English, etc.). And this situation too is fundamentally different from what prevailed here just several dozen years ago.
But the poets and their readers, native to Hebrew, inherited the poetic legacy of their multi-lingual and trans-lingual forebears. And they, for their part, wrote Hebrew while referring dialectically (adopting and rejecting, knowingly and unknowingly absorbing influence) to the various poetic trends in the languages of their youth, even if those trends never existed within the realm of Hebrew poetry but were simply part of their birth cultures. Therefore, a deep chasm exists between readers and writers who are native to Hebrew and readers and writers who arrived later at Hebrew poetry—a chasm that to this day remains unbridged and in many ways is simply being widened so long as Hebrew poetry continues to perceive itself as a sort of autarkic economy; a self-sufficient place that has no need for external imports.
In the intro to my translation of Charles Baudelaire’s book of poetry, Flowers of Evil, I depicted this chasm as “a tree with no trunk.” Hebrew poetry, this metaphor suggests, is a tree with deep and thick roots: biblical verse, liturgical poems or piyyutim, the poetry of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and that of the Haskala, or enlightenment, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In other words, all that was written before the dawn of modern Hebrew. That same tree has a verdant and healthy crown, thriving ever since Bialik’s “To the Bird” was published in 1891. But what this glorious old-growth tree lacks, is, quite simply, a trunk. In other words: the base of world poetry, a base that never existed within the realm of modern Hebrew poetry, was irrigated from afar and sustained by constant importing. It lacks its own movements and counter-movements; the schools and groups that delivered modern poetry, across a variety of serpentine paths, to the modern age. In order not to collapse, the trunk-less tree supports itself on the branches of its brothers, the other trees of the forest: on those foreign corpuses that have nourished it incessantly.
Even without clinging to the refuted legend of Hebrew as a dead language revived and re-born, it is clear that Hebrew underwent a very unique process and so it is no surprise that the chronicles of its poetry are also unique. For the difference between modern Hebrew and classical Hebrew is not a shift that took hundreds of years, a natural linguistic evolution, but rather a substitution made knowingly and premeditatedly. Modern Hebrew does not relate to classical Hebrew in the way that, for instance, Sylvia Plath’s English relates to Chaucer or the way Paul Valéry’s French relates to the fifteenth century verse of François Villon. The chronology of Hebrew poetry was logical so long as it operated within the framework of classical Hebrew, but from the moment that modern Hebrew poetry first flowered, which is to say from the very start of Bialik’s first work, more or less—the internal logic that “held” classical Hebrew poetry together began to crack. The tree kept its roots and managed to grow a lovely green crown, but it was suspended in mid-air, trunk-less.
As opposed to poets and readers who arrived at Hebrew after mastering another language, the first (and subsequent) generations of native-born “sabras” discovered world poetry by peering through the keyhole of Hebrew. They saw the world through a very small crack, and most were not even aware of the optical distortion imposed by this vantage point, nor did they notice the high partition between themselves and the “world.” They read a bit in English and mostly read poetry that was translated into Hebrew or otherwise present in the world of Hebrew, often thanks to the cultural missions of the poets and authors belonging to the last generation of the Diaspora or the first generation of immigration. But whatever was not translated or otherwise integrated, they knew only at best as a distant rumor, and more commonly did not know at all.
It’s important to note that a very large chunk of Western literature—and this is even more true of other literary traditions—was translated late, if at all. This situation endures: as stunning as it may sound, the canon of Western poetry, essays, and prose, has been translated, over the course of four or five generations—from the mid-nineteenth century until WWII—more extensively into Yiddish than Hebrew. It stands to reason that this is true of other art forms as well, but in terms of poetry and prose, the linguistic arts, the divide between the sabras and the world is more pronounced than in any other realm.
And so, for instance, when Natan Zach brought the gospel of Imagism to the readership of Hebrew poetry, following in the footsteps of TS Elliot and Ezra Pound and arriving fashionably late by a few decades, this school of poetry—a central school but nonetheless one of many—was perceived among many of the “au courant” readers as poetry’s sole Modernist option, and for many years (perhaps to this very day) it is identified almost exclusively as the definition of Modernism. This is the case even though Zach and his peers never translated the great works of the Imagists. It sufficed for them to speak of its importance in their essays and poems. Other Modernist strains, some no less central, were never translated and never introduced into Hebrew by the major agents of poetry and were therefore inaccessible to the readers and writers native to Hebrew.
But the difficulty is rooted not only in the existence or inexistence of a translation but, to a greater degree, in the need for an introduction from a multi-lingual authority figure who can whisper into the ears of Hebrew readers and proclaim: take note, this and that are important works. And she, over there, was a masterful poet. Those arbiters—the translators of poetry and prose, editors of literature and other literary figures—have offered (and continue to offer) a prosthetic trunk to the tree of Hebrew poetry.
And in fact, so long as the majority of Hebrew poets and readers were native to other languages, so long as they imported the poetic sensibilities that they knew so intimately well in other languages, the dialectical continuum of development of modern Hebrew poetry, and its own internal logic, was maintained. Beneath the non-linear nature of modern Hebrew, a tough lining kept the stability of the weave intact. But for several decades now the liner is no longer so strong and the chronological weave of our poetry is in need of more and more patches.
But hold on just a second: I realize that I may sound as though I’m complaining. And the truth is, quite the contrary: I am grateful. Already at the start of my life as a writer of poetry—at first intuitively and later more deliberately—I felt that writers of Hebrew poetry were faced with a challenge of great proportions, a challenge unrivaled in other languages. Without committing any sins of undue poetic patriotism, but rather via a simple analysis of the situation, culturally and poetically, it’s clear to me that my peers and I have been offered a very rare opportunity: the chance to shape and found an entire constellation of poetic concepts that have, at this point in time, no real toehold in our language. We, the Hebrew poets of the twenty-first century, inherited a unique poetic language with a distinctive linguistic and poetic history. It is a great gift, and our role is to chart a new path, a path that will lead our beautiful and ancient language deep into the third millennium.
Dory Manor, born in Tel Aviv, is an Israeli poet, translator and editor. In 2007 Manor received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Hebrew Writers, and in 2008 he was awarded the Tchernichovsky Prize for best translations of world masterpieces. In 2011 he received the Ministry of Culture biannual prize for the best literary editor. In 2015 he received the prestigious Yehuda Amichai Prize for his poetry. His Hebrew translations of poetry include masterpieces by Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Verlaine, William Blake, WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, Federico Garcia Lorca and many others. He has also translated prose works such as René Descartes’ “Méditations Métaphysiques,” Flaubert’s “Letters to Louise Colet,” Voltaire’s “Candide” and Molière’s “L’Avare.”
Mitch Ginsburg is a fiction editor of The Ilanot Review.