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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Poetry

Written without interruption from biblical times to the present, Hebrew poetry embodies external influences and internal traditions. The poetry of the past, which incorporates religious and national themes, also contains motifs of personal experience which are predominant in the poetry of today. A break with traditional poetic expression developed during the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe (1781-1881), when full citizenship for Jews and secularization of Jewish life were advocated, and from the late 19th century when Zionism, the movement calling for the restoration of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel, began to gain momentum. The major poets to emerge from this period, who themselves immigrated to Palestine early in the 20th century, were Haim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) and Saul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943).

Bialik's works, which reflect his commitment to the Jewish national renaissance and reject the viability of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, include both long epic poems recapitulating chapters in Jewish history as well as pure lyrical poetry dealing with love and nature. Bialik, often referred to as the 'national poet' or 'the poet of the Hebrew Renaissance,' forged a new poetic idiom, free of the overwhelming biblical influence of his predecessors, while maintaining classical structure and clarity of expression through rich, learned but contemporary phrasing. His poems are memorized by generations of Israeli schoolchildren.

Tchernichovsky, who wrote lyric poetry, dramatic epics, ballads and allegories, sought to rectify the world of the Jew by injecting a spirit of personal pride and dignity as well as a heightened awareness of nature and beauty. His sense of language, which embodied an affinity for rabbinical Hebrew, was different from Bialik's idiom which integrated the biblical influence with the emerging conversational mode. Both Bialik and Tchernichovsky represent the transition from ancient Jewish poetry to the modern genre.

Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg, and Uri Zvi Greenberg headed the next generation of poets, who wrote in the years which preceded the establishment of the state and during the early years of statehood. Shlonsky utilized a flood of images along with linguistic inventions in his poetry as well as in his prolific translations of classical poetry, especially from Russian. Alterman's works, many of which are noted for their political commentary, accompanied every stage of the development of the Jewish community and are characterized by richness of language and a variety of poetic forms, tone and rhyme, imagery and metaphor. Goldberg expanded the spectrum of lyricism in poems which speak of the city, nature and the human being in search of love, contact and attention. Greenberg, who wrote a poetry of despair and rage using fierce imagery and stylistic power, dealt mainly with nationalistic themes and the impact of the Holocaust. This group of poets was the first to introduce the rhythms of everyday speech into Hebrew poetry. They revived old idioms and coined new ones, giving the ancient language a new flexibility and richness. The poetry of this period, which was greatly influenced by Russian futurism and symbolism as well as by German expressionism, tended towards the classical structure and melodicism of ordered rhyming. It reflected images and landscapes of the poets' country of birth and fresh visions of their new country in a heroic mode, as well as memories from 'there' and the desire to sink roots 'here,' expressing, as Lea Goldberg wrote, "the pain of two homelands." Many of the poems were set to music and became an integral part of the country's national lore.

The first major woman poet in Hebrew was Rachel Bluwstein (1890-1931), who was known simply as "Rachel." Her works established the normative foundation of women's Hebrew poetry as well as the public's expectations of this poetry. Its lyrical, short, emotional, intellectually unpretentious and personal style has prevailed, as seen in most of the works of her contemporaries and of later poets such as Dalia Ravikovitch and Maya Bejerano.

In the mid-1950s, a new group of younger poets emerged, with Hebrew as their mother tongue, headed by Yehuda Amichai, Natan Zach, Dan Pagis, T. Carmi and David Avidan. This group, tending towards understatement, a general retreat from collective experiences, free observation of reality and a colloquial style, shifted the main poetic influences from Pushkin and Schiller to modern English and American poetry. The works of Amichai, who has been extensively translated, are marked by his use of daily speech, irony and metaphysical metaphors. These became the hallmarks of much of the poetry written by his younger contemporaries, who proclaimed the end of ideological poetry and broke completely with the Alterman-Shlonsky tradition of classical structures and ordered rhyming. Zach's works elicit innovative near-liturgical and musical qualities from everyday spoken Hebrew.

The field of Hebrew poetry today is a polyphony comprised of several generations, placing writers in their twenties together with poets of middle age. Representative of the latter group are Meir Wieseltier, whose prosaic, slangy and direct diction repudiates all romanticism and elevates the image of Tel Aviv as the symbol of reality; Yair Hurvitz, whose restrained verses express the gentle sadness of one aware of his own mortality: and Yona Wallach, who presents herself in colloquial, sarcastic tones, using archetypal motifs, Freudian symbolism, sometimes brutal sensuality, rhythmic repetitions and long strings of associations. Other major contemporary poets include Asher Reich, Arieh Sivan, Ronny Somak and Moshe Dor.

The poetry of the most recent generation is dominated by individualism and perplexity, and tends towards short poems written in colloquial diction, non-rhymed free rhythm. Poetry in Israel has a large and loyal readership and some volumes of poems, of all periods, are sold in editions as large as those published in much more populous Western countries.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry