From Moses to Gilboa

The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse

edited and translated by T. Carmi
Penguin, 608 pp., $9.95 (paper)

This admirable anthology has no rivals in English or in Hebrew. The editor and translator, though born in New York City, spoke Hebrew as a child, fought for Israel as a young man, and has written distinguished poetry in Hebrew (which he modestly omits from this collection). His labors have given the reader with only moderate Hebrew, or little, or even none, a chance to educate himself in a poetic tradition spanning three thousand years. Before studying Carmi’s anthology, I thought of Hebrew poetry as comprising mostly three periods: Biblical, medieval Spanish, and modern, with the single major exception of Immanuel of Rome, a contemporary of Dante. But I am still not sure if Carmi is justified in presenting Hebrew poetry as a continuous tradition. Is “Hebrew poetry” truly a coherent literary phrase?

In his recent book, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, James Kugel has argued persuasively that the concepts of poetry and prose have no Biblical basis.* Biblical Hebrew has no word for “poetry,” and despite a long history of misrepresentation, we do not know how to divide the Biblical text into verse and prose. Reviewing Carmi’s anthology (in the journal Prooftexts, vol. 2, no. 2), Kugel denies that there always has been an entity called “Hebrew poetry.” Instead, he asserts that Hebrew “assimilated foreign ideas about genre and rhetoric, then slowly bent the native tradition until it began to fit them.” If Kugel is right, and I think he is, then one needs to put a double question to Carmi’s anthology. What is Hebrew rather than European about “Hebrew poetry,” and was it in its origins poetry anyway, since what presumably is most Hebraic about it—dependence on the Bible—voids the distinction between verse and prose?

Carmi’s long and eloquent introduction characteristically relies upon using “Hebrew poetry” as a synecdoche for the Jewish people. Hence the quietly bitter wit of a sentence like this:

While Hebrew poetry was being expelled from Spain—it had previously been expelled from England (1290) and France (1306, 1322 and 1394)—it was refining the ottava rima in Italy, in some of the most delicate lyrics ever written in Hebrew.

One can hardly deny a Hebrew poet the trope of “Hebrew poetry” for “the Jewish people.” But, inevitably, Carmi begins to use his figure literally, as when he asks:

Given its enormous diversity, chronological range and geographical dispersion, what are the factors that give Hebrew poetry its cohesion and justify the use of that much abused word “tradition”?

If we substituted “the Jewish people” for “Hebrew poetry” in that sentence, the prime factors of the answer would have to be “the Jewish religion” and “Gentile persecution.” Carmi’s answer is “Biblical Hebrew,” but that would be rather a weak answer were it not for the power of Carmi’s synecdoche. The cohesion of Hebrew poetry is a little suspect (as Kugel insists), and Carmi’s bold attempt to demonstrate a literary tradition truly continuous throughoutthree thousand years is by no means wholly successful.

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