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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.

But this does not lessen the value of his introduction, or of his enormous labors as editor and translator. His insistence upon continuity, upon a tradition of Hebrew poetry, reveals an authentic anxiety, an anxiety shared by many Hebrew poets. This anxiety is masked by the illusory freedom discontinuity always affords poets. Reading much contemporary Hebrew poetry, one does not feel the force of a specifically literary past—that is, a past constituted largely by poetry written in Hebrew. Yes, there is frequently a Biblical allusiveness at work, but not much sense of major post-Biblical precursors in poetry can be apprehended.

Hebrew poetry, which in the tenth and eleventh centuries relied upon Arabic poetry in Spain, and later on Dante and Petrarch in Italy and on Pushkin in Russia, now relies all too often upon William Carlos Williams in Israel. This is not to deny the Biblical element throughout the history of Hebrew poetry, but a constant dependence upon alien poetic influences tends to dilute the Biblical strain. Perhaps this is only the shadow side of Carmi’s synecdoche of poetry for people, since the cultural dilemma involved has been a perpetual one for the Jews, wherever and whenever they have dwelled. A people in exile, even when they are at home, will tend to write a poetry always strangely in exile from itself.

Carmi begins, inevitably, with familiar Biblical texts: the Song of Moses, the War Song of Deborah and Barak, David’s Lament for Jonathan, the first and fourteenth chapters of Isaiah, Psalm 23, and fragments of Job, the Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. They would be anyone’s selections, they have to be in such a book, they gain nothing by what comes after them, and inevitably they put into question the aesthetic and spiritual strength of rather too much of the remainder of the anthology. Even if they are heightened prose (as all of “Biblical poetry” may be, if Kugel is correct), the heightening is Sublime, and indeed may well be the Sublime in Western literature. Carmi, whose achievements as a translator are astonishing, does not match the King James rendering, but he is more eloquent than any of the more recent versions. His eloquence raises again the dilemma of these ancient texts, which defy a literary understanding founded upon the canon of Western poetry from Homer to Goethe, and which yet impose themselves upon literary sensibilities molded by that canon.

But the Biblical selections are only a small part of the first section of Carmi’s anthology, which goes up to the tenth century AD. Guided by Carmi, the reader confronts a bewildering panoply, starting with a fragment of Eccleslasticus (from the Apocrypha) which existed only in Greek translation until much of the original was found in 1896 in the Cairo Genizah. We are led then through passages of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmudic prayers and elegies, hymns of the quasi-Gnostic Merkabah mystics, until we come upon the liturgical poetry that extends from the fourth to the tenth century.

In this baffling progression, any notion of a tradition of Hebrew poetry surely vanishes. Though all of this is in some sense devotional work, the mode of religious temperament varies so widely here as to remind one again that the normative Judaism which has dominated the Jews from Akiba (circa AD 50-135) until the present was itself one strong interpretation among many strong interpretations of the religion of Israel, whatever that actually was.

I doubt that any contemporary sensibility can make much of the liturgical texts that are the staple of Hebrew verse until the tenth century in Spain. Carmi’s prose translations, despite their skill, do not dispel the remoteness, except perhaps in Eleazar ben Kallir’s sixth-century vision of the death duel between the apocalyptic beasts Behemoth and Leviathan.

When he so wills, he raises his tail like a cedar, making room for all the beasts of the field to nestle there. Then he gently lowers his tail, in the thicket of which he shelters the birds of the air, so that none shall be harmed by the beasts dwelling within him—for he is merciful in all his ways. Thus he reclines like a king on his couch, till the appointed day, on which God shall sport with him and reveal him to the companies of the pious.

The reader’s debt to Carmi seems to me greatest in the presentation of the four major eleventh-century Hebrew poets of Spain: Samuel the Prince, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and Judah Halevi. Their highly individual strengths never have come through in any previous English versions, but they are clearly conveyed by Carmi.

Samuel, the victorious military commander of the armies of Granada (under Berber rule), is unlike any other poet of warfare in the European tradition. In a reflection upon his fiftieth birthday, he notes with a chilled detachment that “there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah in the rumored past. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am.” Less than a quarter century after Samuel recorded this moment, the Jews of Granada were massacred by the Arabs. Presages of the precariousness of his people haunt most of Samuel’s poems, in a kind of metaphysic of entrapment: “though you rush about, the sky surrounds you on all sides. Try to get out, if you can.”

With Solomon ibn Gabirol, Carmi catches the curious, mingled tone of cosmological majesty and personal ambivalence that no previous translator could achieve. Carmi’s art can be subtle enough to distinguish between Gabirol’s bitterness, which is temperamental in its origins, so that the aggressivity is turned somewhat against the self, and the less sublime bitterness of Moses ibn Ezra, which is far more circumstantial. Gabirol’s complaint is: “If your ears are uncircumcised, how can my bell be heard?” Moses ibn Ezra, abandoned by patrons, laments: “Who will take revenge upon the mouth of the lions for my blood?” The trope, “the mouth of the lions,” is typical of the elegance of Moses ibn Ezra’s rhetoric, representing as it does the menace of withdrawn patronage. But Gabirol’s rhetoric, though less striking, is stronger, and Carmi’s ability to differentiate these minute particulars is marvelous.

With Judah Halevi, Carmi again surpasses all previous English versions. Halevi may be the crown of post-Biblical Hebrew literature, but his enormous stylistic resources, which are at the service of an exquisite pathos, have confounded translators. Carmi’s prose catches the exact pathos of Halevi’s “Song at Sea,” where the poet’s human limitations are paradoxically elevated by the strength of his language to the level of a benediction. The poet-voyager is “this prisoner of hope who was ransomed by the sea,” and who has between him and death “only the thickness of the planks.” Buried alive in the wooden coffin of the ship, Halevi sees himself as the allegory of Exile, of the condition of Jewishness:

He sits, for there is no room for him to stand; he lies down, and he cannot stretch out his legs. He is ill, he is afraid of the Gentile passengers, as well as of pirates and ghosts. The helmsman and the sailors—all of them riffraff—are the viceroys and governors here! Honor does not belong to the wise nor success to the skilful—only to those who know how to swim!

What Carmi shows me by this precise rendering of Halevi’s tone is something I could not see before: Halevi too is one of Kafka’s precursors, who, in a story by Borges, might have crossed his path. The parables of the conditions of Exile establish a deeper continuity than one might have expected. Such continuity is as much rhetorical as thematic, and seems to me more authentic than the supposed influence which Carmi cites of Immanuel of Rome (1261-1332) on the twentieth-century poets Tchernikhovsky and Alterman.

But his versions of Immanuel are also among Carmi’s triumphs. The sonneteer who preferred Hell, with “all the girls in their elegant dresses,” to Eden, with “only women blacker than soot or pitch, and crones covered with lichen,” is surely the most surprising poet in the Hebrew language. No other Hebrew poet of eminence has addressed an angel, demanding to know why he had made a particular young woman quite so ill-favored. Immanuel’s sonnet giving advice to the Messiah, with its audacious defiance of the prophet Zechariah, is probably the most refreshing single poem in Carmi’s anthology.

Arise, Messiah, ride forth today victoriously upon a charging horse, harness the steeds to the chariot—for all my bones have been scattered, and not one is intact.

But if you mean to ride on an ass, my lord, go back to sleep! If so, prince and Messiah, allow me, in good faith, to give you this advice: You had best keep the end secret and seal up the vision!

It is between Immanuel and the twentieth century that I find Carmi most instructive, since he presents poets I did not know. These include Joseph Zarfati, an early sixteenth-century Roman, and the early seventeenth-century Kabbalist Israle Najara of Safed and Gaza. Better known but too difficult for all but specialized readers are the seventeenth-century Yemenite poet, Shalem Shabazi, and the anti-Kabbalistic seventeenth-century Mantuan, Jacob Frances. Frances is a monument of Baroque sensibility, and Carmi’s versions again deserve the highest praise for agility and coherence.


When I recall the day her cheek was like a blazing fire and she cried out most bitterly; when I recall the day she beat her hands together, and her mouth was clinging to the dead man’s mouth,

and when the good ladies tried to tear her away by force, she ground her teeth; defying one and all, she kissed her husband with her honeyed lips, and none could stop her—

then, with a passion exceeding all my passions, I long for her kiss’s sun to shine in my mouth, on my day of reckoning and deep shadows,

and I shall say: ‘Come close!’ And if I thought I might taste her lips the day I die, I should long for the day of my death as if for the Messiah.

Carmi’s agility as an anthologist is evidenced in his leap over the entire nineteenth century; he goes directly from the Italian Ephraim Luzzato (born in 1729) to the Russian Hayim Nahman Bialik (born in 1873, with his first book published in 1901). So much for the Haskalah, the now denigrated Hebrew “Enlightenment” of the nineteenth century. Carmi finds all the Hebrew verse of that century lacking in aesthetic value. Perhaps it is, but one can wonder how some of Carmi’s choices will look in a few generations. But that is the privilege, and the risk, of anthologizers.

Carmi’s modern canon contains no surprises: Bialik, Tchernikhovsky, Greenberg, Shlonsky, Alterman, Gilboa, Amichai, and Pagis are the principal figures, and rightly so. What falls off a little here is not the excellence of the editing but the effect of the translating, though Carmi’s care and skill are undiluted. But where Carmi’s prose is a more appropriate medium for Judah Halevi and Immanuel of Rome than any English verse renditions have been, it does not work as well for Bialik and Amichai. This may be because of Bialik’s surprising affinities to Wordsworth (remarked on by many critics) and Amichai’s overt relationship to much contemporary Anglo-American verse.

To a lesser degree, perhaps, this seems true of most modern Hebrew poets; they tend to write in the mode of European or Anglo-American poems, and so their tone can be conveyed better in contemporary verse translations. An American reader wishing to encounter Bialik ought to turn to Ruth Nevo’s bilingual edition of the Selected Poems (Jerusalem, 1981), just as Amichai is better served by Amen (translated by the author and Ted Hughes, Harper and Row, 1977). Nevo’s versions of Bialik’s “My Father” and “Parting” sound exactly like fragments of The Prelude, but the originals, to an American ear, oddly give something of the same impression.

The last words in a review of this anthology have to be those of praise. So immense and learned a labor, performed with so much literary tact, is very rare in anthologies. What is questionable in or about Carmi’s book is exactly what is questionable about Hebrew poetry. Whether we conceive of literary tradition as a benign process (as Eliot and Frye do) or as a family struggle, with all the peculiar dynamics of psychic and linguistic transference, our sense of tradition depends upon a European or an Anglo-American paradigm. Such paradigms both do and do not work for the tradition of Hebrew poetry. Jewish history is mostly a history of catastrophes, and only a few of those catastrophes have been encouraging for creative work. Yeats thought that passive suffering was not a theme for poetry. He may have been wrong, and Wordsworth certainly would have disagreed with him. Many Hebrew poets would have disagreed also. Whether the terms of the disagreement come from specifically Jewish texts and contexts remains the unresolved question.

  1. *

    The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (Yale University Press, 1981).

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