Yehuda Amichai: At Play in the Fields of Verse

Yehuda Amichai was an exuberant person with a lively, impish sense of humor. He was, at the same time, a melancholy man. Perhaps the note of melancholy, accompanied by a certain hint of fatigue, became more pronounced in his later years, but Amichai's sense of fun never entirely left him. Both traits of his personality are present in his poetry in shifting combinations and permutations, with the playfulness actually feeding into the darker brooding of his poems.

Amichai's playfulness is most spectacularly evident in his use of figurative language. He did not, as far as I can tell, have a fixed aesthetic program for using a particular kind of imagery. Rather, his imagination reveled in seizing possibilities for metaphor from unlikely directions (he was similarly inventive in conversation). Amichai's characteristic move was to light on some familiar object and, in a quick gesture, usually not felt as a conceit, use it to focus an emotion or even serve as a gateway for vision: "Longing is shut up inside me like air bubbles / in a loaf of bread." "My girl left her love on the sidewalk / like a bicycle. All night long outside and in the dew." "For my heart has lifted weights of pain / in the terrible competitions." "I see you taking something from the fridge, / lit up from within it in the light from another world." Ordinary material objects sometimes take on a wild life of their own: "All night long your empty shoes screamed / by the side of your bed." There are constant crisscrossings between emotion or abstraction and materiality, as in "A will like the fingers of a cast-off glove." This frequently leads to a flamboyant syntactic bracketing together of terms from disparate semantic realms. This device is nowhere more insistently and extravagantly used than in the brilliant long autobiographical poem, "The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela." Here is a brief representative instance:

          Echoing and hollowing Rosh Hashanah halls
          and Yom Kippur machines of bright metal,
          prayer-gears, an assembly line of bowing and prostration
          in a melancholy mumble.

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About the Author

Robert Alter's most recent book is The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary (Norton).


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