The Bell Jar Shatters: The Political Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch

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At the end of August, Dahlia Ravikovitch, one of the great Hebrew poets of our time, was found dead in her apartment in Tel Aviv. The outpouring of grief in the Israeli media testifies to the the major role that Ravikovitch played in the world of Hebrew letters.

Ravikovitch was well-known for the fearless clarity with which she took on political issues, not only in her poetry but also in the public arena. She frequently participated in protests against the Occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians. Nor did Ravikovitch hesitate to speak out about Israeli society; as Lawrence Joffe noted in an obituary in the Guardian, "She campaigned for Palestinian rights, and against messianic settler nationalists, yet she also criticized her fellow Israeli secularists' 'culture of nothingness.'" Whenever Ravikovitch appeared on TV, speaking truth to power in her precise, unadorned language, undeterred and undeflected by the scripted pronouncements of politicians and generals, there would be a morning-after tempest in all the newspapers. Poets still have a vital presence in Israel, it appears-especially considering their marginality in our own society, where such a response would be unimaginable.

At a writers' conference in Berkeley in the late 1980s, we asked Dahlia Ravikovitch what made her turn so forcefully to the political in her poetry after years of writing primarily personal lyrics. Her answer came quickly: "Till the invasion of Lebanon [in 1982], I managed somehow to go on living inside a bell jar. But then suddenly, all at once, when the invasion started, the bell jar shattered. Now there's no wall between the political and the personal. It all comes rushing in."

At the time of her death, Dahlia Ravikovitch was considered Israel's greatest living poet. She produced a powerful body of work-ten volumes of poetry, three collections of short stories, and several books of childrens' verse-and translated Poe, Yeats, and Eliot, as well as children's classics, into Hebrew. A much-beloved poet, widely honored for her artistry and her courage, Ravikovitch enjoyed canonical stature from the beginning of her career, and was considered a cultural icon in Israel.

No other Hebrew poet, with the exception of the late Yehuda Amichai, was so universally embraced by Israelis, whatever their political convictions. Ravikovitch's poems, like Amichai's, were integrated into all facets of Israeli public life-set to music and adapted in theatrical productions, experimental films, dance performances, and art exhibits. Her work has long been a staple of the Israeli school curriculum, required reading for matriculation exams, as well as the subject of numerous articles, monographs and dissertations in Hebrew. And her poems have been appropriated by politicians past and present, who were given to reciting her work on public occasions even when dearly troubled by its critical stance.

Among Ravikovitch's many awards were the Bialik Prize, the major Israeli literary award, the Prime Minister's Prize, and the Israel Prize, the highest national honor. When awarding her the Israel Prize in 1998, the judges noted: "Her poetic style is distinguished by its skillful synthesis of a rich literary language with the colloquial idiom, and of her personal outcry with that of the collective. This has made her the most important-indeed the most distinctive-Hebrew poet of our time. She is the central pillar of Hebrew lyric poetry." Her poems have been translated into numerous languages, ranging from Arabic and Chinese to Serbo-Croatian and Vietnamese.

Ravikovitch was born in 1936 in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. She studied English literature and Hebrew linguistics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her first book of poems, The Love of an Orange, appeared in 1959 when she was 23, immediately establishing her as one of the leading voices of the post-1948 generation, alongside her elders Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zach. …