Nation in a Mirror: Observations on Modern Hebrew Poetry
Frank, Bernhard, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
If we take, as is usual, Chayim Nachman Bialik's first published poem "To a Bird" in Odessa in 1892 as its beginning, modern Hebrew poetry has only just passed its first centennial. Yet that brief period has already seen several new waves ebb and flow.
During the early 1940s, in the corrugated-tin shed that served as our makeshift schoolroom in Ramatayim, we would recite daily, first from the Tanach, then from the poems of Bialik: for us teenagers he simply was Hebrew poetry. Imagine my surprise when, in 1980, setting out to edit Modern Hebrew Poetry for the University of Iowa Press, I learned that Bialik was out. Impossible! Unfathomable!
How and why did that great national poet (1873-1934) get dethroned? Perhaps before asking that we need to examine what had placed him on the throne to begin with. Foremost, of course, is the fact that writing in Hebrew, he revived, almost single-handedly, its use in a living literature. Furthermore, writing in the Galut, a witness to the Russian pogroms, to the suffering of his fellow Jews, led him to sing impassioned songs:
Come with me to the City of Slaughter, come, enter its courtyards and with your own eyes see, and with your own hand feel on the fences
and on the trees, on the stones, on the plaster walls the clotted lifeblood, the hardened brains of the dead.
"In the City of Slaughter"(1)
Even when using personal reminiscences, Bialik sang with great power, as we see in the very opening lines of "My Father":
Strange was the manner of my life and wondrous were its ways, between the pure gate and the tainted shuttled the cycle of my days, the sacred wallowed in the gross, and innocence in squalor.
We see both the horror with which the child observes the tavern, full of besotted gentiles - the father's livelihood - and the latter's anguish "when he left the bosom of God each morning, the very spring of his life,/when he put his holy garments aside, his talit and totafot. . . ."
Perhaps inevitably, Bialik absorbed and, in his work, reflected both the power and the sentimentality of the very Russian spirit he decried. An analog was to be found in the acting style of the famed Habima generally, and of its star, Hannah Robina, in particular - the grand gesture, the grandiloquent voice.
It is this sledgehammer technique that turned a younger generation against Bialik. Those of the Palestinian period, sometimes called the Urban poets, led by Avraham Shlonsky, found Bialik's work too moralizing, too biblical in its language; their emerging spirit of independence did not admit wearing the heart on one's sleeve. Nor would it admit the Jew-as-victim mentality; this despite the fact that Bialik's poems, time and again, chastised the devout congregations for their passivity. "Dated," and "Conservative," was Shlonsky's assessment in 1931.
The new school advocated a westernized idiom rather than Bialik's biblically pure language, preferring subtlety to sentiment, symbol to clarity, and Western sophistication to Eastern European emotionality. It also looked down on the early twentieth century school of the Agrarian, socialist poets, who wrote patriotic songs and celebrated the pioneering spirit. The poems of the best remembered among these, Rachel (Blaustein), were set to music and became the songs of the people. The Urban poets preferred - you guessed it urbanity, and the angst and despair that came with it.
In "Tonight," Nathan Alterman (1910-1970) depicts a couple's failed relationship in terms of a cityscape:
Tonight. The tension in these walls. A voice wakes and demands. A voice answers and ceases. A strange caress. Light of a forced smile. The life and death of a candle. Then the moon coats with masks of wax the icy stare, the window, the landscape, the market-place resting, paralyzed with stroke, in the extended monster-arms of carts and cranes.
Shlonsky (1900-1973) takes urban despair a step further in "John Doe's Dissertation on His Neighborhood":
My apartment building has 5 stories - but for her who leapt from the window opposite 3 were quite enough. …