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Yehuda Amichai; Revolutionized Hebrew Poetry

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yehuda Amichai, who for much of Israel’s existence chronicled its life in poems of simple elegance about war, death, love and Jerusalem, died Friday of cancer at 76. His death triggered an outpouring of grief from a nation that long ago embraced him as its unofficial national poet and credited him with revolutionizing Hebrew poetry.

“I cannot picture my life without his poetry,” author Meir Shalev, his voice breaking with emotion, said in an interview with Israel Radio. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres lauded Amichai as “the most important contemporary poet Israel had,” saying in an interview Friday that Amichai’s main subjects were “his experience of war and his desire for peace, and Jerusalem.” President Moshe Katsav called Amichai “the most noble embodiment of the creativity of the Jewish-Israeli culture.”

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Amichai “will be remembered mainly as one who expressed with moving words the great pain caused by the grave results of wars and the heavy price of bereavement.”

In 1994, when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin traveled to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize that he shared with Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he took Amichai with him. As the poet sat in the audience of distinguished guests at the ceremony, Rabin, the warrior-turned-peacemaker, used one of Amichai’s antiwar poems to illustrate his longing for peace.

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“God takes pity on kindergartners,” the former general read in his gravelly voice. “Less so on schoolchildren/And will no longer pity their elders/Leaving them to their own/And sometimes they will have to crawl on all fours/Through the burning sand/to reach the casualty station/Bleeding.”

Amichai wrote more than 30 books of poetry and prose, and his works have been translated into more than 30 languages. He wrote the lyrics to some of Israel’s most popular songs.

He told an interviewer in 1990 that he was forced to self-publish his first book of poetry, which appeared in 1955, because no one else would publish it. Amichai’s last book of poems, published less than three years before his death, stayed on Israel’s best-seller list for weeks.

He was honored with literary prizes both in Israel and abroad but never achieved his dream of a Nobel Prize for literature.

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Amichai was credited with transforming Hebrew poetry by injecting new idioms, an informality of style and a rich wit, and for making the mundane worthy of notice.

Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua described Amichai as a revolutionary who “brought the language of poetry to eye level and used everyday language without making it banal and without making it simple.” Lawmaker Yossi Sarid praised Amichai as the “chief of staff of the war of independence of the Hebrew language, and its liberation from ornate and pompous rhetoric. He released poetry into civilian life.”

Yitzhak Laor, who belongs to a younger generation of Israeli poets, said he and his peers were influenced by Amichai. “He taught us to feel,” Laor said. “He wrote very thoughtful emotions, and he wrote about sex when Hebrew poetry didn’t dare write about sex.”

“Any item in the world--cities, a woman, a tree--became a poetic subject in his poetry,” said Gershon Shaked, a retired professor of Hebrew literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

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One of the poet’s favorite subjects was Jerusalem, where he lived for more than 60 years. Time and again, Amichai tried to capture the real life pulsing through a city that often seems to be a collection of symbols layered over history.

“People, simply, have to always be more important than rocks or historical sites, and as long as that’s not the case, there will never be peace,” Amichai once told an interviewer.

Born into a religious Jewish family in Wuerzburg, Germany, in 1924, Amichai fled with his family in 1936 to Palestine. As a teenager, he fought in the British army, and later served in the Palmah, the elite strike force of the Jewish underground that fought the British regime.

Amichai’s war experiences colored his poetry for the rest of his life. In one of his earliest poems, he wrote that “I want to die on my bed and not in any war or any struggle,” a subversive proposition when the heroic exploits of its soldiers were the stuff of popular culture in the newly born Jewish state.

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“He was the poet who started in this country the poetry of ‘make love, not war,’ ” Shaked said.

Amichai is to be buried Sunday in Jerusalem.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

From “I Foretell the Days of Yore”

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By Yehuda Amichai

The flight attendants of the next millennium came to me and said:

You can still get a seat on the third millennium before liftoff.

Come with us, dead or alive, we’ll take you along. We have no

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malice,

no defenses, but we’re strong and mobile as constellations,

our eyes are closed but we can see.

We are women who glide between life and death.

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You with your seat belts and gear belts and buckles that click shut,

you, sir, you with the noise of a door closing,

we with our voices of glide and whisper.

Our belts are not for safety or holding up our clothes,

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they are snakes, they are not decoration. Gliding spirals,

we are acrobats looping the loops of wish and would.

You with your warm worries and emotions

heavy as cow dung in the field,

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you with the sweat of your death like an afterlife perfume.

--TRANSLATED FROM HEBREW BY CHANA BLOCH AND CHANA KRONFELD

From “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai (Harcourt Brace)


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