Yale to Hold Memorial for Amichai, Acquires Israeli Poet's Papers

Yale University will hold a memorial event celebrating the life and work of recently deceased Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai on October 24 at 4:30 p.m. in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

At the “Homage to Amichai,” Benjamin Harshav, the Blaustein Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, will speak about the poet’s literary importance and the interplay between his life and writing. Harshav is one of Amichai’s chief translators. Several Yale professors and students will read from Amichai’s poetry in Hebrew and English, including Harold Bloom, Barbara Harshav, Geoffrey Hartman, Michael Holquist, Leslie Brisman, John Hollander and Maria Rosa Menocal. The event is free and open to the public.

Amichai, who died September 22, had close ties with Yale, teaching and giving readings on campus from time to time.

Weeks before his death, Amichai arranged for the Beinecke Library to receive his extensive personal papers and literary archive. The collection includes all of Amichai’s extant papers - manuscripts of his poems and books and correspondence with fellow writers (including British poet Ted Hughes), as well as diaries, office journals, audiotapes, videotapes, film and printed materials such as clippings, programs and posters. The Amichai papers are the first archive of a major writer in Hebrew to be added to the Beinecke, where they join an extensive international gathering of 20th-century literary archives, including the papers of the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch and poets Ezra Pound, F.T. Marinetti, William Carlos Williams and Czeslaw Milosz.

“This acquisition is a result of many years of discussions with the poet,” said Vincent Giroud, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke. “It is our first major collection of an Israeli writer, and we are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to have the archive of such a major writer as Amichai.”

Amichai was born in Wrzburg, Germany, in 1924 and immigrated in 1936 to Palestine with his Orthodox Jewish family. After high school, he served in the British army during the Second World War, then joined the underground Jewish military organization in Palestine. He was a soldier in the Israeli army, fighting in the Israeli War for Independence and in several later wars. While teaching high school as a livelihood, he attended Hebrew University, where he studied Hebrew literature and the Bible.

Amichai traced his vocation as a writer to his time stationed in Egypt with the British army. There he found an anthology of modern British poetry, and the works of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden included in that book inspired his first serious thoughts about becoming a writer. His first book of poetry, “Now and in Other Days,” was published in 1955 by an avant garde publisher.

Amichai’s works, which include plays, stories, novels, essays, and three children’s books as well as numerous volumes of poetry, have been translated into more than 30 languages. Many are available in English, including two books translated by Ted Hughes (“Amen,” 1977, and “The Early Books,” 1998) and two translated by his friends Barbara and Benjamin Harshav: “Even a Fist was Once an Open Palm with Fingers,” 1991, and a comprehensive selection from all his books, “Yehuda Amichai, a life of poetry, 1948-1994.” His most recent publication in English is “Open Closed Open: Poems,” translated by Chana Bloch and published last March by Harcourt, Brace.

Amichai’s poetry has been praised for its depth and complexity as well as its accessibility, even in translation. His books were best sellers in Israel, and in later years he enjoyed the status of a celebrity.

Amichai’s highly metaphorical verse is characterized by wordplay, allusion and shifting levels of diction, from the literary to the colloquial. While his poetry reflects his lifelong political commitment to Israel, it is also deeply personal, drawing on his own particular experience of war, love, loss, mortality, and everyday life. The role of the poet, he said, was “to name each thing, each feeling, each experience, plainly and accurately, without pretense.”

According to his translator and friend of 50 years, Benjamin Harshav, “Amichai is the most universal Israeli poet, expressing the human condition in the 20th century through the eyes of a Jew and an Israeli. He is the best known Israeli poet, translated into many languages - from English to Russian and from Macedonian to Chinese. In an age of ideology, he celebrated the individual’s private moments and existential situation; in an age of war, he celebrated love and love-making. The most iconoclastic poet, he was anti-establishment and anti-taboo, and saw the role of the poet as the one who raises direct experience against the stereotypes of official discourse. He combined straightforward talk with sudden shifts to analogical situations, comparing the high and the low, the sacred and the mundane, the personal and collective destiny, God and the hapless garage repairman.”

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Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325