THE SOURCE OF THE POEM
AN INTERVIEW WITH
Ward Kelley: At what age did you first start writing poetry?
Elisha Porat: I published my first chapbook of poems in 1976. It was titled, Hushniya the Minaret. I was then thirty-eight years old. I had started to write the poems two years before the book appeared. These were bad and sad times in Israel, the years after the hard Yom Kippur War of October 1973.
I began to write what I call memory poems; these first poems involved the memories of my best friends who had gone off to the hard war, and the memory of my land, Israel, as she was before this terrible war.
Before 1974 I had only written fiction. My first book of fiction, a collection of short stories, called Desolate Land, was published two months before the war, in the summer of 1973. It was an unlucky first book since both the book and its author were quickly forgotten in the tragic events of Yom Kippur 1973.
So after the war I decided I must start everything from the beginning with my writing, as though I were a new writer. This was really hard.
WK: When you went back to the beginning, you found poetry there?
EP: I, myself, had not thought for a moment that I was going to write poetry. All of my previous writing attempts involved strictly prose; there was no poetry at all. If someone back then had told me that in the next twenty years I would publish four books of poetry, I would have laughed out loud. Poetry was so far away from my true self; poetry was inconceivable for me.
Then my life abruptly changed. My father died suddenly from a heart attack. He was only sixty years old.
The sorrow I felt about my father, and his sudden death, did not come out in my prose. It was too hard for me to make prose about his absence in my life, about my severe longings for him. I remember that my first attempts to deal with his memory unconsciously turned out to be a few short poems. For a long time I didn’t know what to do with a literary experience such as this. I continued to publish prose and fiction, but I kept these early, immature, imperfect poems to myself, something like a secret.
Then exploded the bloody war of October 1973. I spent nearly half a year in the army — until the spring of 1974 — in what would be one of the hardest periods of my life. I was not what you could call a young soldier: I had a family and many commitments in my life, and the war seemed as if it would never finish. Yet it was from the heavy pressure of the war that were born my first perfect poems.
I suddenly found myself compelled to write poetry constantly — I wrote on every piece of paper I could find at the front. I wrote on a cigar box, on ammunition packing, on military dispatches and copies; anything that could be written on, I wrote on it. Some of these poems I sent home to my wife, on soldier cards [editor’s note: postcards issued by the government to soldiers at the front], asking her to keep them for me until I returned on leave. When I finally got home — some leaves were for twenty-four hours, others forty-eight — I discovered that the poems that were there waiting for me now demanded that I sit down and finish them. This was very hard, because I had so little time for such things, but I did it finally.
In that period I couldn’t stop writing poetry. I wrote about my private sorrows, and my yearning for my lost father. I wrote about losing my Israel, the one that we all had before the war, and I wrote about my friends who had been killed in that hard war. The poems came by themselves to me; I didn’t want them, I didn’t call to them, but they came and came and never left me alone.
So suddenly, there in the last days of 1974, I found myself with a book of poems in my hand. My first book of poetry was almost finished.
WK: Much of your work involves war and the plight of the common soldier; what is the poetry of war? What is demanded of the poet who witnesses a war?
EP: My generation is the second generation of the founders of the state of Israel, and we needed to fight almost our whole lives. I was proud to be part of my generation, and also realized I had been given the character of the poet — that special ability to be part of real life, daily life, the life of your times, while at the same time being able to view it all from the outside. The poet can fight, yet also yearn for other times, other places.
In modern Hebrew poetry, we have a great heritage of war poems. After the war of 1948, the war of independence, our poets began writing a great Hebrew war poetry. This modern Hebrew war poetry has become a model for all subsequent Israeli poets. Every poet who is compelled to write war poetry must consider the 1948 model. Back then the identification of oneself with the war policy was absolute — the world of national aspirations was completely integrated into the world of the solitary poet.
Yet in the times when I began to write my own poetry — as a result of the wars I witnessed — it was a far different world. War, as a single solution, was no longer accepted by all; instead, the awareness of the sanctity of a single life was now the conventional outlook. The death of our young soldiers became the main element, and a trend of elegy poems began to take the place of war poetry.
My own war poetry is completely elegy poetry — elegies of the deaths of young soldiers, elegies of their lives, of all nature and the physical landscape surrounding their deaths. The main targets or subjects of war poetry have changed to illustrations of the sorrow and grief over the premature deaths of our young soldiers.
I remember one night, in the middle of the 1973 war, I decided to write my war poems as witness poems. I swore I would be as accurate a witness as I could be — no political lies, no lies of the generals, no empty nationalistic slogans. Nothing from these abominable matters would I bring to my poems. Instead I wanted the little things, the little situations, the common life of the common soldiers whom I knew so well, since I was that common soldier.
And I wrote my elegy poems, my war poems, without hate and without fury or anger. There were no big promises of revenge. I wrote sorrowful poems, exactly as I saw the real war, from the lowly point of view of the common soldier — the point of view of the human, at his most basic level.
My poems witnessed the reality of this hard war. They were testaments of the unique events I lived through in the war. I wanted to capture what was fast forgotten. And another thing I came to understand after a long time — my poems had helped me, maybe, in my struggle against shellshock.
WK: Some readers would say your poems are anti-war. Would you agree?
EP: I was never a proclaimed anti-militarist. And I was never an active pacifist. No, the anti-militarism of my poetry is a later by-product of my writing. I always wrote my poems without any underlying intentions. The only reason I wrote was to answer the primary writing impulse.
The possible anti-war or anti-militarism meanings to my poems all came to light later on. I didn’t consciously write anti-war poetry. Yet it has become clear to me after the years, from the critics and the views of readers, that there is indeed an anti-war message within these poems.
The human aspect of the battle, of the war, is the aspect of which I wrote. And the human aspect can be the only aspect of the common soldier. So I strive to keep my poems clean of nationality arguments, clean of military arguments, and clean of political arguments. I write only of the common soldier’s world in the war, the human aspects of this world.
WK: Are there only Hebrew poets in your own heritage of war poets?
EP: Absolutely not. Let me tell you a little story. In the middle of that dark period of World War II, in 1943, a unique anthology of poetry was published here in Israel — poems translated into Hebrew from the poetry of the world. This anthology concerned war poems: memorial poems and memory poems. Among the many poems from many languages were a few translated from English, and one or two from American-English.
I read this anthology ten years later, in the middle of the 1950’s, and I can remember these feelings so vividly. I was very impressed with the perfect poem of Archibald MacLeish. It was called “The Young Dead Soldiers,” which he wrote in Flanders during the first World War.
This poem received a perfect translation into Hebrew by one of the greatest Hebrew poets, Avraham Schlonsky. The young people all over small Palestine-Eretz Yisrael, all the Jewish guys and girls, read this poem in their meetings. It was quoted in radio broadcasts, in newspapers, and in bulletins everywhere. It was surprising how many in this young Jewish generation knew the poem by heart.
Many, many years later, I found myself in the middle of the war in Lebanon, there in the summer of 1982. One night, as I rested — after a few nights without sleep — somewhere in a field off the road to the Beirut-Damesek highway, I took out a newspaper that was two or three days old. It was a Hebrew newspaper, and in it was a short article about the death of Archibald MacLeish. He had died a few days before this, at the age of 90 . . . God help me! . . . that night I was not attacked by Syrian tanks; I was not attacked by Lebanese troops; no, dear Ward, that night I was attacked by my memories, and the beautiful words and unforgettable lines of his poem now felt like bullets:
“The young dead soldiers do not speak / they have a silence that speaks for them . . .”
I have never forgotten this marvelous memorial poem. A few years after that night in the field where I read of his death — I think it was 1984 or 1985 — I wrote my own Hebrew poem, “The Young Soldier Who Died,” and sent it to the literary supplement of one of our big newspapers. It was published immediately. Days later I changed the name to “The Young Students . . .” and with this name the poem was published in my second book of poems, Shir Zikaron (Poem, Memory) in 1986.
WK: What do you tell the younger generations about war?
EP: A month and a half before the war in Lebanon broke out, I was invited to a classroom to discuss with the young students the meaning of National Memorial Day 1982. I decided to read them the touching poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers” by Archibald MacLeish:
“The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not
They have a silence that speaks for them at night when the
The young students sat quietly under my eyes as I stood at the front of the class; my loud voice echoed throughout the room. Their eyes were glued to my lips. It seemed as though they could sense my old fears, my hard memories swarming back to me from those far away years. I felt as if I were the only man who remembers, the only man who truly knows. And I had a duty, a bloody duty, to remember and to remind others. From far away, from another war — the one of 1973 — I could hear soldiers call to me, the voices of the young soldiers who were lying in the makeshift morgues, I could hear them call, “You will remember us; you will not forget us. You must tell the others, the many people who never knew us, they must see us lying dead in this place, and they must hear how we expected help . . . help that never came. And then you will describe the look of betrayal in our dying eyes.”
The young students watched this great emotion attack me. I pulled out some other papers, more war poems that I had planned to use to illustrate the special meaning of National Memorial Day, but I couldn’t continue my lesson. The faces of my students had suddenly changed into the faces of the soldiers from the MacLeish poem. I stopped in the middle of a sentence, and couldn’t proceed. I begged their forgiveness in a quiet voice, then escaped the classroom.
“They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will
mean what you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace
and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you
who must say this.”
This is an example of one of Elisha’s soldier cards:
On the Way to Nabbatiya
The path to Nabbatiya is truly unpleasant,
even for veteran soldiers such as myself
who, as you know, “are not killed,
but simply vaporize . . .”
I try to bring a quick smile to the lips
of my escort rangers crew, “What do
we really have to lose?” I ask them,
“we’ll go back home, and what good things
are waiting there for us — boring work,
heart attacks, accidents? But here,
you’ll be gone in a minute, all at once,
and you won’t even know where the bullet
comes from, the one that rids you of all
your troubles . . .
then you’ll be granted a charity,
because you’ll finish your life
in ‘dignity,’ as a brave soldier;
soon you’ll be posted in the newspapers,
even the weakest of you who never would
have been absolved — not for a single word —
in your entire life.
And the principal charity?
You’ll remain young forever,
for generations upon generations,
for eternity, and no one can take
this from you.”
Then suddenly, unheedingly,
the joke transforms into an unexpected
seriousness . . . the curvature
of the narrow path becomes sharp;
dark, little bridges appear from nowhere,
as the rocks aside the road draw near
with a frightening closeness,
and the dark, green wood
WK: In a poem concerning Jerusalem, Yehuda Amichai writes, “ . . . already the demons of the past are meeting with the demons of the future . . .” What do your poems tell us about Jerusalem?
EP: Right from my first visit to Jerusalem, I was very impressed by the demons past, the many kinds of spiritual characters: the tragic prophets, the founders of the Jewish religion, the rebels against the Roman Empire, the Jewish poets. All of them comprise the gallery of deceased eccentrics who inhabit this city. I was a young boy then, several years after the war of 1948. Jerusalem was the life-symbol of the hard war of independence. There, so many heroes from ancient history joined the latest heroes: those who broke the blockade of the city, the young fighters from the Palmach battalions, the defenders of the old city, and the loyal civilians who never abandoned the hungry and thirsty city.
From my first meeting with the city, from my first visit, I had the feeling — a strong, strange feeling — that there was much more than just history and memories in Jerusalem. There is something in her atmosphere that is very difficult to define. You could call it demons, you could call it the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” or you could call it holy fever. There is something there that brings men and women to the completion of their religious dreams . . . sometimes a tragic end of their religious dreams. And not only Jews, but the religious and faithful from all religions.
When I, myself, later reached Jerusalem for my first long stay, it was when I was doing my service in the IDF. [editor’s note: Israeli Defense Army. In Hebrew the army is called Zahal.] The year was 1957. I had only been there a short while before I met the messianic demon elements of Jerusalem. One of my first tasks as a young soldier in the city was to persuade another young recruit to come down from one of the city’s high towers. He had fortified himself at the top and threatened to open fire on the citizens. Well, dear Ward, I don’t know if you remember similar cases that happened in the USA after the Korean war, but this case was exactly the same. When the military police finally took him down from the tower, he spewed out a very strange monologue concerning the messiah and the apocalypse; the way he spoke disturbed me. Many years later I wrote a series of short stories about the messianic, tragic elements of the city.
But back in 1957, Jerusalem was a small, neglected town on the edge of the Israeli-Jordanian border. We called the city ‘The Appendix’ because there was no way from it to any other place. For a young Israeli soldier, like myself, it was the real end of the world. This was when I met, for the first time, the many faces of Jerusalem: the desert face; the stony, rocky face (in this period the city had been built only from stones and limestone rocks, and there was no green, no parks or boulevards); and the drying face, the one full of religious tension. I remember her faces deep in my heart. I couldn’t have known back then that someday I would write so much fiction and poetry about my youthful visions of the city.
I also remember several suicide attempts and several actual suicides where students killed themselves by jumping from the high towers to the stony squares. As a precaution, the authorities decided to close the towers. Around this time my girlfriend visited me in the city, and for some reason she had a great desire to go to the top of one of the towers. I wanted to show her all of my Jerusalem, so we attempted to enter a tower, but we were immediately stopped by a guard. Since I was in uniform, he at last decided to allow us entry, but in his own cynical way he tried to protect our souls against the compulsions to leap. He confiscated our identity papers, saying, “It will be much more convenient to identify your bodies after you jump.” I knew what he was doing — it was his rough way of telling us that life is good, and how we, a nice young couple, should know that love is a great thing.
WK: It appears Jerusalem extracts a payment from all she nurtures. With you, did it go beyond a debt of blood — all the way to a debt of poetry?
EP: For many years I was a captive, a total captive, of Jerusalem. I was fascinated by the spiritual tensions of the city. I was a lover of her, and as much an active lover as any other type of love. I loved all of her faces: the topographical face, the geological face, and her spiritual face.
Her spiritual face shows us the religious tensions in her air. And once you view her this way, you come to understand she returns your attention by creating spiritual inspirations in your own heart. In my early prose I wrote about my complicated ties to her. These stories were later collected in my first book of fiction, Desolate Land in 1973. In particular I considered these complexities in my story “Kamatz Alef.”
After the war of 1967, I began to be rehabilitated from my mystical attraction to this cruel city. I started to pass through a process of painful sobering. The spiritual influence, the spiritual magic that pressed on me and my work, began to change into memories. I understood this magic could not be reality but only a great yearning for a spiritual city, a yearning that began in me as a young soldier. A few years later, my close relations with her were almost concluded. We took a pause from each other — I took a pause from Jerusalem, and she took a pause from me.
I felt my love for her dissipate in the wind. It evaporated with my youth, gone with my memories. It was a hard disappointment for me. I can still find some pieces of my old Jerusalem, the divided city, in the far suburbs or I sometimes come upon them suddenly in forgotten yards off the main streets. Then I remember some of her passion. But there is little left of the spiritual town that I knew.
WK: Where did she go?
EP: In the painful period that came to Israel after the terrible war of 1973, I returned to Jerusalem. I spent two full seasons in the Hebrew University, the Department of Jewish Thought. I was surprised to meet a completely strange city. Now it was the real capital of the state, not an aspiring center but the real center of Israel.
In this period the political situation was complicated, and the resulting influence was decisive for every field of the national life. The struggles between the left wing and the right wing of the political map grew very hard. I was there to see the birthing pains of two new political movements — Gush Emunim of the right, and Shalom Achshav of the left.
I remember my young, brilliant, empathetic Rabbi who during his Torah lessons told us, his students, that every Saturday evening he goes into the naked fields of Judea and Samaria. He was an enthusiastic Mitnachel, a settler, and he was a great believer that the day of the messiah was upon us. So on Saturday nights he and his friends would find an unoccupied hill and start to build a Hitnachalut, a new settlement. Of course this was illegal — to take a hill from the Palestinians. So every Sunday the police or the army would appear and remove these settlements. He was a mystery to me, and I felt bewildered when I considered how this same, nice man, my Rabbi — who gave me such pleasure when I heard him discuss the holy studies — became a colonialist during the weekend nights.
When I, myself, drew the duty of night patrols along the border line, walking between our positions and those of the Jordanian legion army, I would meet another Jerusalem during those summer nights. I observed the orthodoxes, the Zealots, playing cards on their small balconies. In a way this shocked me and left a great impression on me, a young, innocent boy from a small kibbutz. Here were the same religious men who had, only an hour before, instructed me to leave my rifle outside the synagogue if I wanted to enter; then here they were, engrossed in their little card games! For many years, in the puritanical society of Israel, it was a sin, an ugly thing, to play cards. And here the Zealots sat! I was shocked. How could these same men, who had been praying so enthusiastically only an hour before, be sitting here playing cards?
WK: So if I were making my own poem about your Jerusalem experience I would start with these ideas: Where did she go? Her religious passions have always, throughout the ages, been subjugated by her politics and her secular temptations. Perhaps this is always her tragic fate. And perhaps this is why you love her so. But you once wrote that you learned to read Hebrew by reading tombstones. What did you mean?
EP: All of my old Hebrew, all of my knowledge of the language and my insights — this was all converted by the cruel and sad wars. In the world of my childhood, in my blessed innocence, I learned a certain Hebrew. But this was before the wars, before my best friends fell in battle, and before Jerusalem changed into its present incarnation. So you see, all of these events ‘unalphabetized’ my old language and injected a foreign sadness into my Hebrew. There were far too many tombstones now for me to retain my original Hebrew.
I learned my mother tongue as a child; now with all of these new Hebrew graves, I forced myself to go back to the child — approach it innocently — to learn the meaning of this great sadness.
WK: Recently I viewed a documentary on Northern Ireland, and in it, a resident makes the remark that it’s possible for both sides to come together, for a few moments, by singing the song “Danny Boy.” I thought the point was made how their love for this song was so great that both sides would willingly suspend their hatred. It led me to wonder if there was anything in the Mideast so greatly loved by all parties as to momentarily suspend the bitterness? Is there such a song or poem for Jerusalem?
EP: I think this question about the power of poetry to improve relations between the two sides — the Palestinians and the Israelis — is a bit too optimistic and too unrealistic.
There are fundamental differences between the two sides. First, the two religions: We are Jews, from the ancient, Jewish faith, and they are Moslems, as are most of the Arab nations. In Northern Ireland both sides have the same basic religion — Christianity. I think the theological difference between Jews and Moslems is many times deeper than the difference between two trends of Christianity. So, it is much too wide a chasm to bridge quickly.
Second, there is the language. We have the Hebrew language, and the Palestinians have the Arab language. Even though these two languages are Semitic and have a common origin, the difference between them is enormous. The Arab language is a living language that hasn’t stopped developing, not for a single day, since the medieval period. Hebrew was, for many, many years, only a writing and reading language. It wasn’t a daily, living language. So you can see for yourself how much they are different. Both sides in Northern Ireland have a common language, and this completely changes the conditions. A common language is a giant, potential bridge for co-existence.
Third, consider our feelings concerning nationality — they make up an important feature of our modern poetry. Both sides, Jews and Arabs, have magnificent traditions behind their poetry. And as you know, dear Ward, our Hebrew poetry reached one of her high points during the Arab occupation of Spain in the Middle Ages. This perfected Arab/Spanish poetry is a period in our poetic history that we call ‘The Golden Age.’ Perhaps this was our best chance for a commonality. But modern Hebrew poetry has a large component of national fervor. And the Hebrew national movement began a long time before the nationality movement of the Palestinian people. Our feelings of nationality, our yearnings for independence — these were the main undercurrents of Hebrew poetry from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. After this, nationality gave way to a real, personalized lyric poetry. Taking a look at Palestinian/Arab poetry, you don’t find the nationality vein until recent times. So I would have to say there’s too big a difference between the two systems of poetry to allow poetry to become a bridge. In our case it’s too hard, as opposed to the poetry or songs of Northern Ireland.
All in all, our political and cultural situation here in the Mideast is absolutely different from that of Northern Ireland. Here, in Israel, we will talk together as much as it takes concerning non-violent coexistence, but our generation can go no farther. We will incessantly pursue trying to live side by side, but our generation cannot live together. And we will have everlasting hopes for a permanent agreement, but we will not be able to share the creation of a common poetry as part of a common culture.
Modern Hebrew poetry is very much influenced by western poetry: modern English poetry, both American and the UK, French, German, and so on. But we’re not influenced from Arabic poetry, not from eastern poetry. I know that what I am saying is not a happy thing, not a glad tiding, but I believe it’s better to see the real, painful situation. For now there are very few points of common ground between the two cultures. Perhaps time will repair this.
WK: If one could say the Golden Age period was the best chance at commonality, how close did Jews and Arabs come?
EP: There were two great movements of poetry during the Golden Age — the Spanish/Arab poetry and the Jewish/Hebrew/Spanish poetry. I would say the Arab poetry was the best, the leader. The historical name of the Arabs in Spain is Maoris. The Jewish poets in Spain, who lived under Moslem rule, envied and admired the perfection of the Arab poem. These Jewish poets tried to prove to both the Arab sultans and the Arab poets that the old Hebrew language didn’t die, that their national language was still alive. All in all, the influence of Arab culture on Jewish culture, in that period, was unlimited.
Even the language was influenced: the Arab poets wrote their great poetry in the Arab language, of course, and in Arab script. But the great Jewish poets of the time wrote their poems in two ways. First in the Hebrew language, in the Hebrew script, and this is what we call the peaks of the Golden Age; then second, they wrote an Arab secular poetry — with Arab words written in Hebrew script! Yes, dear Ward, it’s very interesting, for here we have a Jewish poetry written in what we call the Jewish/Arab language. This hybrid, unique language became extinct after the Christians re-conquered the Iberian peninsula and all the Moslems were expelled. Still it had flourished, at least in poetry, for almost three hundred years.
WK: You’re a member of the first Israeli generation to be raised completely on a kibbutz; and even now, in your sixties, you continue living there. Has your life in the kibbutz made you a more powerful poet?
EP: The Kibbutzim movement is a unique social creation; not only for the Jewish people, and not only for the Zionist movement and the state of Israel, but the movement is unique to the whole world. The Kibbutz revolution is one of insight, a revolution in the relations between an individual and the community. Truly it is one of the most important innovations of our times.
The movement had a definite commitment to the modern, secular trends of the new Jewish/Israeli culture. I can remember how the best modern poets, writers, playwrights, actors, etc., would all look forward to visiting the kibbutzim in order to bring the fruits of their work before what they considered to be their best audiences. I can remember my father and mother hosting many of these guest-artists, bringing them home and talking late into the night. Many of those nights produced burning arguments concerning the right way to build the modern Hebrew culture. I was only a child, but I will never forget this magical, dream-laden, optimistic period.
The regular kibbutz members, the common Halutzim, were equal partners with the famous names of that period — mainly artists from Tel Aviv, the new capital — in creating the new spirit of modernism. I wrote an early short story, “Scar of Pride,” (included in my Hebrew fiction collection, Private Providence) which describes a painful childhood memory. The story is set in Tel Aviv where a meeting occurs between my father — the kibbutznik who is a great admirer of poetry — and a famous poet from the city. Emotions run very high at the meeting, resulting in an accidental injury to myself, but I mention this story to point out how a member of a kibbutz could meet a great poet and be on equal footing.
In the Zionist revolution, and in an ideological, zealot movement like the Kibbutzim, there was a heavy emphasis placed on the verbal world. I remember very well Abba Kovner, the Hebrew poet from my own kibbutz, who went on to become one of modern Hebrew’s greatest poets. I was a little child when he arrived with his group from the burnt remains of Europe. They came from the ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania where Abba had been a partisan, fighting the Nazi troops. To hear him read his poetry! To listen to him speak about poetry! This fundamentally changed my life and the lives of my friends. We were all impacted — this first generation of children who were born in a kibbutz.
Abba published his poems in all the national literary publications, but he also placed his poems in the small, weekly bulletin of our kibbutz. And we avidly read them all, we, the small children, and I can tell you they were a great influence on us. So you can understand why so many of this first generation grew up accustomed to dealing with words, comfortable with the verbal world. From our small kibbutz were to come five prominent poets, among the many poets we produced — women poets mostly, but there were also a few of us men.
The community interest in new publications of Hebrew poetry was great. In our small library you could find all of the important Hebrew poets and writers. The adults of our kibbutz would always talk about well-known poets, and quote their lines, poets from ‘bohemia’ and poets from Tel Aviv. So I was raised with a clear idea that poetry is a very important element in a person’s life, and poets are very important people. Even as a child I knew that poetry was a very honorable part of the world.
Today I think there are several kinds of poets. There are bohemian poets, who need an urban environment and can’t write poetry unless they’re living inside the rushed and crowded metropolitan world. There are vagabond poets who permanently need the life of the nomad — instability in their lives is an important ingredient for their creativity. I think traveling from place to place throughout their whole lives is a creative process, with the travel turned fruitful by their poetry.
But I’m a poet of another kind entirely. I belong to those solitary poets whose whole life passes within a four hundred-meter quadrant. My little patch, the little patch God has given me, includes the old tent and old shack of my parents who were among the founders of my kibbutz. Included, too, are the baby’s house and the children’s house where I grew up and where I spent my happy childhood. Then there’s my elementary school, and my little high school where I spent my complicated teenage years. Also here are my own home — my family’s home — and not to be forgotten, our little cherished cemetery which at times winks at me and invites me to come enjoy the company. All around the buildings of my life are the open fields and dark orchards where I worked and spilled my sweat.
Now I don’t mean to say it’s all idyllic. I spend some very hard hours here. There are hours where I feel an enormous emotional load. I find myself living in two or even three worlds at the same time: the world of my childhood, the world of my memories, and the real world my body occupies. You see, it’s a permanent confrontation with the past — it lives all around me — and such a large part of me belongs to those I remember and to those I can never forget.
Mostly though, this is a special situation, an inspiring situation. So you could say I live in permanent inspiration. This is very important for my creativity, and thus for my poetry. After I became an adult, I discovered the backgrounds of a few excellent American poets who spent their entire lives in the villages of their births. It was not very difficult for me to imagine their circumstances — their entire lives encompassed the whole of what it meant to be them, their poetry, their dreams, hopes, creativity, fears, families, and life.
Who knows? I might be one of the last kibbutz members in the country who is prepared to confess clearly and openly that my little kibbutz is a unique way of existence, and one that created who I am and the poetry I write. My physical existence has been unified with my spiritual existence.
WK: You once said each character in your book, The Messiah of LaGuardia, contained a messianic base in that the dark world surrounding them arouses in these characters a desire to redeem and improve. Later in the same interview you say there is no salvage of things predestined. Could this, then, be a source of your poetry? The contradiction between messianic base and predestination?
EP: Yes, I think that the basic tension between the unlimited boundaries of the human soul and the very limited capabilities of the physical body, and of life itself, is one of the main sources for my literary creations. In two of my fiction collections, The Messiah of LaGuardia and Absolutions, I tried to examine this tension in a few extreme cases. In these collections, all my protagonists — and even in my other works we find a few great souls — have a tremendous impulse to be messianic persons. They seem to dedicate their lives to the salvation of humanity. Every one of them, in his own way, tries to find salvation for both themselves and for others. They have a great faith in the goodness of people, perhaps a naïve belief in the goodness of our world. Yet belief alone does not save them, for they all fail.
My protagonists fight against harsh reality, and they all lose the battle, then end up exiting the world in various cruel ways. I think now, after many years pondering this, that there cannot be a coexistence between the faith in goodness that I held in my youth and the power of evil that surrounds our adult lives. We all must live in the reality of the world, and this is also true for the characters of my books. So time after time, I am forced to ask myself, and to ask my characters, why is it inescapable that we are eternal losers? Why do our lives, everyone’s life, open with so many hopes that are coupled with a belief in goodness, yet end up overcome with such evil, lies and suffering?
Then later in life when I began to write poetry, I adopted another position. Privately, I called it — for myself and several close friends — the position of witness. I changed my basic reference point to the world and to the eternal struggle of the people in it. No more the dichotomy of bad and good; no more messianic hopes to change the world; instead, I adopted the humble position of witness. I decided I would write only about my immediate world, only about my own point of view of the world, the one I witnessed, only about my own immediate sense of life.
Back to the contradiction you mentioned, I think it also depends on the biological cycle of the poet — what is the period of the writer’s life? When you are a young poet, one not yet satiated with the world, you assimilate this stance into your poetry. You are always ready to fight for your own point of view. But when you become older, you come to understand your own narrow corner of the world. In fact, you actually develop your own, safe, little corner. And from this shelter, this literary shelter, this defensible shelter, you send your poetry out into the unruly world.
Maybe it spouts from this whale of disappointment: our world is really not the right place for dreaming messiahs. And could one say that literature — both poetry and fiction — are not really the best tools to fashion a better world? Or maybe it spouts from the realization that all artists, and all of their muses, have only a very brief time to improve the world. Then again, maybe it spouts from my own life’s experience that leads me to see that life is one great struggle against the oblivion.
So then, I think the basic tension between what we call ‘the messianic base outlook’ and predestination can be fertile ground for the beginning poet or writer. And this same tension, this same contradiction, might bring an elder poet and writer to be more modest in his relationship with the world. And maybe this is the birth of wisdom, where one comes to see humility as the proper stance for the poet in the extremely complicated relationship between art and the world.
WK: We have seen many sources of your poetry: your parents, your country, your kibbutz, your Jerusalem, your fallen comrades, your loves. But there is another ingredient, too, is there not? Can you name it?
EP: Yes, I think there is indeed another ingredient behind my writing. I would call it ‘passion for the Hebrew words.’ I have an unlimited passion for the Hebrew language. From the earliest days of my childhood, my parents identified in me a great interest for words, first speaking words, then playing word games, and as I grew up, they saw a passion for reading and writing. Words! Words are the basic building block for literature, for art, and the poet or the writer has a blessed gift. And that gift is one of passion — a passion for words, for paragraphs and the lines that form them, for the language. For a poet and a writer such as myself, the universe and the world I live in, can be exposed by the medium of words, and made legible.
As a little child living in my parents’ austere tent, I had no toys. I can recall times when I fell ill, and I had to stay in the tent, alone with my mind. We were extremely poor in the first years of our kibbutz. It was very hard work, with few benefits. So I had to find substitutes; and the best substitutes for toys, in my estimation, were words. And when the limited language of a small child wasn’t enough for my games, I invented new words. I came up with new Hebrew names for my loving world; I was quite innovative, a little neologist, creating new words for my immediate needs.
So then, from these games, it’s not such a very long way, you know, to my early attempts at writing, to my first tales, or to my first attempts at rhythms.
After many years, when I was now an ‘old’ poet and writer, I found myself often reading Hebrew dictionaries. Heavy reading, perhaps, but not for someone with a passion for words. I often laughed out loud, finding great fun in these dancing words. Yes, dear Ward, still today I can simply sit for hours and read Hebrew dictionaries. Is this not a continuation of my boyhood games? I can draw great pleasure from scrutinizing workbooks, as much pleasure as one can draw from a masterpiece in music or art.
I think artists are born with a different framework for their soul . . . perhaps some flaw . . . as alluring beauty sometimes comes by deviating from the norm . . . for artists grow up different from their friends and their peer groups. In so intimate a society as a child’s groupings, as was my own group of friends, it was really painful to be ‘strange,’ to be different from the others. Children who refuse to consent to certain peer characteristics — power, domination, control or even sports addiction — as a necessity become different. The real question for this boy is how long can he feel ‘estranged’ or ‘another kind of child?’ How long does he go on struggling to be ‘normal?’ Or when does he simply give up this childish struggle and accept his ‘uniqueness?’
So I can say until I was the age of sixteen, I tried with all my heart and senses and conscience to be the same as everyone else, one of the crowd, a normal boy. But after sixteen I realized I really had no choice, I must form my own, distinct, personality. And believe me, my dear Ward, this was a very painful step because the young men of our kibbutz knew that absolute priority is given to community needs. So how does one proclaim a difference?
WK: I suspect most poets, looking back on their childhood, would now say the framework of their souls came first; it preceded their difference. But where did this framework come from that has both afflicted and blessed the poet?
EP: I think the true artist is born with it. Many artists don’t know they were born as artists. Others don’t want to be artists, perhaps because society doesn’t encourage the development of artists. Those artists who don’t know they were born as artists are probably the happiest; they are surely happier than those who know they were born as an artist. Because to be an artist is — among all the other attributes — to live knowing the imperfection of the world. Artists have the ability to recognize the world’s imperfection, the imperfection of mankind, and ultimately their own, the imperfection of the self.
To declare to the world that you are an artist, that you are a real poet, essentially is forbidden. It’s similar to an unwanted pregnancy, because it is opposite of the way of the rest of the world. This is not the right way to happiness, and certainly not the right way to a stable life. So, I think, many artists deep within their souls are frightened to make their art the main trend of their life. In our own times, in the mores of society, to be an artist is to take a severe risk. And how many people like this do you really meet in life?
I think if you devote your life to art, it’s a dangerous step in that it can influence your whole life. It’s a very untraditional step. Most of us, as readers and writers of poetry, prefer to sit well inside our safe lives, to make a little art every now and then, but to always be able to peer out and watch the real poets as they kill themselves for their art. Within our safe shelters of some secure profession, we sit and watch how others, the real poets, the lost poets, give all of their lives to poetry.
Some of us prefer to hide behind the safe walls of universities; some of us prefer to hide within respectable jobs; others prefer to simply use the cliché, “I wish I had the guts to dedicate my entire life to poetry . . . like those damn poets . . .” But nearly all of us don’t make that silly mistake . . . we keep our regular lives, and from time to time long for this other, impossible life.
Sometimes I think that those people who don’t know they’re artists are truly the happiest of all. The heartworms of pride, of strange selection, never nibble at their hearts. And they never suffer for their difference from the rest of their society.
Yet, from the other hand, I see there are a few moments in an artist’s life that might compensate, moments of supreme happiness. Very rare moments, very expensive moments, but there are times when the poet steps where no one else has ever dared. I mean those moments when you have taken one more small but vital step toward the completion of your vision, your poetic vision, your dream of the perfect poem, the one you have been seeking your entire life.
Well, dear Ward, I don’t know if this is the right answer to your question, but it’s the right answer to my own question, and now we must finish. I hope all is well with you.
Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh
May – July 1999