Israel’s Poetry Reflects Story of a Nation

March 21, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
Loading the player...
Poets played a major role voicing the hardships and joys during Israel's founding. Today, the poetry scene is more fractured, much like the land itself. Three prominent Israeli poets reflect on the situation. A follow-up piece will feature Palestinian poets.

AGI MISHOL, Israeli Poet: I was hearing the bombing and…

JEFFREY BROWN: You could hear the bombing from here, from Gaza?

AGI MISHOL: All day long, all night, yes, I mean…

JEFFREY BROWN: On a farm south of Tel Aviv and just about a half-hour north from Gaza, Agi Mishol and her husband grow peaches and pomegranates for export to Europe. As winter neared its end here, peach trees were beginning to blossom.

AGI MISHOL: This is a small baby peach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mishol was born in 1947, the only child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, just a year before Israel itself was born.

AGI MISHOL: My personal history, it is like the history of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is that like? What does that feel like?

AGI MISHOL: It means starting something new, coming from somewhere and starting something new.

JEFFREY BROWN: Agi Mishol the poet, one of Israel’s best-known, writes about the geese on her farm, about love, and the small moments of life. But always there in the background, and sometimes up close, is the political conflict she’s lived amid her entire life.

A book of her poetry translated into English is called “Look There.” The very first line of this book, your book, translated into English: “In the beginning were the words; after that I heard the boom.”

AGI MISHOL: I mean, every time that something happened, like an explosion or suicide bombers, when we watch television, somebody always says, “And then I heard the boom.” So, being the poet, when I want to taste this sentence, I must put it in a poem. This is how it tastes.


AGI MISHOL: To “taste” the sentence. Poets are seismographs of the language, because never mind what poetry’s about; it is always about language, first of all.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is it also about the events around you?

AGI MISHOL: Well, of course, it did percolate to the poetry, because these are the materials that I breathe. It’s all around me. I don’t consider myself as a political poet; I don’t even want to be a political poet. But I could not avoid it. I could not avoid it.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the streets and beaches of Tel Aviv today, life goes on in a strange kind of normality, and one can almost forget the long, often bloody struggle in this land.

But on the very day we were in Tel Aviv, police announced the arrest of a would-be suicide bomber in the city. Several years ago, such bombings were common.

Agi Mishol read for us the beginning of her poem about one such incident, involving a young Palestinian woman named Andaleeb Takatka who blew up herself and six others in a bakery.

AGI MISHOL: You are only twenty

and your first pregnancy is a bomb.

Under your broad skirt you are pregnant with dynamite

and metal shavings. This is how you walk in the market,

ticking among the people, you, Andaleeb Takatka.

Someone loosened the screws in your head

and launched you toward the city;

even though you come from Bethlehem,

the House of Bread, you chose a bakery.

And there you pulled the trigger out of yourself,

and together with the Sabbath loaves,

sesame and poppy seed,

you flung yourself into the sky.

Poet's work highlights past

Eliaz Cohen
I started to write again. In a way, I was a bit like the person who leads the prayer, who expresses the prayers on behalf of the community. And I think what I wrote really spoke to lots of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: In another part of the land, just south of Jerusalem, another reality of the Mideast story: a cluster of Jewish settlements called Gush Etzion and a young poet named Eliaz Cohen.

ELIAZ COHEN, Israeli Poet: It's like paradise.


ELIAZ COHEN: Look around you. It's very lovely, very quietly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cohen is among a group of writers bringing a more religious voice to Israel's cultural life. For him, the place where he lives and the language he uses have deep historical connections.

ELIAZ COHEN (through translator): I feel what we have here is a spring of Jewish destiny, where it all started. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs of the Jewish people, used to walk these hills.

It's a real miracle, this rebirth of the Hebrew language. Every time I write, in my blood it circulates. It's everything, all the way from Genesis up to the daily paper I read. When I go surfing on the Internet, it's all there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the recent history of this place is bloody and contentious. The kibbutz was founded by Jewish settlers in the 1940s, then destroyed. Many of the original inhabitants were killed in the 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

For 19 years, this area was under Jordanian control, until Israel's victory in the six-day war. Jewish settlers returned here; others built new settlements throughout the West Bank.

As always here, words and names carry great weight. To most of the world, this is the "occupied" West Bank. To the settlers, these are the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

From Gush Etzion, Eliaz Cohen can see a Palestinian village across the valley. In his poetry, he writes of a lost "brotherhood" between Jews and Arabs.

Do you feel yourself surrounded, do you feel yourself having encroached on an area that many would say belongs to others?

ELIAZ COHEN (through translator): I don't have that feeling here. I feel that this is a place that was conquered and occupied for 19 years by the Arabs and, following 1967, we had a reestablishment of justice here.

But the other thing I want to say is that there are places throughout the whole country which have to be shared, where we should be thinking more in terms of partnership and not in terms of either/or.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2005, Israeli troops removed Jewish settlers from their homes in Gaza. It was a traumatic moment for the settler movement, and for the nation as a whole.

Cohen wrote a poem, translated as "Invitation to Cry," to address the pain of the settlers, but also of the Israeli soldiers. He was trying, he says, to renew a sense of "Israeli solidarity, which we have lost."

In recent years, he says, he himself has found a new, more public voice.

ELIAZ COHEN (through translator): I started to write again. In a way, I was a bit like the person who leads the prayer, who expresses the prayers on behalf of the community. And I think what I wrote really spoke to lots of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: In "Poem from a Mountain Village," Cohen writes of himself in the present and in history. Here's a passage.

ELIAZ COHEN: My life is here

in my house which I dug

in the mountain

I would walk

my face against the wind

one of the hallowed winds

of Gush Etzion

all the stone houses are like

boulders growing out of the earth

raising rock fetuses

children of stone.

I am not of stone, in me

all is recorded

Poet's work tells society's anger

Aharon Shabtai
The world is big, and there are many big things, and poetry is tiny. But this tiny thing, it's like a small knife that you have in your pocket. But this is something that can say very important things.

AHARON SHABTAI, Israeli Poet: Poets are a mirror to what happens. And they're also teachers. They dare say things that others don't say.

JEFFREY BROWN: If Eliaz Cohen sees a renewed land, Aharon Shabtai sees a land being destroyed. It wasn't always this way.

Shabtai, now 68, is known in Israel as a translator of Greek drama and poetry into Hebrew, and as a poet who brings a classical sensibility to modern life, especially to modern love. Indeed, an earlier collection of work translated into English was titled "Love." A new one, however, called "J'accuse," has a very different tone.

AHARON SHABTAI: The poetry, when I was young and when I was in love with the land, suddenly, we have a land, and we have all the possibilities, options to make the land beautiful to grow up, and to -- and also to cross the borders for peace.

And now, suddenly, it's another image. It's an image of closing, of a wall, and the wall is also something that's internalized in the people. It's a wall of fear, of hate, of incomprehension.

JEFFREY BROWN: To keep suicide bombers out of Israel, the government continues construction of a high barrier, which it refers to as a "security fence." To Palestinians and some Israeli critics, it's a punitive wall meant to intimidate and seize territory.

Shabtai says language itself is being abused by everyone in this conflict.

AHARON SHABTAI: Most people are very good, also in Israel. But to continue living, they have to lie to themselves, or to repress it, or to disavow it. And this also ruins the fabric of the language itself, because the language loses its sort of transparency.

JEFFREY BROWN: The language in his own poetry now sounds ripped from today's headlines. One poem, which speaks of the anger he sees in Israeli society, begins this way.

AHARON SHABTAI: "As we were marching."

Two days ago in Rafi'ah,

nine Arabs were killed,

yesterday six

were killed in Hebron,

and today -- just two.

Last year

as we were marching

from Shenkin Street,

a man on a motorcycle

shouted toward us:

"Death to the Arabs!"

JEFFREY BROWN: This particular moment, Shabtai says, is not the time to write of love.

AHARON SHABTAI: The world is big, and there are many big things, and poetry is tiny. But this tiny thing, it's like a small knife that you have in your pocket. But this is something that can say very important things.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the poets we spoke with, the land and its people remain at the heart of their work, and that means that the conflict in this land is always present in the poetry itself. At its best, Agi Mishol told us, the role of poetry is "to remind us, to wake us up to something higher."