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Conceit as a Cardinal Style-Marker in Yehuda Amichai's Poetry


(this text was restored from old computer files, and may be inaccurate or missing)


The abundant use of cardinal style-marker in Yehuda Amichai's works also emphasizes their innovative nature as precursors of a new poetic trend. Amichai's poems, in contrast to the traditional modes of poetic expression, sounded so simple, so direct and prosaic, that they could hardly fall into any of the known and accepted poetic categories. The critics of the new poetic mode were seemingly right in correct accusations against the "poverty" of Amichai and Natan Zach, as they bore in mind the poetic norms prominent in the 1930s and 1940s. States of disbelief, immaturity, insecurity, and instability characterize Amichai's poetry–poetry that is constantly illuminated by the vague colours of sunset, never by the bright colours of broad daylight. Amichai's conceits may appear to be less elaborate than the typical Metaphysical conceit, but it must be undersood that they manifest the voluntary asceticism and leanness of an artist who has undertaken the risky task of uttering the most fundamental and substantial truths.


The topic of my lecture - "Conceit in Amichai's Writing" - is result of many years of close reading in these exceptionally versatile and heterogeneous poems. Despite many generic and stylistic changes that Amichai's poetry has undergone since its early stages the 1950's, conceit was and remained most typical and widespread style-mark of these poems. To my best knowledge, it constitutes core of Amichai's figurative language, and as a most cardinal marker, it can be traced in all textual levels - from microtext to macrotext. abundant use of this style-marker in Amichai's works also emphasizes their innovative nature as precursors of a new poetic trend (especially when confronted with total abstinence of Amichai's predecessors from this "artificial" poetic figure).

With your permission, I shall allow myself a slight digression from this thesis, to tell you briefly about a trial which was held in open court some thirty five years ago. accused sat with bent shoulders, listening carefully to the speeches of both his prosecutor and his counselr defence. Finally,rose from his bench, uttered a few words on his own behalf and read two or three short lyrics, still in manuscript.


(*) a poetic figure, or image, which displays an over-elaborated analogy, often highly calculated, never totally spontaneous. In certain poetic periods, such as Romantic Age, this term gained derogatory connotations, and was condemned as a fanciful manifestation of preciosity, and had often been satirized. In other poetic periods (in 17th century, prime-time of Metaphysical poetry, and in 20th century, with the emergence early modedernism), this figure was highly estimated and widely used.

In Israeli highschools, pupils were still studying Zalman Schneur's " Middle Ages Are Coming" under title of "Contemporary Poetry". "Massada" by Isaac Lamdan and "Bluz" by Yaacov Cahan were also taught as avant-garde poetic works. In literary circles, poems of Abraham Shlonsky, Nathan Alterman and Leah Goldberg were recited. They, however, were considered too new-fashioned to enter Curriculum by overly conscientious members of the Board of Education. Amichai's poems, in contrast to the traditional modes of poetic expression, sounded so simple, so direct and prosaic, that they could hardly fall into any of known and accepted poetic categories. However, there was something in tone and atmosphere of these poems that captured immediate attention. There was an intuitive feeling in air that modern Hebrew poetry is on threshold of a new era. Today, in retrospect, it is evident that in 1950's, a new poetics was established and that Yehuda Amichai is one of its and stimulators, together with Nathan Zach, Daliah Rabikovits and others.

Indeed, when Amichai is confronted with his contemporaries, there is no real stylistic common denominator between them as it may normally be expected from members of same literary group. Nevertheless, a new generation of poets emerged in 1950's, if notr sake of poetic resemblance, than, at least, due to collective abstinence from certain poetic features: the withdrawal from national pathos and and ethos dismissal of all prosodic style-markers characteristic to the early modernists (mechanical rhythm, dissonant riming, regular rime schemes) avoidance of rare and ornamental lexicon, together with the readiness to forsake the verbal pyrotechnics of Shlonsky and his imitators renunciation of complicated syntactic structures, from phraseology, from high-flown epithets and from rich vividness of the Shlonsky-Alterman School.

All these manifestations of conscious abstinence from copiousness eventually resulted in a sense of meagerness and asceticism. The young generation of poets replaced polyphonic, high-mimetic mode of their predecessors with anti-heroic, ironic mode, far from magic impact of Alterman's poetry which was still prevalent at time.

The critics of new poetic mode were seemingly right in their accusations against "poverty" of Amichai and Zach, as they still bore in mind the poetic norms prevalent in 1930's and in the 1940's. These discriminating critics, however, refused to understand that this apparent meagerness is a voluntary renunciation of opulence on the part of young poets who detested "Russian" superfluous sentimentality of Shlonsky and his many imitators. Amichai himself testified in one of his early poems in his bitterly ironic "Bemerchak Shtei Tikvoth" In the Distance of Two Hopes: "Iwho resort to a small part / of words in dictionary". who studied in a religious elementary and secondary school, and could have exhausted the possibilities of intertextual language at his own will, demanded in one of his poems "O Lord, why have you notrsaken me", as his aim was to discharge ostentatious wealth of Old Hebrew and be able to move around with minimal load.


Almost two generations have passed since Amichai's poems have gained world- wide recognition, and it would not be an easy task to trace his innovations today. His personal style, with its typical irony and understatement, has been imitated by many young poets since early 1950's, and has almost turned into a literary convention.I shall therre review here some of vicissitudes in his literary career with aid of one cardinal style- marker, namely "conceit". This scrutiny into Amichai's poetry may reveal that few "cells" selected here are genetically identical to the whole corpus.

It is well known that emergence of Amichai's poetry was induced by antagonism of post-war young generation towards impersonal style of Hebrew Modernists from Shlonsky-Alterman school and towards collective standpoint of most Palmach generation writers who took part in the 1948 War of Independence. Amichai's sonnet "We Loved Here",r instance, title of which served as a general title of a 23-poems-cycle, depicts the post-war atmosphere in a style that was yet unknown in Hebrew literature:

אחר התשואות הראשונות / חזר דוד אל כל הנערים. / וכבר הרועשים בשריונות /

היו כל כך מבוגרים. // בחבטות כף, בצחוק צרוד / ומישהו קלל ואחדים /

ירקו. אבל דוד היה גלמוד / וחש לראשונה שאין עוד דוידים. //

ולא ידע פתאום היכן ינח / את ראש גלית שמשום מה שכח / ועוד החזיק אותו בתלתליו. //

כבד ומיותר היה עכשיו / וציפרי הדם שנדדו הרחק / שוב לא שמעו, כמוהו, את העם צועק.

The unjust and anti-heroic closure of a conflict that has hitherto been clothed with high-flown words of vision keeps on harassing the speaker in these poems - "impractical" poet who meditates about survivors and the dead. The sonnet "Young David" is a pertinent expression of disillusionment of a modern anti-hero who faces realisation of dream of Statehood, discovering that dream surpasses reality in beauty:

אמי מתה בשבועות / בסוף ספירת העומר / אחיה הבכור מת ב-1916, נפל במלחמה,

אני כמעט נפלתי ב-1948, / ואמי מתה ב-1983. / כל בני-האדם מתים בסוף ספירה /

ארוכה או קצרה, / כל בני-האדם נופלים במלחמה ... קברנו אותה בסנהדריה ליד קבר אבי, /

שמרנו לה מקום כמו / באוטובוס או בבית-הקולנוע / שמנו פרחים ואבנים כדי שלא יתפשו את מקומה".

It is not by mere chance that David's comrades in this poem act and sound like veteran Palmach fighters. It is not by mere chance that David is presented simultaneously both as a hero and as an anti-hero whose victorious deeds are far from causing joy and whose only wish is to seclude himself from meddling crowd. Amichai who confessed in one of his poems "Iwould like to die in my own bed" kept on presenting in his poetry a weak and tired speaker, unsure of himself, questioning solid truisms of Palmach generation. He who could easily belong to generation against whichrebelled, Amichai prefers to portray dim twilight pictures, states of "inter-regnum" and disorientation, reflecting constant dissatisfaction and instability. His refusal to belong to any frame of affiliation is expressed in poem "My Parent's Immigration" wheredescribes himself as "too young to die, to oldr playing". In an early poem from cycle "Up on tree there are pine cones",describes himself and his beloved as two electric bulbs" too darkr reading, too luminousr sleeping". States of disbelief, immaturity, insecurity and instability characterize Amichai's poetry - a poetry that is constantly illuminated in vague colours of sunset, and never in bright colours of broad daylight.

The protest against all solid truisms and confident slogans of passing generation is accompanied by many expressions of uncertainty and doubt scattered in Amichai's poems: "maybe", "sometimes", "if", "despite", "although" and so on. These words contribute to argumentative nature of Amichai's poetry which is reflecting an eternal inner struggle. speaker in these poems, (as opposed to "I" in poetry of Abraham Shlonsky and of Alexander Pen, who adapted exaggerated egotism of Majakovski) presents himself as aol and an eiron. Instead of pathos of 1930's and 1940's, the reader is confronted with expressions reflecting understatement and bathos typical of modern Anglo-American and German poetry. Amichai's figures too reveal an inclination towards the Anglo- American poetic style (as opposed to Fench-Russian hyperbolic style) as they are closely related to the Metaphysical conceit which saw a renaissance in 20th century Modernism. In this figure "the most heterogenious ideas are yoked together by violence", or, in more modern phrasing - incongruous semantic fields are arbitrarily attached to each other, resulting in a cognitive dissonance. Usually one of these semantic fields is human, other mechanical or inhuman one is serious and one is playful.

These surprising innovations inrmulae of figurative language, together with the unexpected typological innovations of Amichai ( paradoxical figure of the anti-heroic fighter who is willingly "incriminating" himself as a coward with mant human weaknesses) established original nature of Amichai's poetry when it first emerged in 1950's. Comparing people to small change of money (in Amichai's poem "Out of Three ofur in a Room") is a conspicuous conceit so is comparison between the lovers and electric bulbs or multiplicative numbers (in poetic cycle "Up on tree there are pine-cones"). "Artificial" and manneristic is also comparison between human meditations and unkempt hair (in poem "Woman has Gone"). These Metaphysical conceits are often intermingled with Surrealistic features and with pseudo-Romantic autobiographical themes.

Amichai may be defined as Romantic Mannerist of modern Hebrew poetry, and this definition contains an inherent oxymoron. His poems are Romantic in sense that they obsessively deal with individual, personal memories as an everlasting thematic thesaurus (his parents' home, his paternal worries, his dead comrades etc.). His poems are Manneristic because of the over-sophisticated nature of the similes and metaphors, which manifest an inclination to Line of Wit. Conversely, Amichai sometimes tends to envelope his poems in a visionary veil which obliterates Manneristic and witty impression. Among his contemporaries who have used their biography as an important thematic component (Arie Sivan, Aharon Almog, and to a certain extent Nathan Zach, MoDor and Dalia Rabikovits), Amichai is probably closest to poetic version initiated by Dylan Thomas - a poetic version which comprises memories, dreams and visions together with curious and rare conceits a poetic version which imposes upon reader certain obligations: to read text closely and slowly, to treat it as a sophisticated enigma which requires intellectual qualifications.

Similar poetic modes from history of world literature are often result of similar socio-cultural conditions: extasy typical of poems by Hopkins and Yeats bears genuine resemblance to parallel phenomena in poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg, as they originated in similar socio-cultural conditions. intellectual and inherently paradoxical nature of poems by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound was simultaneously created with rediscovery of treasures of 17th century English Metaphysical poetry. Both historical periods - 17th century and beginning of the 20th century - are characterized by a total crisis of values, by sweeping secularization and by collapse of most ideologies and faiths. A period of disorientation breeds a paradoxical art, like in John Donne's poem "A Valedictionrbidding Mourning" where lovers' souls are compared to legs of compasses. unorganic and surprising nature of this simile which aggressively ties together playful wit with exsistential seriousness is typical of poets who have undegone a traumatic crisis of disorientation and disbelief.

Amichai's conceits may sound less elaborate than the typical Metaphisical conceit, but it must be undersood that they manifest voluntary asceticism and leanness of an artist who has undertaken risky task of saying most fundamental and substantial truths. This poem is constantly moving between poles of birth and death. Despite its anti-pathetic, light and witty nature, cry of newborn and cry of death agony echoes through Amichai's poetry. Despite Romantic style of some of these poems, death is portrayed in a disillusioned, unveiled manner.

In poem "My Mother Died in Shavuoth", speaker recounts his life story making a witty remark about his incidental survival from 1948 war. The count of Omer (41 days between second day of Passover and Pentecost) is customarily associated with interruption of the mourning observed during Omer to celebrate marriages (Lag Ba'omer). The white brical veil is associated with whiteness of old mother's shrouds. This kind of associations are commonlyund in poetry, and consequently they arouse no surprise or amazement. However, association of reserving a burial place and of reserving a seat in the cinema is apparently uncongruous and dissonant. A delayed reflection upon this seemingly impossible comparison will reveal its congruity: final target of reservation of place in both incompatible situations is to spend time - whether temporarily or eternally - near beloved ones. Amichai's poetry often exploits childish delight of going to theatre, to park or to the circus in order to evoke a harsh existential truth about ephemeral nature of life and scarceness of earthly pleasures awaiting Man in this world.

conceit (originated from Italian Concetto) bears a close relation to riddle and enigma. It immediately draws reader's attention due to its unintegral features whichrce reader to discover post factum its strange inner logic. This is mechanism of poem "Real Hero of Attempted Sacrifice of Isaac" ("Hour of Bliss", 1982):

הגיבור האמיתי של העקדה היה האיל / שלא ידע על הקנוניה בין האחרים. /

הוא כמו התנדב למות במקום יצחק. / אני רוצה לשיר עליו שיר זיכרון, /

על הצמר המתולתל ועל עיניו האנושיות / על הקרנים שהיו שקטות כל כך בראשו החי /

ואחר שנשחט עשו מהן שופרות / לקול תרועת מלחמתם / או לקול תרועת שמחתם הגסה.

ram caught in thicket by its horns (Gen. 22, 13), not father and son, draw Amichai's attention. Through an indirect periphrasis Amichai argues that real hero or Sacrifice of Isaac was anonymous ram who died far from well-communicated post-war drama. Even his corpse was cynically used r making shofaroth (ram's horns)r triumphal calls. Death is being commercialized in war-time, it is said here in wrymouthed irony. This poem is an indirect pacifist manifesto bitterly proclaiming unjustice of wars: slogans are being spread, vulgar triumph-albums are being published only innocent victim is being relegated orrgotten. Amichai who had written urgotten line "Iwould like to die in my own bed" directs spot-light at exploited victim who is bearing the iniquity of others in order to expose aimlessness of war. As a pacifist who has always given preference to anti-heroic, Amichai has often manifested iconoclastic inclinations. His poems tend to demythicize all slogans and to expose conventional lies. human gaze of ram's eyes is a reprimand and a memorandum. It is meant to remind those anonymous war victims who paid so dearlyr creation of all those wide-spread slogans that Amichai would have readily rejected.

It has already been claimed here that conceit is ethymologically connected with Wit. Despite the tragic nature of some of Amichai's figurative language, it can often be associated with the cognitive mechanisms of joke and comic anecdote. In some of his inherently tragic poems, based of his autobiography, Amichai takes advantage of same mechanisms exploited in joke-telling, and reader is delighted by the uncovering of the pseudo-logical and pseudo-naive nature of contents. A second reading will reveal that Amichai's conceits are not far- fetched and are far from being ludicrous or absurd. His witticisms are output of a meditative writer and not of a homo ludens or of a verbal acrobat.

In her introduction to a collection of 17th century English Metaphysical poets, Helen Gardner describes conceit as one of cardinal characteristics, or style-markers, of Metaphysical poetry. According to Helen Gardner, conceits attracts immediate attention due to its sharpwittedness and sophistication which overshadow its inner truth. unorganic nature of Amichai's conceits compels reader to set in motion all his analytical abilities.may discover, to his great surprise, that seemingly irmative lines are to be interpreted as an emotional outcry; that "rational" statements are to be undrstood as emotive and sensual that thw seemingly logical is, in fact, pseudo-logical. biblical allusions which apparently envelope the poems with an air of traditional respectability are, in fact, a personal, undiciplined, idiosyncratic statement, free from any classical rules. At a later stage, reader may discover, again to his great surprise that what appears pseudo-logical, even nonsensical, has in fact its own logic - not accepted logic, but a personal, associative kind of logic, hidden rules of which must be carefully traced. Hence, typical conceit in Amichai's poems requires a three stages of comprehension: at first, reader encounters a surprising and dazzling figure of speech then,discovers that the apparently irmative and rational charge of this figure is misleading later on, rediscovers rational side of figure.r instance, in his well-known poem "God, Full of Compassion" opening statement sounds like a logical, even scientific, argument. Then, reader may discover that this is, in fact, an emotional complaint about God withholding his pity and letting dear ones to die (El Male Rahamim is, of course, prayerr dead). Now, God does not appear as overflowing with pity, but as restraining from gratuity and love. Finally, personal logic of statement can be grasped: the opening words of this poem do not contain any blasphemous expression against Heaven. They are words of a soldier who had dragged his comrades' corpses from hills, knowing that heaven is empty and godless - devoid of compassion. All this logical excercise with its conditional mode is meantr this delayed understanding: this is an expression of an unbeliever, of a godless atheist, not naive words of a pious and cormist.

This is the mechanism in many poems, including the poem " Revelation on Mt. Sinai" (Mathan Thora) from 1975 collection "Now, in the Noise".

בשעה שמשה ישב / אצל אלהים בהר סיני וכתב / על הלוח, /

ישבתי בקצה הכיתה, בפינה / וציירתי, חולמני, /

פרחים ופנים, אווירונים / ושמות מקושטים. /

עכשיו אני מראה לכם הכול: / אל תעשו ואל תשמעו!

Here, the well-known biblical story is inverted by an apparently childish pun ("Luach" is both a school blackboard and one of holy tablets of Decalogue). Instead of evoking Revelation on Mt. Sinai and tables of the Testimony, poem portrays a childish picture of a dreamy pupil who is scribbling flowers and airplanes instead of listening to the teacher. Instead of biblical phrase "all that Lord has spoken will we do and obey" (Ex, 24, 7), child playfully teases: "don't do, don't obey". latent sub-text beneath this playful facade jaxtaposes restrictions of the religious way of life and freedom of secular individualism - contrast that is in basis of one of Amichai's well-known quartrains, depicting the father harnessed to his phylacteries and the son to his dreams.

One can conclude and argue that conceit is cardinal micro-text of Amichai's figurative language. Its impact is felt not only in figurative language, but also in allusive language, in rethoric and in many other texual levels. Eventually, it constitutes nature of macrotext, or even Amichai's poetics, in general. The keyword to understanding of Bialik's style is "ambivalence", and one can find its marks in every level. keyword to understanding of Alterman's style is "oxymoron", and it can beund everywhere - from texture to structure. same applies to Amichai: keyword to undrstanding of his poetics is "conceit", and conceits can beund in every possible level of his poems. It can be compared to a genetic code that may beund in every single cell, and eventually characterizes poetic corpus as a whole. This rule applies only to some of the great poetic pioneers who break through poetic restraints and establish new codes. minor imitators, disciples and followers usually change their style markers from time to time, and consequently they rarely have a pesonal, individualistic "fingerprinting":

In the Shlonsky-Alterman generation they would have been admirers of oxymoron and hyperbole in 1950's they would have preferred ironic understatement, interwoven with Manneristic conceits in 1960's they would have converted their style into aggressiveness of Meir Viselteir and Yonah Volach. Conversely, Amichai's poetry, in all its stages and manifestations, is primarily based on one unchanging ethymon, namely: Manneristic conceit. Amichai's imitators usually draw out one component out the complex in its entirety, and therre their use of the conceit is frequently artificial and fanciful, whereas Amichai's use is genuine and full of natural grace.


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