Yehuda Amichai: Poems & Biography

Instructor: Kiesa Kay

Kiesa Kay has taught college English and has a master's degree in English, with honors.

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) lived as an Orthodox Jew and a warrior before he became a world-renowned poet. He received the Israel Prize for Poetry and has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

A Warrior Poet for Peace

Yehuda Amichai, considered Israel's greatest modern poet, once said, 'A poet's state of mind is seeing the world with a kind of double exposure, seeing undertones and overtones, seeing the world as it is.' Before becoming a poet, Amichai himself saw the world as it was.

Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Wurtzburg, Germany in 1924, he knew the realities of anti-Semitism, and the comforts of a warm, loving family. When his parents moved to Palestine in the 1930s, along with the families of his mother and father, they escaped the horrors of the Holocaust.

At the age of 18, he fought in the Second World War, and also fell in love for the first time. He wrote poetry for his beloved, but it was not published. After the war, he joined a Haganah commando unit. However, poetry always kept his attention, and he published his first book, Now and In Other Days, at the age of 31 in 1955.

He fought for Israel's creation, although he considers himself to be as peaceful as a pacifist. This apparent contradiction, or paradox, demonstrates only one of the many paradoxical aspects of his life and work. He participated in the war of 1973, but he staunchly avoids ideology.

Amichai states that he has the ability to transcend time through memory, whisking from the present to the past to the future and back again. His poetry reflects this timeless aesthetic. His first book contained colloquial language, ushering in original form and contemporary content into Israeli poetry. Amichai died in Jerusalem in 2000.

A Poet for Israel

Amichai wrote, 'A child is a missile into the coming generations./I launched him: I'm still trembling.' In the same poem, he puts that same child in the Garden of Eden, amidst wet pine needles. This paradoxical juxtaposition of volatile power and innocence characterize the raw balance in Amichai's work. In 'Tel Gath' he returns to his own past:

'I brought my children to the mound / Where once I fought battles, / So they would understand the things I did do / And forgive me for the things I didn't do.'

He grew up with his country, coming of age as Israel was born as a nation. His poetry often displays gentle humor, puns and plays on words that have a distinct resonance in the original Hebrew. His work has been translated into forty different languages, and yet, despite his fame, he never wanted to be famous for his poetry. He simply wrote poetry to process and feel the joy and terror of everyday existence in a land born from war, torn from war, and ever-resilient.

Of being a poet, Amichai said, 'I think when you're a poet you have to forget you're a poet - a real poet doesn't draw attention to the fact he's a poet. The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet.'

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