Amadé Esperer: Yitzhak, you are one of the leading and most important authors of contemporary Hebrew poetry. Your work comprises numerous poetry books, novels, reportages and even political essays and has been translated in many languages. What brought you to lyrical poetry?
Yitzhak Laor: Though my first book (1981) was of prose, right after that (1982) my first poetry book was published, where my restrained language prevailed. There are mostly short poems with an image in the center of each and every one of them. It had my voice already present though It would take me some years to realize that this is what I was after.
The longing made me very tired הַגַּעְגּוּעִים עָשֹוּ אוֹתִי עָיֵף מְאֹד
as if there were no place for me to rest כְּאִלּוּ אֵין לִי שׁוּם מָקוֹם לָנוּחַ
as if the only place I was at res tכְּאִלּוּ הַמָּקוֹם הַיְחִידִי שֶׁנַּחְתִּי בּוֹ
were just with you, inside your body הָיָה אֶצְלֵךְ, בְּתוֹךְ הַגּוּף
A.E.: What is your motif for writing lyrical poems?
Yitzhak Laor: If you mean my main motif, it is hard for me to answer, though in the last years, I find the struggle to write a poem, to overcome the loss of literary community, of a discourse as an enemy that threatens to tell me “Schweig du!”
A.E.: Only recently the wonderful poetry collection „Auf dieser Erde die in Schönheit gehüllt in Schönheit ist und Wörtern misstrauen“ was published here in a very nice bilingual German-Hebrew edition by Mathes & Seitz. The poems in it are all written in free verse and yet concise and full of poetic energy. Do you also use sonnets and other classical forms, or do you consider the traditional forms to be outdated?
Yitzhak Laor: The poetry collection you mentioned, which Anne Birkenhauer has translated so brilliantly, contains only a very small number of my poems published to date. In my last Hebrew poetry collection, for example, there are a lot of sonnets.
AE: What role do you actually attribute to the rhyme? Your poem „Here (כאן)“ comes to my mind. It is rich in internal rhymes and plays cleverly with the words: „Sand, bundles, everything, blue (חול, הכחול, הכל, אשכול) „, which all rhyme in Hebrew.
YL: Yes, it is true, I use rhymes in my poems, and I do so in such a way that the reader encounters them, loses them in between and then finds them again somewhere. This should all be unexpected for the reader. But, of course, it depends on the particular poem, and you often have to make compromises so that the rhyme doesn’t become problematic.
AE: When does the rhyme become problematic in your eyes?
Yitzhak Laor: When it is bad, I mean, when it turns the poem into a song, when it helps the reader to dip in a convenient bath with gentle soap.
AE: In Romy Someck’s or Agi Mishol’s poems, for example, I noticed that they hardly use classical forms. Is that typical for the contemporary Hebrew poetry scene?
Yithak Laor: Romy Someck is strongly influenced by the lyrics of North American rock music of the 1970s, especially in formulating metaphor with hard slang. I don’t know that much about Agi Mishol.
AE: Yehuda Amichai said about his poems that they somehow were all political. Actually, that is true for your poetry in an even stricter sense. Frequently you don’t shy away from open criticism. You are often very direct, like in the poem with the ironically long title „Poem about the Prime minister and a footnote at the end“ (שיר על ראש הממשלה הממשלה והערת שוליים בסופו)“. Contrary to what the title might suggest, the whole poem consists of just a single footnote placed at the bottom of the page, whereas, where one would expect the poem’s text, the page is completely left empty. This seems to me to be an extremely ironic way of lyrically expressing the „great“ importance of the prime minister, isn’t it?
Yitzhak Laor: Yes, but to be fair, I liked that premier. He was honest. He didn’t prevent me from getting the prize, he just refused to sign it.
A.E. Can you tell us a little bit about the background, about your motivation for this poem?
Yitzhak Laor: When I was awarded the Israeli Poetry Prize by the Prime Minister in 1991, Yitzhak Shamir, the then prime minister of Israel, refused to sign the certificate. The poem was then my reaction to it.
AE: In another poem „The Finger of God (אצבע אלוהים)“ you are even more drastic when it says for example: „…until Ariel Sharon, his name be erased, …“. That sounds like great contempt for Sharon and his politics.
Yitzhak Laor: Yes, that is what one of the soldiers in the cycle „Three Years“ says about Sharon.
AE: What actually was the reaction to this poem, which juxtaposes a central pious topos, the finger of God, side by side to a military-aggressive context?
Yitzhak Laor: Well, reaction? I can’t really recall any particular reaction, except that I received the Yehuda Amichai Prize for the volume „Leviathan City (עיר הלוויתן)“ in which it is printed.
As far as tradition is concerned, it is unfortunately the case that the educated reader prefers critical poems from the past and spits on the criticism expressed in contemporary poetry
AE: Certainly, your highly political poems, which are often very critical of current Israeli domestic politics, have earned you the reputation of an “enfant terrible”. But basically, your sharp criticism is also part of a long Jewish tradition, and many of your political poems may also be read as modern midrashim. Would you agree?
Yitzhak Laor: Yes, you’re right. Some poems were sharp, aggressive and should be like a slap in the face of the nice bourgeois readers at the time. As far as tradition is concerned, it is unfortunately the case that the educated reader prefers critical poems from the past and spits on the criticism expressed in contemporary poetry.
AE: Is my impression correct that your poems, compared to those of other Israeli authors, contain an abundancy of allusions to the Tanach, Talmud, Siddur and other traditional Jewish texts?
Yitzhak Laor: Yes, that’s true.
AE: In this respect, your poetry is quite comparable to Amichai’s, whose poems also abound with intertextual references to traditional Jewish texts.
Yitzhak Laor: That’s also true.
AE: Also, your critical attitude towards war and nationalism seems to me to indicate a similarity to Amichai.
Yitzhak Laor: Well, there is a clear difference between Amichai’s poetry and mine. Amichai was friendly and forgiving, a good „catholic“, he came from Würzburg. While I am more aggressive, more „protestant“ in my verse, maybe because my father was from Bielefeld.
My lyrical poetry is steeped in German aesthetics
AE: Is it due to your father’s influence that you became so much involved and knowledgeable in German literature?
Yitzhak Laor: The truth is that my father never spoke German to his sone and his daughter. Though he loved that language. My desire for that language was part of my mourning labor. After his death I went to Berlin and took some courses at the Goethe institute.
E: In this context, it seems appropriate to ask you to comment a bit on your marvelous poem »Beauty (יופי)« that variegates the baroque vanitas topic. The initial lines of this poem clearly allude to Goethe’s famous Mignon song “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? (Do you know the country where the lemons bloom?)” :
Do you know the country
where the potatoes bloom
where the cucumbers‘ blossoms
yellowish grow? Do you know
the cucumbers’ odor in the boxes
Did you mean „Beauty„, which is a serenely serious counterfacture of Goethes poem as an homage to Goethe or was it meant to make fun of the well-educated poetry consumer?
Yitzhak LAOR: Well, I bumped into Goethe through Brecht. That’s about the whole story. While my “prose grammatic” is quasi German, ironic and wordy, my lyrical poetry is imbued with German aesthetics.
AE: Let’s get back to Amichai. Did you know Amichai personally?
Yitzhak Laor: I knew Yehuda Amichai only vaguely. He was always very friendly, modest and polite. We met a few times for talks, the first time in 1972, when I was still a student and about to fly to Germany for the first time. I told him that I feared being inhumane by doing so. He replied, „Why do you have to be humane?“
The last conversation with him, in 1995, was brief. We were standing next to each other on a toilet taking a piss and he joked: „I’ll show you mine and you show me yours“. We didn’t do that, of course.
AE: To my knowledge you’ve had some differences of opinion. Can you explain that a little bit?
Yitzhak Laor: I mentioned Amichai in one of my poems as the only poet who was on Begin’s side when the Lebanon war began. The prose writers were all for the war. But the Israeli prose writers are all whores anyway.
AE: Does Amichai still play a role in Israeli poetry today?
Yitzhak Laor: Amichai is still the most popular poet among Israeli readers.
AE: Is it still true that Israelis are voracious readers of lyrical poetry?
Yitzhak Laor: They used to be. Now, they only write poetry and teach to write poetry but they don’t read poetry. No.
By the way, as far as the character of Abraham is concerned,
I think I was the first to portray him as a killer
AE: In your wonderful poem „This Idiot Isaac (Last Version)“ you thematize a central narrative of Judaism, namely the forefather narrative. You begin the poem with a Goethe quote from the „Erlkönig„, which suggests that the father cannot protect his son from evil spirits. Does this call into question the suitability of the forefather concept for modern Israeli society? Does the poem have autobiographical references?
Yitzhak Laor: Well, the Akkedah (binding) of Isaac through Abraham is described in Genesis 22 and is mentioned in the Shakharit, the Jewish morning prayer, and in the Rosh Hashana service. Since the Jewish prayer book contains so little from the Bible, except Psalms, there is constant talk about the Akkedah, the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, i.e. the attempted sacrifice of the son.
AE: Yes, this is also a central story for Christianity and, as far as I know, also for Islam. But is it not the case that Akkedah still represents a central, albeit Zionist-reinterpreted narrative, which, as it were, has the role of a founding myth? If this were the case, wouldn’t anyone who tampered with this central narrative, or even paraphrased it, place themselves outside the worldview of current political Zionism?
Yitzhak Laor: I would be very careful to position myself that way. First, because I don’t dare to take the place of Hanoch Lewin, who in 1970 in a poem had Isaac say to his father: „I am the one who dies, not you!“ But it’s true, I’ve written the Akkedah myth twice to its extreme ends. You’re right about the world view.
By the way, as far as the character of Abraham is concerned, I think I was the first to portray him as a killer in an earlier poem from 1982 whose title is “This Idiot Isaac”. That poem caused quite a stir and was even discussed in parliament. It ends with the verse: “ צחק יצחק, זכור את אשר עשה עשה אביך לישמעאל אחיך“, „Isaac laughed, think what your father did to Ismael“. Well, that was „my“ statement: Abraham’s cruelty was double!
AE: I understand, Abraham was cruel to Isaac, i.e. Israel, and to Ishmael, i.e. the Arabs. I did not know that this poem even made it into a parliamentary debate in the Knesset. How did this come about?
YL: It was about forty years ago and I hardly remember the details. What happened politically was that the ruling majority on the right was shaken because they had to cope with a protracted war and inflation. It was around 1984. They were picking on the radical left and started a huge debate about the importance of the cultural scene. Of course, I was a clear case for them. For me personally it was a very hard time in my life. A play of mine was censored and was not allowed to be performed. I had to appeal to the Supreme Court. I won and the performance ban had to be lifted, but this meant that I was branded as a troublemaker in my early years.
AE: There are two poems by Amichai in his last poetry collection „Open Closed Open” published in 1998, in which he also thematizes and reinterprets the Akkedah narrative. Your two Isaac poems were written long before that and were published in 1982 and 1991 respectively. Was Amichai influenced, inspired by them?
Yitzhak Laor: Well, my second poem on this subject, „This Idiot Isaac (Last Version)„, whose motto consists of two verses from Goethe’s Erlkönig, is, in contrast to my first Isaac poem, a lenient, forgiving poem. It is about my father, who was not strong enough to save me from our reality, who raised me here in Israel and not elsewhere, who I miss, his hands, whose hard work I did not appreciate enough as a „radical“.
I think Amichai influenced me in some way by teaching me very early on to see my real father, the Jewish father, not the Lutheran. Whether my Isaac poems influenced Amichai, the dying master? He would not say so.
AE: Yitzhak, your poems usually are of such an emotional power that it is hard not to be overwhelmed. Let me just refer to this breathtaking poem “רגע (moment)” where in a passage one reads:
Even language is ponderous
in order to be precise
to be almighty, speech
deceives, beneath it
is silence and stutter
we never really learned
to praise them
and yet knowledge
of the dolorous moment
prior to the outcry
after the blow, when the bitter
is flooded with the blood of acrid pain
It seems as though these lines show, in a condensed manner, your poetic credo: speech is deceiving and language needs to be handled with care, in order to be able to tell the truth.
Would you agree?
Yitzhak Laor: I am glad you quoted those very lines which I see as a first summation of my literary work. There are some other (in the novel Ecce Homo). As for the truth, yes, if one wants to lie why not becoming a politician?
AE: The lines also tell us something about your aesthetics. You do not hesitate to use imagery full of brutality. But your poems, especially the later ones, usually counterbalance this brutality with passages of ravishing tenderness. Why is that? Can you tell us a little on your poetics and your aesthetics?
What interests me is the work of art as a collage of rhythm and surprising rhyming and above all „free use“ of the Hebrew to its dozens of layers
Yitzhak Laor: First, let me tell you that since my third book (1990), critics used to praise abandoning my brutality in favor for a softer language. Now, to be frank, what interests me is the work of art as a collage of rhythm and surprising rhyming and above all „free use“ of the Hebrew to its dozens of layers. Not so much slang, just sometimes, but a little biblical, and more than that Mishnaic Hebrew, Midrash and Talmud, whose hundreds of authors and editors where very aggressive in their conjunctions.
Take that example:
„עקביא בן מהללאל אומר: הסתכל בשלשה דברים, ואין אתה בא לידי עברה. דע מאין באת ולאן אתה הולך ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון. מאין באת: מטיפה סרוחה, ולאן אתה הולך: למקום עפר רימה ותולעה, ולפני מי אתה עתיד לתן דין וחשבון: לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש, ברוך הוא.“
“Akavya ben Mahalaleil says: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting. ‘From where you came’ — from a putrid drop; ‘and to where you are going’ — to a place of dust, maggots and worms; ‘and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting’ — before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” (Pirkey Avot 3:1)
This is just an example. I enjoy to quote the sages. It is strange to modern Hebrew, it replaces „brutality“ by being strange, and it forms a dissonance which is my main interest, in the structure of the sentence and its flow from one line to the next one.
A.E: Yitzhak, this is a beautiful finish. So, just let me ask you a last question: What are your current projects? When will your next poetry book appear?
Yitzhak Laor: Who knows. I read a lot. I write poems, am ready for my last novel.
A.E: Dear Yitzhak, thank you very, very much for these highly enlightening insights you shared with us.
Interviewer‘s translation of the beginning of the poem „Beauty“ in: Yitzhak Laor, Auf dieser Erde die in Schönheit gehüllt ist und Wörtern misstraut. Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2018