- Book Review Index
With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry, edited by Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Back. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 169 pp. $14.95.
Hebrew protest poetry has a long track record. Political and social protest was at the top of the Biblical prophets’ and psalmists’ job description and frequently came close to costing them their lives, as they had no fear of criticizing their own. On occasion, the poets even took on the Almighty: “Why dost Thou forsake us for eternity?” concludes the author of Lamentations. Many of these notes echoed down the ages. Ephraim of Regensburg, David bar Meshullam of Speyer, and other Ashkenazi elegists turned all their fury on the Crusader enemy—and in The Martyrs of Blois, Barukh of Magenza hurled protests at God himself. It was with this kind of poetry ringing in his ears that Bialik, in On the Slaughter (following the Kishinev pogrom), famously intoned: “Let heaven rot with eternal evil.” Social protest verse stretches all the way from Ibn Gabirol’s On Leaving Saragossa to Gordon’s feminist tour de force Kotzo shel Yud (1878). Israeli authors have not lacked what to critique—ethnic and religious grievances, economic injustice, a hostile World. But, until recently, they have protested in prose. The Modern Hebrew poem became the domain of the lyrical, the personal, the symbolic. Often, admittedly, poets had Jewish destiny or the Jewish State in mind—but there was clearly a strong aversion to the rhetoric or preaching stance that had been a keynote of Victorian-Biedermeyer-Haskalah poetry.
This all changed briefly in the 1970s and 1980s. The reasons were many and varied: the rise of the Israeli Right, controversial wars, the siren songs of Ginsberg, Dylan, Theodorakis. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War and the Israeli offensive in Lebanon, Israeli poets mounted the verbal barricades. Reuven Ben-Yosef’s Voices on the Golan (1976) and the 1983 anthologies No End to Casualties and Killing and Border Crossing by Ron & Hever and Yehudit Kafri, respectively, took aim at the entire Zionist system, the Israeli public and the private soldier included. However, the better poets soon retreated from the barricades, leaving them to songwriters and lesser versifiers. As Esther Raizen shows in her masterly introduction to her anthology of Israeli war poetry, No Rattling of Sabers (Austin, 1995), and confirmed by Harvey Shapiro’s Poets of World War Two (New York, 2003), war poetry has produced many works of value, often distinguished by quiet strength and simple words. Political protest poetry, however, does not commonly make significant poetry. Feelings are too blunt and strident, time too pressing; the nuance and reflection, the tightness and creativity that our modern post-Victorian aesthetic has come to expect are not easily found in political poetry.
With an Iron Pen fails on many counts. The subtitle notwithstanding (Twenty Years Of Hebrew Protest Poetry), this hardly does justice to Israeli protest—I could find just one treatment of poverty. Rather, this is, to quote the jacket, “a collective protest to [sic] the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Palestinian territories.” But as poetry, it is largely pontification or cliché. Some accomplished poets do appear, mixed in with lesser names, but as the later Wordsworth and Hugo sadly showed, good poets can write lousy verse. As scholarship, the volume editors Tal Nitzan and Rachel Tzvia Back have short-changed us. The brief introduction adds up to a political rant, some hype for the book, and a few shallow generalizations about the poems themselves.
A serious consideration of these poems would have problematized the remarkable absence of dilemmas of war. Sensitivity or reflection are in short supply. (Bejerano’s Stripes of Light on the Wall and Ronen’s Curfew, Variation #5 are notable exceptions.) We find no representation of Arab hostility, let alone enemy terror (where is Agi Mishol’s Shahida, exploring a suicide bomber as a person with a narrative?), and no room for Jewish memory or values or links to the Holy Land—save as ironized verses from the Bible. Empathy for the conflict’s Jewish victims is rationed: a poem like Yitzhak Laor’s Kaddish laments its Jewish dead at the strictly abstract level. Even that poignant line from Amihai’s And Who Will Remember the Rememberers? : “My son, my husband. my brother, my husband, my son” is in the generic. The editors cut out three of the poem’s five stanzas, perchance to shield the reader from lines like this: “An oleander branch, like a shock of hair on a beloved face.” Jews don’t have faces in this collection. The poets have effectively succeeded in blacking out one entire side of a conflict. But the editors were unwilling to admit to this, and unwilling, or perhaps unable, to help us place this literature in the context of Israeli poetry, hegemony, and dissent in Israeli cultural politics, or the long history of Hebrew protest poetry to which we have referred. If this represents what is best of recent Hebrew protest poetry, the implications for Israeli culture are disheartening. However, as the Haaretz journalist Michal Palti has observed (Notes to the Prime Minister, March 11, 2003), contemporary Israeli music and rap (take Hadag Nahash, Tippex, Subliminal) have struck a wide range of political notes—and probably have more to tell us about Israeli society than these 88 poems.
What, then, is the value of this book? In its rage, it hardly provides “a better understanding of the occupation and the wider conflict in the Middle East,” as the jacket promises. For that, we need historians, social psychologists, and sensitive literature. The editors might at least have provided a bibliography on Hebrew protest poetry (I refer the reader to Esther Raizen’s bibliography), to allow thinking people to draw their own conclusions. Politics evidently trumped integrity, while the folks at the university press looked the other way.
There is much more, and much more significant, Hebrew poetry born of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Meir Wieseltier puts it in Pro & Con, one of the few reflexive poems in the collection, “I can't stand political poetry: that civil or prophetic posturing. . . .”