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Poetics Today 22.1 (2001) 245-251

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Benjamin Harshav (Hrushovski):
A Personal Retrospect

Ziva Ben-Porat
Poetics and Comparative Literature, Tel Aviv

Sometime in 1997 a group of Benjamin Harshav’s former students, colleagues, and friends realized that he was about to celebrate his seventieth anniversary. That seemed like a wonderful opportunity to pay homage to a man to whom all of us were indebted in one way or another. Metaphorically speaking, whether we grew up in his school or came to know him through his academic, sometimes groundbreaking work (theoretical and institutional), “all of us came out of the folds of his overcoat.” Four projects have sprung from this realization: the publication of his collected works in Hebrew, reedited and occasionally revised by the author (two out of five planned volumes have appeared by September 2000); a Hebrew Festschrift in two volumes, Aderet Le-Binyamin (1999, 2001); a conference in his honor; and the special issues of Poetics Today (21 [3]–22 [1]). All of the projects have taken much longer and become larger in scope and in sheer magnitude than anticipated. It became evident that in fifty years of activity in the literary field Harshav’s multifaceted personality has produced, inspired, and attracted a large and varied body of scholarship.

Having been deeply involved in the first three projects, rereading Harshav’s work and reading the papers contributed to his Hebrew Festschrift, I became awestruck and even bewildered by the ground that must be covered by anyone attempting to produce a full portrait of Harshav. Personally, I couldn’t take upon myself to be the cultural and literary historian, the art critic, the linguist, the literary theorist, the expert prosodist, the structuralist [End Page 245] and the semiotician, the expert on Yiddish poetry, the expert on translation, and the literary critic that are needed for a proper presentation and evaluation of Harshav’s work. At the same time it also became evident that chronology does not provide a good method for summing up Harshav’s achievements. Some of his major work has been produced and published in recent years, and his computer is still clicking. For these reasons I made three methodical decisions: (1) I’ll focus on Harshav’s impact on Israeli culture (academy included) and on his Hebrew publications, with only sporadic references to his English publications (detailed in the following bibliography and accessible to readers of Poetics Today); (2) I’ll concentrate on one of his many fields of interest as a paradigmatic example; and (3) I’ll present my own subjective picture of Harshav’s achievement rather than an objective analysis. The latter is implied in the attached bibliography of his writings and in the comments made by the contributors to the Hebrew and English volumes produced to celebrate his jubilee.

To my mind, Harshav’s particular and most varied impact has been on Hebrew poetry: he changed the way of studying and teaching it; he influenced a crucial generation change; he contributed to the revision of the poetic canon; he reinstated the musical aspect of poetry—its prosodic organization—as the distinguishing feature of the poetic text; he translated Hebrew poetry into English and brought many modernist texts from various languages—including Yiddish—into the Israeli poetic system; and he contributed his own poetry.

As with his studies of literature in general, Harshav pulled the study of poetry away from the historical-biographical contexts in which it was imprisoned until the 1950s. Basing it on a systematic and a systemic approach, he centralized the “poeticity” of poetry and of individual poems. In 1953, while still an undergraduate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he devised the first course in Israel on “Meter, Rhyme, and Strophe in the New Hebrew Poetry.” In the following year, he supplemented it by developing a course on “Basic Features of the Hebrew Lyric.” In either instance, it was the first time that a whole course was devoted to detailed analyses of contemporary poems within a systematic theoretical framework. If Israeli students of literature today learn prosody as a matter of course...


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pp. 245-251
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