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11 The Making of a National Poet For six decades, Ruth Z. has been the guardian not merely of a collection of love letters or a record of national events, but of historical literary documents that encapsulate Amichai’s maturation as a poet. These letters are also a work of literature in their own right. They weave an intimate narrative, at the core of which is the young man’s desire to write and his conviction that poetry is his destiny. It is likely that during those dangerous times in the Land of Israel, Amichai sent his work to Ruth in the United States not only as a means of communication with his beloved, but also as a way of recording his artistic trajectory and ensuring its survival. Having been a refugee at the age of twelve, he understood that homes could be destroyed. Amichai thus preserved his art by sending it to a faraway land.1 His poetry was the essence of his being, and even when Ruth had abandoned him four weeks before full-blown war erupted, Amichai still declared that the power of his art would “soften the blow.”2 the letters: revealing the foundation The letters’ verse and prose coalesce to form the portrait of the artist as a young man and paint his inner struggles against the backdrop of his nation’s dramatic conflict. The correspondence that lasted from September 1947 to April 1948 is testimony to a life obsessed with writing, in which almost every experience was seen as a potential building block for a poem.3 Almost a third of the letters that Amichai wrote to Ruth Z. in those months employ poetry in one form or another. Fifteen of the ninety-four letters in Ruth’s possession contain original poems by Amichai—most of which have never been published4— while many others include works by Goethe or Rilke, either in the original German or in Amichai’s translations into Hebrew.5 This concentration of verse is a deliberate poetic signature, a mark of the primacy of creative writing in Amichai’s life and his devotion to his vocation. Indeed, even the prose of the letters is touched by a poet’s hand: it is elegant and rich with imagery. Plainly, Amichai used some of his letters as literary exercises to practice new strategies for future poetry or fiction. In the later months of the correspondence, the proximity of war and the fear of a permanent separation from his beloved gave Amichai’s writing a desperate tone that rarely appears in such a dark form in his later, published works. Amichai’s lyrical letters to Ruth Z. were born out of a time of emotional upheaval . In addition to their crucial role in the study of Amichai’s verse, “letters” became a central trope for the poet. Correspondence, that is, the writing, sealing , mailing, and receiving of letters, is endowed with mythological dimensions in Amichai’s later oeuvre. Both of the published works most closely associated with Ruth, “We Loved Here” and “In the Public Garden,” are branded by the long months that the young Amichai spent writing letters to and waiting for letters from the United States. As late as his last volume, published in 1998, letters are endowed with a divine power. Thetextof thelettersrevealsthedeepestfoundationsof Amichai’swork.Duringtheperiodof thecorrespondence,Amichaithoughtalotabouthischildhood. “I bring up many pictures from then,” he wrote to Ruth. The letters are dotted with those pictures, many of which would never again appear in Amichai’s writing . He told Ruth that childhood was an unfailing “source of . . . distilled experience ” for him, and used Rilke to validate this connection between childhood and art.6 Amichai referred to Rilke’s advice in Letters to a Young Poet: “[A] young poet must go back and think of his childhood.”7 As shown in chapter 4, the young Hebrew poet identified with the German master, and their shared culture and mother tongue undoubtedly deepened that attachment.8 The letters reveal the heart of Amichai’s intricate, multifaceted connection to Rilke’s works.9 While the intertextual relationship between Amichai’s and Rilke’s poetry has been established in critical works and by Amichai himself, its emotional foundation is exposed solely in the letters.10 Rilke’s belief in the power of childhood and his indirect way of drawing from it taught Amichai how to rely on his own youthful experiences as inspiration without explicitly depicting them. The discussion below follows the making...


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