- A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry: Poetics, Politics, Accent by Miryam Segal
Often we must be silent; holy names are lacking, Hearts beat and yet talk holds back?– Friedrich Hölderlin1
Once, my soul was enrobed in crimson. And overhead the mountains. At one with the great wind-spirits was I, With the cries of eagles.– Rachel2
Blessed are the ones who sow and do not reap – they shall wander in extremity– Avraham ben Yitzhak3
At broken moments like these in Israel and the Diaspora—when holy names are truly lacking—poetry bridges the abyss. As Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) remarked, it is the poet who “must bear in his soul” that calling to restore the exiled human-divine connection. While the renaissance Hölderlin prophesied was of the German language, peoplehood and nation-state, many parallel struggles attended the rebirthing of the Hebrew language in the Jewish national context. Not only does Miryam Segal’s A New Sound in Hebrew Poetry dare offer an answer to the perennial question posed by Hölderlin: What are poets for? It also reveals, in the language of Hebrew poetry, the subtle layers of ars poetica operative within the remarkable renaissance of Jewish peoplehood. That this ars poetica is embodied, as Segal puts it, in a “new-accent poetry” envisioned by female poets makes this forgotten chapter in the history of Hebrew poetry a real revelation. [End Page 170]
On many levels, Segal’s book is a welcome contribution to studies both of Hebrew ars poetica and of Zionism. As indicated in her epilogue, “The Conundrum of the National Poet,” much of Segal’s feminist strategy is a rereading of the canon, one that dares to challenge the universal recognition of Ḥayyim Nachman Bialik (1873–1934) as Israel’s poet laureate. According to Segal, Bialik’s canonization as a national poet-prophet usurped the true pioneer of new-accent poetry, Rachel Bluvshtain (1890– 1931). Bialik’s attitude toward writing poetry in the new Sephardic accent promulgated for spoken Hebrew was one of “theoretical acceptance and benign neglect” (p. 148), while Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875–1943) began with animosity, though he eventually adopted the new accent. For this reason it is shocking to encounter Rachel’s near-erasure from the history of Hebrew ars poetica.
Segal accounts for Bialik’s longstanding tenure as national poet by his unique ability to foresee the demise of Ashkenazic Hebrew. Paradoxically, he deprecated the very literary Sephardic Hebrew that he established and used. All the while, as a poet, Bialik continued to yearn. That yearning for the homeland while remaining in exile created a poetry of silence and screams, so much so that eventually, when he reached the motherland, Bialik’s poetry entered into periods of deep silence. This was also the case with Avraham ben Yitzhak (1883–1950), long considered the greatest poet of the Hebrew language. Ultimately, says Hamutal bar-Yosef, neither male poet could enact the rebirthing, leaving them perched on the cusp of redemption, their poems arrested in silence.4
Bialik and Hölderlin were considered the poets laureate of their respective languages and peoples, while ben Yitzḥak’s eleven masterpieces have only recently been recovered from near oblivion. What may account for this is that while Bialik composed only a few new accentual-syllabic poems, he continued reinventing himself, ultimately advancing into free verse. Ben Yitzḥak, like Hölderlin, saw the poet’s work as an ontic event of coming into one’s own, despite having lost the way to the divine; and as a result, their poetry may be said to radiate through a “speculum that shines,”5 whereas Bialik’s speculum—that of the national poet who saw himself as dedicated to the distance between exile and homeland—refracts. The conundrum of the national poet, as Segal so astutely points out, is that through his Ashkenazic poetry, Bialik enacts the beginning of a process—“the longing to hear, to listen, and to arrive on the other side of the world and...