As we were walking toward the hall where he was giving a reading, the poet Yehudah Amichai (1924—2000) suddenly said “I always feel so awkward before readings, the students expect the writer of all those love poems, to be a great lover and here I am a short middle-aged man.”
At that time I was the program director at the Hillel House of the University of Iowa, and Yehudah Amichai was our guest lecturer.
As soon as we entered the room it was clear that Amichai was wrong; the audience, most of whom were students at the Writers' Workshop, had long known his poetry and admired him. Moreover, since Amichai's poems worked so well in English, they regarded him as one of their own –a great American poet.
Amichai is considered by many, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel's greatest modern poet. He was well aware of his stature, but still was not afraid to reveal a more vulnerable side. I suspect that the apprehension that Amichai felt before his reading contributed to his very personal and warm performance during the reading.
I remember that when one of the students asked him about his work habits, he answered that he did not write every day, and that most of his poems came to him when he was taking walks. The students seemed quite surprised at that answer, as they must have expected him to say that he wrote every day at his study.
At a reading in Princeton, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer told the audience that in his senior year at Princeton in 1999 he heard Yehuda Amichai give one of his final readings in the Stewart theater. While listening to Amichai, Foer realized that he wanted "to somehow move somebody" just as Amichai had moved him. "I wouldn't be up here if it weren't for Amichai."
I too have an Amichai moment which I cherish; once, several years prior to that reading in the Hillel House, he had been to Iowa City for a reading. At its end I was asked to drive him to his hotel. Once there I realized that it was still early and invited Amichai to our home, he accepted gladly. My husband Tzvi had stayed home with our young daughters and when we arrived home Amichai asked first to see my two sleeping girls. I was really touched.
This anecdote reminds me of another, somewhat similar story. When Yitzhak Rabin visited the White House, president Jimmy Carter asked him if he wanted to see the sleeping Amy. Rabin, perhaps out of shyness, declined and missed an opportunity to bond with the parents of the sleeping girl. Many political analysts, and Carter himself in his memoir, regard this famous incident as a serious faux pas
In contrast, Amichai’s human approach and exceptional personal skills, combined with his strong and timeless poetry which so easily translated into English, contributed to his great success outside Israel. Evidence of his popularity can be seen in the fact that Amichai sold his archive for over $200,000 to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.
The English poet Ted Hughes, who translated Amichai's poems into English together with Amichai himself, wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: "I've become more than ever convinced that Amichai is one of the biggest, most essential, most durable poetic voices of this past century – one of the most intimate, alive and human, wise, humorous, true, loving, inwardly free and resourceful, at home in every human situation.”
I agree, and to illustrate his power in English here is one of his love poems translated from Hebrew by Amichai and Ted Hughes
Once a Great Love
Once a great love cut my life in two.
The first part goes on twisting
at some other place like a snake cut in two.
The passing years have calmed me
and brought healing to my heart and rest to my eyes.
And I’m like someone standing in
the Judean desert, looking at a sign:
He cannot see the sea, but he knows.
Thus I remember your face everywhere
at your “face level.”