Postcard from Jerusalem - Five wars in metaphors: Jo Glanville meets Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry featured in the Middle East peace talks

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The Independent Culture
A FEW months ago the poet Yehuda Amichai heard that one of his short stories had been quoted at the Israel-PLO talks in Egypt, to illustrate how peace should be made. Its title, aptly, was Love in Reverse.

This was not a one-off incident: since he began writing in the Fifties, Yehuda Amichai's poetry has become part of mainstream Israeli culture. A marital counselling radio programme took its name from an Amichai love poem and his verse has even been quoted in the Supreme Court to decide a legal point. He is popular with young Israelis, who study him at school. 'My own children had to study me,' he says with some amusement. 'My eldest son had to write a paper on me and got a 'C'.'

Israeli writers, he believes, have no choice but to be 'engage'. It is this involvement which gives literature its central position in Israel. 'My poems are political in the deeper sense of the word,' he says. 'Political means to live in your time, to be a man of your time.' Yet he has also made political gestures. In 1982 he contributed a poem to an anthology published as a protest against Israel's invasion of Lebanon. More recently, his name was listed in support of Teddy Kollek's campaign to be re-elected mayor of Jerusalem.

He has lived in Jerusalem for almost 60 years. In 1981 he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize and he has been tipped for the Nobel Prize. 'He's always searching to understand the complexity of experience,' says Dr Rivka Maoz, who jointly teaches a course on Israeli poetry with Amichai, at the Hebrew University. 'But he's never really writing metaphysical poetry. It's everyday experience, it serves as a common diary. The persona he projects is everyman.'

Amichai has fought in five wars. In the Yom Kippur war he guarded the dead on the Mount of Olives; in the War of Independence, in 1948, he was a member of the legendary Palmach, the crack troops of Israel's pre-state army, and smuggled arms and immigrants into the country. 'Alvarez has said that people in distress need more poetry and write more poetry,' he says.

He arrived in Israel, from Germany, at the age of 12, in 1936. His upbringing was orthodox and his family had him educated in both Hebrew and German, but he has never written in his native tongue. Although he grew up to reject orthodoxy, his poetry is rich in biblical and liturgical references. 'I use it in a very natural way,' he says. 'It's part of my heritage.'

'Of all the people I've ever met in my life, he seems to have the most fertile imagination for metaphor,' says the American poet Robert Friend, who has lived in Jerusalem since the Fifties and translated some of Amichai's early poems. 'He thinks very naturally in metaphor. Everything supplies an idea for a poem and, as he talks to you, you feel that all he has to do is write it down and there is the poem.'

Amichai's poems have just been translated into Chinese and he still tours extensively. Last February he gave a reading in Beijing and a few weeks ago he was reading in London, at the South Bank. It was also the venue of his first appearance in London, in 1967, alongside Auden, John Berryman and Robert Graves. 'There has never been another event like it,' he recalls.

Auden's work influenced his development of modern idiom in Hebrew poetry: Amichai was the first to bring the vernacular of modern Hebrew into literature. He came across Auden's poetry during the Second World War. 'It was summer in the western desert. I was in the British army (Jewish Brigade). There was a sandstorm and the army's mobile library had turned over and all the books were spilling out. One of them was a book of British and American verse, a marvellous anthology - it included Eliot and Auden. It was my first encounter - even before I thought about writing myself.'

Next year, Yehuda Amichai will be 70. Oxford University will be honouring him, in June, with a three-day international conference on his work. No doubt there will be great celebrations in Israel too.