Obituary: T. Carmi

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 18 September 2011 06:53

Carmi Charney (T. Carmi), poet, editor, translator: born New York 31 December 1925; died Jerusalem 21 November 1994

T. Carmi was one of Israel's most innovative and creative poets. Poetry has a rich seam in Israel, first struck to stupendous effect by the prophets and psalmists. Poets are more accepted and more honoured than in most other countries. But what was unusual about Carmi was his background and his exceptional use of the Hebrew language.

Almost all Israeli poets in modern times originated either in the Middle East or in Eastern Europe. Not only the pioneering leaders but also the poets came to Palestine from Poland, Romania and Russia where there was already a rich Jewish and Hebrew culture, stirred anew by the Zionist revival.

He was born Carmi Charney (T. Carmi was his nom de plume) in New York - no equal to Warsaw in its Jewish cultural activities though far outdistancing it in material wealth. His father was a rabbi who wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but like most rabbinic sons Carmi sought fulfilment elsewhere. The influence of the home was, however, to remain strong. His was one of the very few Hebrew-speaking American families and Carmi was fluent. He found it easier to express his deepest feelings in Hebrew with its rich layers of Biblical, Talmudic and modern poetry. His first Hebrew poems were published while he was still living in the United States, where he studied at the Yeshiva and Columbia Universities.

Profoundly affected by the Holocaust, Carmi decided in 1946 to work in post-war France among the Jewish children made orphans by the deportation of their parents to the German camps. These orphans could perhaps consider themselves fortunate because many others found themselves in Auschwitz. This searing experience finally persuaded Carmi to leave for Palestine and link himself to the Jewish national struggle. Though lacking military training he fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948, perhaps surprising himself as much as others by his performance as a defender of Jerusalem, which later became his home.

In 1951, when Carmi's poems began to be published in Jerusalem, he acquired a group of admirers. Intellectuals and lovers of Hebrew pointed to his vivid and unusual diction, combining the inspiration of the Bible, elements of surrealism, contemporary Israeli idioms and the influence of such poets as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. He was able to deal with big national themes of Israeli revival and redemption, but preferred to transmit a personal vision, based on personal tragedies, trau m as and agonies. The translator Grace Schulman called Carmi "a poet whose vision is at once historical and miraculous". Others were struck by his passionate evocation of themes, his sudden and unexpected transposition of the sacred into erotic experiences .

Carmi published several books of poetry, covering a wide variety of subjects but always containing his private, humane, compassionate voice. He was also an editor and translator (of Shakespeare, among others). Particularly outstanding was his editing andtranslation of Hebrew poetry. His Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981), spanning the whole range of Hebrew poetry from the Bible to contemporary Hebrew writing, has had a lasting influence as it broke new ground in its range and comprehensiven ess.

A number of Carmi's own books have been translated into English, notably The Brass Serpent (1964), Somebody Like You (1971) and (with Dan Pagis) Selected Poems (1976). A talented and versatile scholar and lecturer, he was a visiting professor at a numberof universities and a participant at poetry festivals in the United States and Britain. He received Israel's most prestigious awards as he was widely perceived as a man who immensely added to Israel's cultural life.

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