Understated brilliance

By SUZANNE SELENGUT
November 2, 2006 15:22

At 83, poet Shirley Kaufman still marches to her own drum.




Understated brilliance

shirley kaufman 88. (photo credit: )

On a recent autumn evening, poet Shirley Kaufman sat in her Rehavia study and composed a sestina, a highly structured form of poetry, on her computer. Although Kaufman doesn't usually write in traditional verse, this new poem grew out of a string of words that "just came to her," and now she simply has to go wherever the poem will take her. "I like the first stanza, but I'm not sure how I feel about the second," she says, reviewing her work. At 83, Kaufman, an American who has resided in Israel for some 33 years, is anything but settled in her ways. Although she is the author of several acclaimed books of poetry and has received the Pushcart Prize and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, she still hasn't stopped to rest on her laurels. Instead, she presses on with her writing life - translating Israeli poets, writing her own brand of imagery-rich English poetry and working withother immigrant poets in Israel to create a community of writers who endeavor to locate themselves creatively in an atmosphere dominated by Hebrew. Her constant activity was recognized in September, when it was announced she would receive Israel's President's Prize for Literature for her 2003 book, Threshold. Although the award ceremony has been delayed indefinitely, the prize has special significance for Kaufman. "That was the biggest lift for me, to see that finally Israel is recognizing poets who write in languages other than Hebrew," she says of her latest achievement. Kaufman's career has been marked not only by a flurry of activity, but also by her unique position as a gifted writer in English who is located far from the center of American literary activity, a position that has likely enriched her work but also may have impacted her place within the contemporary literary scene. "I think Shirley is one of the greatest American women poets of the second half of the 20th century," says Lois Bar-Yaacov, a retired English literature instructor at the Hebrew University, while thumbing through her well-worn copy of one of Kaufman's early books. If she hadn't made aliya, Bar-Yaacov continues, she may have been more widely recognized as such. But moving to Israel in 1973 to be with husband Bill Daleski, a retired professor of English literature at the Hebrew University, seems to have been a typically self-propelled act for Kaufman. In fact, her entire career reflects a march to her own lyric drummer. Although she had written poetry her whole life - publishing a Zionist protest poem against the British White Paper while still in college - Kaufman only began pursuing poetry in earnest at the age of 40, as a mother of three living in San Francisco with her first husband. Surrounded by the experimental Beat poets during the height of their artistic success, Kaufman's work flowered and she became a known force in the community. "It was exciting. We used to listen to a lot of jazz music. I smoked pot... I didn't feel like I was 40," she says. UNDER THE tutelage of poet Jack Gilbert, her teacher at a San Francisco State University poetry workshop, Kaufman was encouraged to send her poems to The New Yorker. The famously picky magazine accepted her first submission and her renown spread. Readers have always been drawn to Kaufman's craftsmanship, her subtle use of words and sounds to depict a scene. Although her work has changed over the years - especially as she responds to her hectic home base in the Middle East - her precise, unhurried style remains a constant characteristic. "Shirley's poetry is extremely aesthetic, her lyric voice is so natural, her ear so good that she can say the most extreme things in the most controlled way," explains Bar-Yaacov. Indeed, in "Mothers and Daughters," a lauded poem from Kaufman's 1970 book, The Floor Keeps Turning, Kaufman describes the passionate fighting between a mother and daughter duo in terminology that is often shockingly violent. Yet, her subtle portrayal allows the reader to glimpse the pain, interdependence and even love between the warring women - without compromising the disturbing nature of the scene. Lisa Katz, a poet, translator and teacher at the Hebrew University, describes Kaufman as a "restrained" poet. "I have learned from Shirley not to tell but to show, to use images instead of verbs," says Katz, who regularly meets with Kaufman to discuss their work and "workshop" their new poems. For Hebrew University literature professor Leona Toker, Kaufman's strength is related to sound as much as content. For Toker, the poetry is "keenly sensitive to the potentialities of semantic interplay with modulations of sound - so that the effect of the poems combines a sense of starkness and... saturation." Kaufman's artisanship has driven many to see her as inspired by early 20th-century modernist poets, who, like her, often place fragmentary scenes together and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. Yet, insists Bar-Yaacov, Kaufman's poetry is more personal than the usual modernist fare. She points to a recent poem, "The Emperor of China," in Threshold, in which historical and literary allusions appear alongside personal and often very sensual memories. Kaufman's female identity impacts her style, as typically female experiences or stories of women in the Bible are recreated and discovered anew. In "His Wife," a poem that suggests the untold story of biblical Lot's wife, Kaufman imagines the feelings of the vilified woman who was turned into a pillar of salt for refusing to look away as the city of Sodom was being destroyed. While such themes are not uncommon throughout her body of work, Kaufman is matter-of-fact about her role as a feminist poet. "I was a feminist by accident," she says as she talks about her decision to pursue poetry after raising her children. She talks of the pain that many women of her generation had to face as they were expected to be fully engaged only in tasks surrounding home and family. BOTH PERSONAL and communal suffering are a key part of a great many of her poems. Even poems such as "The Lowest Place on Earth," which purports to focus on a geographic location - in this case the Dead Sea - contain a mournful strain, which expresses an unnamable but inclusive feeling, as if it means to suggest all pain, and to exclude no specific kind. According to Bar-Yaacov, Kaufman's identity as an immigrant poet in Israel may have enhanced her talent for blending the personal and the political. "Her poetry hasn't been lost to the kind of political correctness that characterizes so much American poetry today," Bar-Yaacov says. Instead, Kaufman's work tends to touch on communal themes such as homelessness or miscommunication, while always retreating into the personal - a quality that lends authenticity. She does not shy away from hot-button issues, such as the Palestinian conflict. "It is a tragedy that we can't live together harmoniously, not in one state, and now, not even in two," she says. Yet, from her writing desk in Rehavia, Kaufman remains an optimistic Zionist who has translated several Israeli poets, including Abba Kovner and Meir Wieseltier, and keeps abreast of Hebrew literature. In her role as an internationally known poet writing in English and living in Israel, Kaufman is also - perhaps unwittingly - forging a path for immigrant writers. She works closely with younger poets such as Katz, nurturing them and helping them find their niche. Unlike many successful artists who are uninterested in helping younger ones, Kaufman is "so generous," says Katz. For Kaufman, sharing her talents, like writing a sestina, just feels right. "I never thought of my talent as anything special," she says. "Poetry was just something I always did."


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