Well-versed sabra

A long-awaited autobiography tells the story of one of Israel's most celebrated poets.

On Poetry and Time: A Literary Autobiography (Im Hashira Vehazman) By Haim Gouri Hakibbutz Hameuhad and the Bialik Institute NIS 164 This is a landmark book - courageous, candid and brilliantly done. For some of us, reading it will likely evoke feelings of affinity and belonging, as if we were part of the story. Ever since his youth, Haim Gouri saw how he and his generation have been torn between absolute faith and complicated historical constraints. Almost everything in the country has undergone a continuous metamorphosis - in our life and in our literature. More than once he observed how the culture of the "besieged and the righteous" was coming up against the culture of "the accused and the repentant." Gouri was born in Tel Aviv in 1923. The city was then known only for its shifting sands and pioneering spirit. His parents came from Russia with the first group of the Third Aliya. He says his mother suffered sorrow and anguish, but always showed compassion and empathy. His father was a symbol of honesty and was considered a saint - both a pacifist and a zealous Zionist who realized the Jews had to defend themselves - a philosophy that Gouri always espoused. Gouri's ancestors were not known for either scholarship or erudition. Some were tradesmen and artisans, some were artists. As a young boy he had what some call a poet's melancholy nature, but didn't know that poetry and literature would dominate his life. Looking back, he confesses an almost total lack of traditional Jewish heritage. There was no bar mitzva ceremony for young Gouri. His father was secular, and in his youth Gouri never entered a synagogue; the Jewish holidays had no meaning for him. Years later, a friend took him to a Yom Kippur service. He was always deeply in love with the Land of Israel, but in his youth hardly understood the significance of Jewish history. The turning point occurred when he was sent to Europe after World War II. That visit had a profound effect. Years later, he read that Andre Malraux wrote in the mid-1950s that the "Israelis are not the continuation of the Jews; they change them." The great Hebrew novelist S. Yizhar said people like Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan established bridges to the Jewish people via their intimate contact with the Land of Israel. In a way, Gouri is a product of both the continuation and the change - a lover of the country with a feeling of profound intimacy with his Jewish heritage. The poet Natan Alterman, whom Gouri considered a literary mentor, once said that there is a sound that even the sensitive Israeli-born would never notice - the terrifying howls coming from the Jewish sections of a town in times of pogrom. Gouri realized that as a kid, he and his friends were very much "political boys," but they were never "provincial sabras." The Hebrew press, books and Israeli political developments were an inseparable part of his life. When he was in school learning the great Hebrew poets, he found himself drawn to Bialik and Tchernichovsky. Later, when he reached 19, a collection of translations of Russian poets was published by Shlonsky and Lea Goldberg. He found there poems by Yesenin and Mandelstam, Alexander Blok and Mayakovski, and was deeply fascinated. In 1941 he followed the call of Yigal Allon and joined the Palmah. As a result, for almost eight years he didn't have a chance to further his education. The need to broaden his knowledge of the Bible and the post-biblical heritage brought him to Jerusalem at 27, where he studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He also took a course in French literature, driven by the realization that his Hebrew was limited when it came to fulfilling his dream of producing poetry of the caliber of his beloved role models. This drive for refinement took him to Paris in 1953 to study French literature, and discerning readers noticed how new layers of knowledge and scholarship were added to his writing as a result. Gouri the maturing poet never divorced Gouri the involved Israeli and committed Jew. His voice was never muted, his conscience never rested. When the extreme Left was still deluding itself in the early 1950s that the redeemer was residing in Moscow, Gouri assaulted the criminal behavior of the pretenders and their false message. All this changed following the Six Day War. The victory that unified the country tore its people to pieces. Facing the reality of Greater Israel caused a heavy shock. On one hand we witnessed profound excitement and messianic dedication. On the other hand there was strong disgust with and opposition to the occupation of other people. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 was perceived to be a result of the self-delusion that engulfed us all. In several chapters, Gouri cites the lesson he has learned: "It's better to know from whence you came and to where you are headed." When it comes to achieving higher levels of poetry, Gouri has attained his dream.