2021 Annual Assessment

The Jewish-American poet Louise Glück won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, joining a distinguished cadre of 117 laureates in literature to date. Sixteen Jews have won the Nobel in this category, including three women besides Glück: the poet Nelly Sachs, the author Nadine Gordimer, and the author and playwright Elfrieda Jelinek.

Glück’s poetry is not identifiably Jewish. Rather, Glück draws extensively on Greek mythology, and her style is reminiscent of other English-speaking poets such as Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and T. S. Eliot. However, one can discern in Glück’s writings echoes of humanistic American-Jewish culture, which associates Judaism with the values of justice and freedom. Her poetry bridges the quotidian and the exalted, the personal and the universal. While exploring her own inner life, the natural world, the concrete and the fleeting, Glück also expresses yearning for an unseen sublimity, something that transcends the moment or the concrete reality of the poem.

Glück was born in 1943 to Hungarian immigrants, and grew up on Long Island, New York. She is a respected and award-winning poet who has enjoyed success since her first collection, Firstborn, appeared in 1968. She has published 11 other poetry collections, as well as collections of essays on poetry. One of her books has appeared in Hebrew, her Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Wild Iris (first published in 1992), but individual poems have been translated and published in poetry and literary journals, and in literary supplements. The fact that so many of Glück’s poems have been translated into Hebrew, and the multiplicity of venues in which these translations have appeared, reflect a burgeoning interest in poetry among Israelis. Poetry is not an art form that naturally appeals to the masses, but its popularity in Israel has grown over the past decade. Some will attribute this trend to broader societal developments, such as a greater emphasis on leisure and a rise in educational attainment, while others will ascribe it to technological advancement, as manifested in the flourishing of social media and the relative ease with which one can publish and self-publish.

The seminal event in the history of Israeli Hebrew poetry was the great revolution ushered in by the Likrat poetry circle, led by Nathan Zach (who died this year at the age of 89). Likrat rebelled against the previous generation of Israeli poets, dominated by Nathan Alterman. In 1959 Zach published an essay in the journal Achshav entitled “Thoughts on Alterman’s Poetry,” a subversive manifesto in which he proposed a new, alternative poetics. Zach and the Likrat poets objected to the pathos and the strict rhythm that then prevailed in Hebrew poetry, as exemplified by Alterman. From the time his Achshav essay appeared, and for many years thereafter, Zach’s approach and his unique voice were preeminent in Israeli poetry. In the 2000s, however, younger poets such as Dory Manor, founder of the literary magazine Oh!, started returning to the classical forms of Hebrew poetry embraced by Alterman – to rhyme and meter. This new generation of poets has launched poetry journals, websites, and festivals such as the Metula Poets Festival, the Tel Aviv Poetry Festival, and others.

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