Home Art & Culture Natan Zach, Blunt and Cherished Israeli Poet, Dies at 89

Natan Zach, Blunt and Cherished Israeli Poet, Dies at 89

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“It was an act of patricide, but also a defiant and condescending act of criticism by a man who was very knowledgeable about world literature,” the literary critic Ariana Melamed wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz after Mr. Zach’s death.

Mr. Zach joined with other rebel poets — most notably the premier modernist, Yehuda Amichai — to form an avant-garde nucleus anchored in the journal Likrat (Toward). He went on to publish two dozen collections, with poems often touching on the fleeting nature of relationships and the fragility of the human body and of existence itself. They were always set to intriguing rhythms and rendered in a lucid Hebrew, filled, as a Haaretz editorial said, with the “words with which we trade and curse, argue and clash.’’

The poet Peter Cole, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and a translator of some of Mr. Zach’s poems, said, “He changed the language of Hebrew poetry, period,” adding, “He heard a quiet music in the spokenness of modern Hebrew — a music that dignified the language of ordinary speech and all it implied.”

The poem “To Put it Differently,” which was translated by Mr. Cole, gives glimmers of Mr. Zach’s audacity and mischievous humor:

Poetry chooses choice things, carefully selecting
select words, arranging,
fabulously, things arranged. To put it differently
is hard, if not out of the question.

Poetry’s like a clay plate. It’s broken easily
under the weight of all those poems. In the hands
of the poet, it sings. In those of others, not only
doesn’t it sing, it’s out of the question.

Mr. Zach and Mr. Amichai, who died at 76 in 2000, were the literary guerrillas of their generation, but they carved out distinct paths, said Leon Wieseltier, the editor of Liberties, a new journal of culture and politics.

“Amichai made lyricism out of the vernacular; Zach fell under the chilly spell of Eliot,” he wrote in an email, adding that “often a current of tenderness sneaks past the poet’s forbidding persona, a gust of warmth amid the cool literariness.”

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