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Bilingualism and Poetic Modernism: The Yiddish Sources of the Hebrew Imagism of Gabriel Preil

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Yael Sagiv-Feldman
Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027


There is something of the ironic in the attempt to render into English the unique effects of the Hebrew poetry of Gabriel Preil. Indeed, it is hardly possible. The fact is that Preils artistic achievements, as well as his poetic charm, stem—at least in part—from his surprising mastery of the new Israeli vernacular. And surprising it is indeed, because geographically speaking, the American resident Gabriel Preil was twice removed from Israeli soil. Born in Estonia in 1911 and having spent his childhood in Lithuania, he escaped postwar Europe with his mother and migrated to the United States in 1922. New York has been his home ever since, and New England, his favorite rural landscape.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1981

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1. Nofshemesh u-khefor (New York, 1944); Ner mul kokhavim (Jerusalem, 1954); Mappal erev (Tel Aviv, 1961); Ha-esh ve-ha-demamah (Tel Aviv, 1968). In addition, he had also published by then a collection of his Yiddish poems, Lider (New York, 1966).Google Scholar

2. Yonatan, Natan, Be-hevel ha-migdalim ha-aforim, Ad sof ha-qayig ha-indiyani (Merhavia, 1968), p. 67.Google Scholar

3. As early as 1938 Shlonsky was aware of the different styles which were being spawned in Eretz Israel: Home and street styles, the spoken and the written–styles of students and of urchins, of clerks and of laborers. Le-or ha-ashashit in Avraham Shlonsky, Yalqut eshel (Merhavia, 1960), pp. 178–79. All translations of references to Hebrew or Yiddish sources are mine. Poems are translated as literally as English structures permit.Google Scholar

4. When the poet Natan Sach (b. 1930), the leader of the new wave of Israeli poets, delineated The Stylistic Climate of Hebrew Verse in the Fifties and Sixties (Ha-aref, July 28, 1966), he included Preil among the representative young poets who broke the boundaries of the stanza, preferred short forms and organic compositions and lowered the traditionally high poetic diction.

5. Cf. Jausss conception of the aesthetics of reception as the interaction between a new literary form and the cultural system into which it is received: Jauss, H. R., Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory, in Cohen, Ralph, ed., New Directions in Literary History (Baltimore, 1974), pp. 1141.Google Scholar

6. Ribalow, Menachem, Ha-Sifrut ha-ivrit ba-Ameriqah, Ahi-sefer (New York, 1943), p. 178; Eisig Silberschlag, Ha-Shirah ha-ivrit ba-olam he-badash, p. 245. See particularly Abraham Epstein, Soferim iwiyyim ba-Ameriqah, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1952), 1: 229–36; Cf. T. Carmi, Nof shemesh u-khefor, Niv 3 (March-April, 1945): 23–27.Google Scholar

7. For the term Cultural Polysystem and its applicability to the evolution of Hebrew literature see Itamar Even-Zohar, Papers in Historical Poetics (Tel Aviv, 1978); idem, Polysystem Theory, Poetics Today 1 (1979): 287–310.

8. In his comparative study, Two Pools in a Wood (Tel Aviv, 1976), Shimon Sandbank compares Halkins Yohay with Shelleys Alastor (pp. 103–22). Also, Halkin translated Shelleys Defence of Poetry (1928, reprinted in his Derakhim ve-siddei derakhim ba-sifrut, 3 vols. [Jerusalem, 1969], 1: 271300). Regelson, on the other hand, wedded the indigenous mysticism of Ibn Gabirol with that of William Blake. Cf. Epstein, Soferim, pp. 142–63, 172–94.Google Scholar

9. Similarly, the first generation of immigrant poets (arrived around 1890) kept writing verse in accordance with sentimental Hibbat Siyyon norms, long after the dominance of these norms was superseded in the center. This tendency to preserve and petrify literary standards is typical of the decline to periphery, and was noticed also in both social and linguistic behaviors: a cohesive group of immigrants tend to stick to their old culture in their new place, while in their previous home norms change and centers decline. See Even-Zohar, Papers, p. 77.

10. Bass, Shmuel, Nof shemesh u-khefor, Gilyonot 18 (1946): 295.Google Scholar

11. Eisig Silberschlag, Ha-Shirah ha-ivrit ba-olam he-ljadash, Afri-sefer, (see below, n. 17); Epstein, Soferim, p. 229.

12. The movement and its manifest are discussed below, sec. IV.

13. Only a few are extant, some of them in the book Alfi-sefer (see below, n. 17).

14. For Roman Jakobsons definition of novelty as the shifting of emphasis among the diverse potential (aesthetic) principles of organization (= Dominanta), see Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), pp. 82–91. On the colloquial nature of American verse in the twenties and thirties and on the general modernistic tendency to lower style, diction and syntax, see Hough, Graham, Image and Experience (London, 1960), pp. 3–38; Harvey Gross, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry (Ann Arbor, 1964), pp. 100–68; Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971), and A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (New York, 1975), pp. 158–93. On the speaking rhythms of modern Yiddish free verse see Benjamin Hrushovski, Free Rhythms in Modern Yiddish Verse, The Field of Yiddish, ed. Uriel Weinreich (New York, 1954), pp. 219–66.Google Scholar

15. See Zeitlins, Aharon Ha-Nof ve-ha-nefesh, Bitzaron 43 (1960): 3741; Eisig Silberschlag, Gabriel Preil, meshorer ha-uvdot, Hadoar 18 March 2, 1962 : 281–82.Google Scholar

16. See Hanaami, Moshe, Pegishah im Gavriel Preil, Massa, August 27, 1965.Google Scholar

17. In 1943, Hebrew and Yiddish men of letters, headed by Menachem Ribalow and Jamuel Niger, collaborated in the publication of Alfi-sefer Qitw York), which included transations into Hebrew of American Yiddish verse and fiction and general surveys of both Yiddish ind Hebrew letters in America. Sincere as the endeavor might have been, it was received with he biting irony of Jacob Glatstein, the leader of Yiddish belles-lettres. In a long sardonic joem, On Reading Ahi-sefer, Svive 1 (New York, April-May 1944): 25–29, he describes the ranslations as the funeral of Yiddish, and mockingly suggests that they turned him over into Sfaakov Kdarleomer. Playing on the Yiddish word for translate (iberzetsn), he says: Gib a:ets dem Glatshteyn iber/oyf Yaakov Kdarleomer. In the final lines, a tragic note pervades he irony: Singer, your way is easy,/you are eternal and dead,/you have lost your body.

18. Yediot afiaronot, December 21, 1977.

19. In his perceptive essay, Shirei zeman aher: hirhurim al shirat Preil ha-meuheret, Bitzaron 68 (1977): 168–81, 202, Dan Miron suggests that Preils early Introspectivism stems from his ties with Yiddish poetry. The following discussion modifies this suggestion; it would seem that only in his later stages did Preil turn to true Introspectivistic verse.

20. Yediot, Ibid.

21. Glatsteins poetic oeuvre was recently described by Janet Hadda in Yankev Glatshteyn (Boston, 1980).Google Scholar

22. Shirim mi-shenei ha-qesavot (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1976). His Adiv le-asmi (Tel- Aviv, 1981) has just appeared.

23. Harsaah, Shirim, p. 39. For a detailed analysis see Miron, Shirei zeman, pp. 180–81.

24. Elul: nissayon avtobiyyografi, Shirim, pp. 40–41.

25. Yediot Ibid.

26. The autobiographical genre had been so excessively used by Yiddish poets, that Glat stein had already parodied it; see his Oytobiografie published in Kredos, 1929 and reprinted in his collection Fun mayn gantser mi (New York, 1956), p. 323. On the artistic use of biographic materials see Boris Tomashevskii, Literature and Biography, in Matejka and Pomorska, Readings, pp. 47–55. On the function of the title in arousing false expectations (generic and others) and on its role as an interpreting marker, see Michael Riffaterre, The Semiotics of Poetry (Indiana, 1978), pp. 99–114.

27. Of Time and Place (Mi-tokh zeman ve-nof) is the title of Preils collected poems (Jerusalem, 1972).

28. For the function of semantic oppositions in textual analysis see Riffaterre, , Semiotics, and Yury Lotman, Analysis of the Poetic Text, ed. and trans. Johnson, D. B. (Ann Arbor, 1976).Google Scholar

29. Cf. Harold Blooms notion of misreading or misprision, attributed by him to the reading of strong poets, Kabbah and Criticism (New York, 1976), pp. 103–5, 117, 123.Google Scholar

30. The disagreement among critics concerning the continuity or discontinuity of Glatsteins oeuvre is discussed in Hadda, Yankev, pp. 22–27.

31. On Glatstein, Jacob, Hadoar 12 (November 9, 1956): 28.Google Scholar

32. The manifest, entitled Introspectivism and signed by its chief theorists (Jacob Glatstein, Aharon [Glantz] Leyeles and N. B. Minkov), opened the first collection of In-Zikh (New York, 1920), pp. 5–27. For the cultural background of the in81ception of In-Zikh (1920–1940) and for the prior stages of the modernization of Yiddish verse in America, see Howe, Irving and Greenberg, Eliezer, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry (New York, 1969), pp. 2555; Ruth R. Wisse, Di Yunge and the Problem of Jewish Aestheticism, Jewish Social Studies 38 (1976): 265–76.Google Scholar

33. Referred to in the manifest as The American Imagists — the most modernistic school, p. 25.

34. Introspectivism, In-Zikh (New York, 1920): 6.

35. Ibid., pp. 19–22.

36. Cf. Roskies, David, The Achievement of American Yiddish Modernism, Go and Study, Essays and Studies in Honor of Alfred Jospe, eds. Jospe, Raphael and Fishman, Samuel Z. (Washington, 1980), pp. 353–68.Google Scholar

37. Cf. Miron, , Shirei zeman, p. 172.Google Scholar

38. See Hadda, , Yankev, pp. 39–41, 56–66.Google Scholar

39. Ibid., pp. 28–38, 64–70.

40. ln-Zikh, p. 10.

41. Except for the collection, which was published in Tel Aviv, all books appeared in New York.

42. H. N. Bialik and Saul Tchernichowsky, the two exponents of modern Hebrew poetry, lived in Odessa.

43. Continuity appears to be the unverbalized matrix of many of Preils poems, as I demonstrate elsewhere. For the term matrix (the semantic nucleus generating the semiotics or significance of a given text), see Riffaterre, Semiotics.

44. Vint (Wind) was published in Miniaturn, p. 7. Vunder Shpigl (Wonder Mirror) is one of Preils earliest poems, which was published in the Yiddish weekly Nyu Yorker Vokhnblat (February 8, 1935). It is included in Lider, p. 53, and was never translated into Hebrew.

45. This style is also reminiscent of some Objectivist poems by William Carlos Williams or by Charles Resnikoff, although Preil, at least, denies any familiarity with their tenets. On Resnikoff see Alter, Robert, Defenses of the Imagination (Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 119–37. Cf. Hough, Gross, and Kenner (n. 13), and William Pratt, The Imagist Poem (New York, 1963), pp. 11–39.Google Scholar

46. See below for Tellers critique on the rhetorical poetics of Shneour.

47. In the Imagist poem human content is implied rather than stated; Imagist poems differ from other poems in leaving more to the reader to interpret. Pratt, Ibid., p. 30.

48. Nyu York morgn zhurnal, February 18, 1940.

49. Der yidisher kemfer. New York, October 27, 1961.

50. Starkman, Moshe, A molerisher liriker, Svive 21 (December, 1966): 4446.Google Scholar

51. Teller, J. L., Das ershte bukh fun hebreyish-yiddishn dikhter Gavriel Preil, Getseltn 4 (New York, July-August 1945): 135–36.Google Scholar

52. Ibid., pp. 135–36.

53. Ibid., p. 136.

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