An Imitation of Life and a Life of Imitation

Nathan Zach is perceived by many as someone who was very involved in “music”. This impression arose in the 1960s, when Zach described his poetic revolution in terms of the transition to “new music”; A combination that the young Zach used a lot, to illustrate the desired style of poetry in his eyes (“the free rhyme”), a style suitable to the modern world. However, a close examination of Zach’s preoccupation with music in his poems and essays – and a possible comparison with other poets who have expressed great interest in music – will reveal that Zach hardly engaged in music directly. He does not have a list or an article that analyzes in depth a concrete musical work or the musical universe of a specific composer. The status of music as theme in his poems and essays is fascinating, but not self-evident. It often seems that all his essential touches in music were mediated by poetry.

Zach is also perceived by many as a “musical” poet. But only in one place – and after many decades of writing – did he clearly define what, in his view, “musicality in poetry” is: “My formulation of the affinity between music and poetry is as follows: When its hypnotic (or merely ear-pleasing) power takes over what I call, in the absence of a more successful expression, the mental drama or the ‘extra-musical’ expression of the poem, the latter becomes damaged, lost. On the contrary, in the rarely perfect poem, all of these are consistent and reinforce each other” (from “From One Year to the Other”, HaKibbutz HaMeuhad, 2009, p. 133).

In relation to his attitude to music, the “mental drama” in Zach’s world is far removed from his literary and personal struggles, which to a large extent were his hallmark. The music in his world belongs to a deep and even dark mental space. “The music played through / the shutters,” Zach wrote (in the song “Unpack the Gold of Ophir”), “and I knew it was forbidden. / Forbidden.” Such strange prohibitions hover over the explicit references to music in his first three books, which are the best of his work (“First Poems,” “Various Songs,” “All the Milk and Honey”). In all of them the fear of the outdoor music is made manifest. 

Zach’s poetry had trouble throughout dealing with the “exterior”, and there is always manifest a fascinating confrontation between may be labelled An Imitation of Life – imitation of reality through the “music” of poetry – and what might be named A Life of Imitation, an attempt, always doomed to fail, to touch the Material Universe (“wants to touch their hearts”, in Alterman’s words). The origin of this confrontation and of the constant need to create an imaginary inner life, to replace the threatening “exterior” in something which Zach never rebelled against or even denied: the Altermanian “Melody”. This Melody, the same phenomenological entity that exists in the world, has haunted Zach until his very last poem. It was the fruitful confrontation with it that helped shape the special character of his early poetry.

In one of the chapters of Zach’s biography, “From One Year to The Other,” his readers will find a startling moment that sheds light on one of his deepest wounds. Zach describes a “black sea as tar. And there is no sound and no attention on the other side of the sea […] and after all this darkness of the sea rose Apollo, God of song and Music, the Bane of Darkness, disguised as a dolphin, hence one of his names […] Finally I had realized the meaning of the gate and the locked door on which a person knocks in vain, which have been appearing in my poems so often these fifty years […] (Kafka) did not enter the locked gate (in the known parable) not because he hesitated, rather he knew that what would await him inside was not redemption, rather the same place-no-place, house-no-home, and a terrible ‘family tune’ from which he sought to escape all his life. “

   From this terrible “family tune,” which was revealed to him in Delphi as the birthplace of the God of Music and Poetry, Zach sought to escape all his life. Zach had no “place” in the world because the world was full of melody, and all the members of the “family” who recognized this fact were always identified as threatening. And in Delphi “the Melody had returned”, as it had done throughout Zach’s active years at various intersections and in various ways, and had encouraged so many of the various Nathan Zachs embodying the various poems to blur, obscure and erase their traces. 

Uri Hollander

Photo: Moti Kikayon

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