Page 138 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 39

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EISIG SILBERSCHLAG
Silkiner’s Legacy to Hebrew Poetry
On the Centenary of His Birth
A
c a s u a l
c o m p a r i s o n
between Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and
Benjamin Nahum Silkiner (1882-1933) reveals unsuspected
similarities in their poetries. Walt Whitman represents authentic­
ity in the history of American literature. He is the first poet to
embrace democracy — albeit with turgid rhetoric — but without
critical acumen, to extol libertarianism without equivocation, to
celebrate pioneerism as a prime expression of questing adven­
turism, to respond to the vast refulgence of his native land be­
tween the two oceans — prairie and sea, valley and mountain. As
an iconoclast he broke the traditional molds of poetry — the strict
metric and the romantic rhyming. His free verse, which was an
unpremeditated declaration of literary influence, became the
dominant form of verse in America and in Europe. After him
American poetry ceased to be a European dependency; it gained
a native voice which reversed the process of cultural indepen­
dence. European literatures began to absorb American contribu­
tions and revel in their thematic and emblematic wealth.
Similarly, though less flamboyantly, Benjamin Nahum Silkiner
achieved thematic independence for Hebrew poetry in America.
Though he was neither imitated by poets nor evaluated by critics
outside America, he became the dominant influence in Hebrew
poetry in America during the forty years after the publication of
his major epic “Before the Tent of Timmurah” in 1909. The
poem which appeared in Jerusalem and was not readily available
reappeared in his only book of poetry which was published in Tel
Aviv in 1926/27. The poet whose work saw the light of day in the
land of his heart’s desire, was almost unnoticed there. But here
the poem with the strange title became a landmark and a point of
departure for his contemporaries and his younger followers.
For Longfellow, the Indian represented an inspirational possi­
bility and a literary novelty. But he used a traditional verse pat­
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