Dwelling in the Stanzas of the Text: The Concept of “Bayit” in Hebrew Poetry

June 1, 2012
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Vered Karti Shemtov

Having grown up outside the United States, I’m aware of the comfort I feel seeing a familiar landscape, taking in my native culture, or hearing, speaking or writing in Hebrew — when I am immersed in Hebrew texts. Heinrich Heine and, years later, George Steiner associated this feeling with being Jewish, claiming that for the wandering Jew, the text is the homeland.1 But when looking at Hebrew poetry, one can find much older and not necessarily Jewish origins for the idea of feeling at home in literature. One of these roots is the double meaning of the word bayit.

Khalil ibn Ahmad, the eighth-century Arab philologist and scholar of prosody — the patterns of meters and rhymes — named the line of verse “bayit.” The word means “a dwelling place” in both Arabic and Hebrew and “a tent” in the Arabic of the time. Ibn Ahmad, in naming the line “bayit,” referred to the origin of this form in the pre-Islamic poetry of the desert Arabs. Influenced by Arabic culture, medieval Jewish scholars adopted the figurative meaning of the term. However, the idea that prosodic forms bounded speech in an artistic way, as if building a structure or a home for that speech, did not derive from this term alone. In medieval Hebrew poetry, the first half of the line was called “the door” and the second half “the lock.” Over time, the meaning of “bayit” in Hebrew poetry changed from one line to groups of lines, and it became the most common signifier for a stanza.

Today, “bayit” is still used to refer to the poetic form as well as to a home. While the word has lost some of its figurative meaning and speakers rarely notice the connection between the two meanings of the word, we continue to find references to the double meaning in some contemporary Hebrew literature and poetry. One such example is “Batim” (the plural of “bayit”), a poem by the Israeli poet and scholar of medieval poetry, Dan Pagis. In the first two stanzas of the poem, Pagis describes the limitations of poetry in predicting or capturing the destruction of the physical home: The artist’s pen is a seismograph, and it cannot “draw even the tip of the truth” that “the house has collapsed / and the earth has opened underneath.” The destruction of both the physical and the poetic space is tied together thematically and happens simultaneously. For Pagis, in this and many other poems, poetry cannot provide a safe and secure home for the speaker who has experienced a trauma. The destruction of both the physical and the poetic space described in these three stanzas, or batim, is tied together thematically and happens simultaneously.2 The third stanza presents a slightly more optimistic picture: “among the ruins, / the pen is absolved of all its duties. / It scribbles on the page as it pleases, / joins all the threads in the center, / a master plan / for a spider’s den.”3 Here, Pagis suggests that poetry in the modern age is relieved of form and convention; there is a commitment neither to old poetic structures nor to clear poetic meter, rhyme, or other conventions. The earthquake of modern art has left the hand of the poet too free; it now lacks a stable structure within which to work. In the ruins, the poet can only weave together spider webs that create a perforated sketch or draft of a new poetic structure, a new home. Writing thus becomes an act of rebuilding from the ruins fragile, temporary homes — or batim.

The poetry of the social movement that brought thousands of Israeli citizens into the streets in the summer of 2011 exemplifies how the old metaphorical use of “bayit” has been given new life. In Jerusalem, a poetry reading was dubbed, Dwelling in the Homes/Stanzas of the Poem,4 a play on the double meaning of “bayit” — with the possible implication that the rising costs of housing have left the poetic stanza as the only affordable home. Dwelling in the text is also the theme of at least two poems published in the collection The Revolution Song-book: Tents Poetry:5 Sigal Ben Yair’s “A Poem in Two Rented Homes/Stanzas” and Salman Masalha’s “Bayit Song.” The first stanza in Ben Yair’s poem describes an attempt to rent a place; the second addresses the issue of feeling homeless in the city. In Masalha’s poem, each stanza is preceded by a title: first bayit, second bayit, third bayit, and personal bayit. In each bayit there is a list of different kinds of homes (good home, Arab home, apartment home, national home, etc.). The lists also include some of the different uses of the word “home” in Hebrew (beit midrash, beit olam, shalom bayit, etc.). Masalha’s poem, although included in the “Poetry of the Tents,” seems to respond not to the economic crisis but to his identity as a Druze dwelling in both the textual home of Hebrew poetry and the land of Israel. In a poem published several years earlier, Masalha noted, “I write Hebrew, to / get lost in my words, and also to find / a bit of interest for my footsteps / I have not stopped walking. Many paths / have I traveled. Engraved by my hands.”6 For a poet born in an Arab village in Israel, writing in Hebrew cannot but create an awareness of the exclusion or limitation one can feel in the Hebrew text or language — especially when using the word “bayit” with all its cultural, religious, national, Jewish, and Zionist contexts. Hebrew and Hebrew poetry, for Masalha, become not homes, but places of wandering and exile. By playing with the ambiguous meaning of “bayit,” Masalha writes in the space where his own two languages intersect, and thus continues the dialogue between Hebrew and Arabic cultures.7

Whether it stems from not feeling at home in the language (in the case of Masalha), from the inability to afford an individual home (in the case of the speaker in Ben Yair’s poem), or the impossibility of feeling at home as an existential state (as in the poetry of Dan Pagis), these brief examples show that even after Hebrew poetry returned to the homeland and years after Zionism offered an end to wandering, Hebrew writers still play with the ambiguous use of “bayit” and readers both inside and outside the state of Israel can continue to engage — in new ways — with the idea of feeling at home in linguistic and textual spaces.

1 H. Bieber, Heinrich Heine: Confessio Judaica: Eine Auswahl aus seinen Dichtungen, Schriften und Briefen (Heinrich Heine: Selections of his poetry, writings and letters; Berlin: Welt-Verlag, 1925) 91–92. For a discussion of this quote in the context of Jewish perspectives of space, see C. E. Fonrobert and V. Shemtov, “Introduction: Jewish Conceptions and Practices of Space,” Jewish Social Studies 11:3 (2005): 1–8. The quote from Heine was translated by C. E. Fonrobert for “George Steiner: Our Homeland, the Text,” Salmagundi 66 (Winter-Spring 1985): 4-25, Skidmore College.

2 See Vered Karti Shemtov, “Dan Pagis: Poetic lines without a Home” in Collected Essays on the Work of Dan Pagis, ed. Hannan Hever, forthcoming.

3 Dan Pagis, “Houses” New Republic 17 June 2002: 34. Translated from the Hebrew by Tsipi Keller. Originally published in Hebrew in 1982.

4 In Hebrew, lagur b’bayt shel shir.

5 The collection was edited by a long list of poets and editors and came out in 2010 (first edition) and 2011 (second edition) as a collaboration among the following publishers: Daka, Maayan, Erev-Rav, Etgar, and Gerilla.

6 Salman Masalha, “I Write in Hebrew,” Translation by Vivian Eden. Ariel: The Israel Review of Arts and Letters 104, Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, Jerusalem, 1997

7 For the double meaning of bayit in Palestinian culture and the idea of the poem as home for the poet in exile, see interview with Mahmud Darwish in Simon Bitton’s movie, “As the Land is the Language,” 1997.

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Vered Karti Shemtov is the Eva Chernov Lokey Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Language and Literature at Stanford University, and coordinator of the Hebrew@Standford: Multimedia website. She served as the co-director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University until 2011. Shemtov is the author of “Discontinuous Spaces in A. B. Yehoshua’s Novel The Liberated Bride,” Intersecting Sights: Critical Essays on A.B. Yehoshua's Work, Heksherim and Ben Gurion University Press, 2010, and co-editor (with Charlotte Fonrobert) of Jewish Conceptions and Practices of Space, Jewish Social Studies, Summer, 2005. Her book Changing Rhythms: Towards a Theory of Prosody in Cultural Context will be published by Bar-Ilan University Press in 2013. Dan Pagis’ poem “Batim” can be read on shma.com.

1 Comment

  1. Though you write, “Dan Pagis’ poem “Batim” can be read on shma.com.”,
    I can’t find it here at Shma.com,
    even though I searched using Pagis and Batim.

    Posted by
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