Poetry 31: The Place Where We Are Right by Yehuda Amichai

plough 300x214 Poetry 31: The Place Where We Are Right by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

12 thoughts on “Poetry 31: The Place Where We Are Right by Yehuda Amichai

  1. What a wonderful poem! So economical, and such a spare and direct use of a few simple metaphors to encapsulate the limitations of our judgement! And from a poet I have never heard of before. Thank you, Barry!

  2. Dear Sir, or Madam,

    I would be grateful if you could explain to me what Yehuda Amichai meant by

    And a whisper will be heard in the place
    Where the ruined
    House once stood.

    Many thanks,
    Peter

  3. Hi Peter

    I suppose it could be interpreted in many ways due to its ambiguous nature.

    My take on it is that it could be the whisper of creativity and flow after a period of being stuck (in rigid, absolute, left hemisphere thinking) which the embrace of uncertainty and compassion can often set up the conditions for.

    What does it conjure up for you?

  4. In writing about metaphor and analogy recently in a book, I used that stanza as an example of a piece of poetry that really could not be reduced to a paraphrase! If you do paraphrase it, the paraphrase is so clearly lacking the full meaning of the original. Yet so many people continue to assume that meaning is some kind of equivalence between a state of affairs and a representation! All they need to do is read poetry to recognise the inadequacy of this way of understanding meaning. What a poem means is, instead, specific to each individual, and experienced through our bodies via metaphor.

    So, like Barry, I’d suggest pointers to help engage with this stanza rather than trying to say ‘what it means’. For example, houses can represent safety or refuge. In dreams they can also represent the psyche as a whole. The idea of a whole house being dug up is profoundly disturbing, especially if it is a house we identify with and feel safe in – a certainty. Whispers, by contrast, are so insubstantial. Who would swap a house for a whisper? But sometimes we need to, because the whisper communicates something important that addresses condition, that the house just shuts us in from. Scientists shut into the house of an old paradigm, or religionists feeling secure in their absolute beliefs, might be examples of people who need to dig up their house and go seeking whispers.

  5. Hi Barry,
    I like this poem very much and the meaning you give it, thank you Robert for your take on what it means to you, I like the metaphorical meaning of the actions of the mole, that in disrupted earth poppies grow.

  6. Many thanks, Barry. My interpretation is that a household stuck in rigidity will eventually fall apart – so I think we are on similar tracks, if I can be so bold.

    It’s very beautiful poem, with a wealth of meaning. I’m using it as a preface to a novel I’ve just completed.

    Very best, Peter

  7. A phrase in the poem makes me think of Africa: “the place (…..) is hard and trampled, like a yard”. Rural (and urban) Africa is criss-crossed by paths trod by generations of people walking – often barefoot – between villages, or to water-sources, or the places where people work. Viewed from the air they fascinate me. I love the way they meander like tributaries of the river of shared life, something that Africa speaks of to me deeply.

    When meeting another on such a well-trodden path it’s customary to offer a verbal greeting, and to respond to a greeting offered. People here in UK still do this, but it’s much less a customary practice than it was, and it’s more common for people to look away and stay silent.

    The poem reminds me of how things change, and that some change can be sad, but it’s also something to celebrate, especially my capacity for change, especially my capacity to acknowledge that I am wrong about stuff.

    And rain as well as digging can prepare the hard earth for the growth of flowers, or grasses, or trees. Insects like termites make easy work of hard-packed earth, and turn it into a fine tilth that they use to build their huge, cool columnar ‘nests’, taller than a man. The processed earth from ant-hills is much sought-after by pregnant Zambian mums, who develop a craving for it (much as European mums may develop similar cravings) and munch it.

    I think I take from my reflections on the poem that it’s good to take the hard with the smooth/soft; and to rejoice that – lest we exert ourselves unnecessarily – ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain made plain’.

  8. Thanks for this post and this conversation. Amichai often wrote about his house, meaning, on one level, his literal house, and, on another level, the several meanings suggested here. But “House,” and particularly a ruined house, in Amichai’s poetry, or allusive Hebrew poetry in general, can also often refer to the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem. With that meaning, the place where the ruined house once stood could be understood (also) as the Temple Mount, and the poem could have an overtone about the Arab-Jewish conflict, and the openings that might be possible if the peoples chose doubts and loves over being right. The allusion to the ruined House, in this sense, might also have a cosmic/existential sound: a whisper will be heard in the place that represents ultimate holiness as well as ultimate destruction.
    I came upon this site as I prepared to post a blog post of my own, commemorating Tish’a B’Av, the day of destruction of the Temple, siting this poem and wondering who the translator is.

    1. HI Jeremy
      Thanks for that. Some interesting interpretations there, especially the one about the Arab-Jewish conflict, which I feel is pertinent to what’s going on at the moment and the ‘hardened’ positions held. I can’t say I resonated with the idea of ultimacy as I found it somewhat incongruent to what I perceived as the poem’s more ambiguous and ethereal nature. How does the poem speak to you personally?

      1. Hi, Barry. Personally, I admit to being frequently tempted by self-righteousness, especially with regard to politics, but not only. The poem is such a powerful, succinct reminder that self-righteousness is a hard place where nothing grows. It helps me to push myself to soften up and listen.
        By the way, I also ended up posting this poem, along with my translation of a song by the contemporary Israeli musician, Erez Lev-Ari, in which he says:
        what to do with this waking up being right
        i’m right, but i’m alone
        I’m at ravjeremy.wordpress.com

        1. I’d like to add my thanks to Barry’s, Jeremy Schwartz, for your observations and personal insights into self-righteousness, with which I’m ingrained myself, but not without hope that some of it may be smoothed and soothed away.

          It’s also good that, having stumbled across the Middle Way site, you took time to let us know of your encounter, and greeted us so cordially. We hope you’ll visit again from time to time, and you’ll be assured of a friendly welcome.

          Peter

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