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literature

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Friend, Robert (1913-1998)  
 
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Emigration to Israel

Although Friend anticipated only a temporary sojourn, he wound up spending the rest of his life there except for a period in 1954 and 1955 when he studied Moral Sciences at Cambridge University in England.

Upon arriving in Israel, Friend worked for a time on a kibbutz, then moved to Jerusalem, where he became an instructor of English literature at Hebrew University. He also did graduate studies there, earning his doctorate in 1970. Once again he wrote a thesis on the work of E. M. Forster. Friend was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor in 1979 and remained at Hebrew University until his retirement in 1984.

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The Poet of Jabotinsky Street

In Jerusalem Friend became known as "the poet of Jabotinsky Street" and one of Israel's leading writers of poetry in English, but the quality of his work had been recognized even earlier. His writings began appearing in Poetry magazine in 1937; in 1940 he was awarded the Jeannette Sewell Davis Prize for Poetry; and the first of his seven slim volumes of poetry had been published in 1941. But in Israel his poetry became deeper and more introspective, and gradually more openly expressive of his homosexuality.

Gabriel Levin calls Friend "preeminently a poet of desire" who, throughout his life, became "increasingly bold in portraying, not without humor, the darker, lustful side of love." Jay Shir compares Friend to C. P. Cavafy, describing both as in "thrall to sad gay lusts."

A personal sadness for Friend was that despite having many lovers he never found a life partner. The only beings who shared his lodgings on Jabotinsky Street were cats--as many as thirteen at a time--to whom he was greatly devoted and who also turned up in his poetry.

Friend's poetry evolved over time. Though he may have early viewed himself as an outsider, toward the end of his life, according to Shir, his writings evince "self-acceptance, a quality perhaps reminiscent of Auden's late work." Given Friend's great admiration for Auden, he would no doubt have appreciated this observation..

In a 1995 interview Friend described the development of his own poetry. His work in the 1930s and 1940s was formal verse, but he later attempted free verse and found success with it even though, as he stated, "free verse is more difficult because you do not have a framework. One must establish an inner framework, which is more difficult; your ear must be more finely tuned." He called the poems of his later years, which are generally short, "a kind of epigrammatic poetry." An example of this later poetry is the rueful but pithy "Heart Failure": "Since other hearts have failed me, / Why not my own?"

Friend's poetry ranges over a number of topics, especially mortality and frustration in love. At the center of nearly all the poetry is the endlessly analytical, nearly always critical, observer who, in the words of one poem, "sits / and studies in the mirrors / how well his hunchback fits." In another he describes his "lower self" as "Nose picker, peeker through a bedroom shutter, / farter in a suburban swimming pool, / . . . a perfect fool." Some of the poems--such as the ten-part sequence "The Teacher and the Indian"--recount love affairs, while others dissect memories of brief dalliances.

Friend also wrote poems about gay literary figures, such as Oscar Wilde and A. E. Housman. In "Housman's Venetian Visits," Friend imagines the poet's commercial affair with "Andrea, / a young and handsome, one-eyed gondolier" and contrasts it with his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, "for whose love returned, he said, he would have happily / given up the fame, the poems, the classical scholarship, / content to serve his lover all life-long, / if only as a servant."

Some of Friend's most remarkable poems are focused on old age and the approach of death. Among these is "The Divorce" in which the soul addresses the body:
"I knew, I knew from the start / you would prove a faithless lover."

Translator

Friend's skill as a poet, combined with his facility for languages, allowed him to excel at the exceedingly difficult task of translating poetry. He translated some 800 works first written in Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, French, German, and Arabic.

He is best known for his translations of Hebrew poetry. These include Leah Goldberg: Selected Poems (1976), Natan Alterman: Selected Poems (1978), Gabriel Preil: Selected Poems (1981), and Flowers of Perhaps: Selected Poems of Ra'hel (1995) as well as a children's book by Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Agnon's Alef Bet (1998).

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