The poems in Of Great Importance discuss taxes and debts, stocks and flows, citizenship and labor contracts, notaries and accountants, factories and strikes, freedoms and fundamental rights, how to make money and how to win elections, when to declare war and when to found a new state.
Economics, politics, or history deals with how people live together. Poetry is the most powerful way of understanding how people live together. That’s why poetry is also the most appropriate form to talk about economics, politics, or history, so as to recognize the open questions and propose reasonable solutions.
In the best non-postmodern tradition, the poems in Of Great Importance look at history in order to learn something from it and build upon the best work of those thinkers and poets who came before – such as Marx, Keynes, Heine, Miłosz, and especially Kaváfis.
Excerpts from Of Great Importance
If you’ve worked for someone else who told you
how they wanted to be with you, are you still allowed
to go into politics? You are here.
You can pay someone to do your work for you
if you have enough to pay them and then you can
go into politics, at last.
You don’t pay tax anymore, but as if representing
the state in your purchases you buy a
warship or a play.
What else can you do instead of paying
tax? Say that those who have less than you
can come and stand before you
and tell you what they want
to tell you?
Or do you not mean those who have less, but those
who are so ugly you are not calmed when you see
LIKE A LAW OR A POEM, FOR THE SALAFISTS OR CONSTITUTIONAL ORIGINALISTS, AND ARE WE NOW SUDDENLY ALLOWED TO MAKE JOKES ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE AFRAID OF?
How long can a text that is used to determine what to do remain as if nobody’s?
A proposal: that can definitely no longer continue when a decision that required understanding the text has not been made for as long as a life lasts.
You have to decide, here is the text and what you know about those who wrote it, the previous readings of the text and what you know about those who offered them, and what you know about what they knew about those who wrote the text.
Is there anything else you want to know? The customs of those who live with the text and what they know of the law, and of its readings, and of those who wrote the text and those who offered the readings, and of you who must decide.
By the way: how long may a text that is used to determine what to do remain as if nobody’s?
Let’s make a law, then we can fine those who say something strange about it.
Or are we now suddenly allowed to say anything at all about a law, like about your nose?
Your nose is so long we know you are coming long before we hear your footsteps.
And if you stick your nose in your own affairs it sticks out the other side.
You have to pay as much as their face is worth if you bump into someone in the dark and you can still see it on their face a day later.
You are allowed to explain that law as you please, not like a joke that you are only allowed to explain in one single way, and the fattest angels and police officers keep watch.
Do you hear it still, and that too? Then you must have good ears, not just large ones, like your feet.
Imagine you couldn’t kiss very well because your nose got in the way, and now you don’t have a nose anymore.
Then you know a law you would like to start with.
ANOTHER ONE TO DO AGAIN, ABOUT CULTURAL ZIONISM
Going to Palestine to speak and write Hebrew and starting by translating in your head what you heard people say as a child walking on the street,
and leaving their languages to the Germans and the French because they need them so badly, und jeder soll nach seiner Façon selig werden.
Or speaking Yiddish as if it’s Arabic,
also as a trick for when you bump into Arabs who are family, who have made such an effort to forget you and you have forgotten them.
Or you want to start by learning Yiddish because people who already speak and write German
hardly need to do their best to understand Yiddish, that’s an advantage of Yiddish over all other languages.
But for that very reason it’s easy to lose something important when translating from German into Yiddish or vice versa,
so maybe it would be better to speak French in Palestine.
You can easily mix Yiddish and German when speaking, or else you Germanize or Hebraicize your Yiddish, and so on, one language after the other,
around the world in six days and on the seventh you are silent, nodding at another old man you see on the street – why are we all so old?
You want to rediscover the truest feature of your people there where they are the most left behind,
and then search for what differs most from what the rest of your people have or what most resembles what those who have been left behind by other peoples have?
What they have forgotten to get rid of and then no longer dare to get rid of
because it reminds them that they too once asked: but do you want to get rid of me?
If you want to make your writing as true as possible, do you try to make it sound old
or the way someone writes who hasn’t thought in advance about how to tell a story and just starts hacking letters into a rock with a chisel?
But the least changeable qualities will surely be the ones that are not lost when they are mixed with those of others,
and they make it possible to scream Jew, Jew at someone who writes in German or French?
What can be said about all Jews, or at least about all the good ones, besides their not believing in God,
or passing through history as the opposite of the Weltgeist that makes clay from shards and houses from clay?
If the Jew wants to have a state, why in Palestine, why not in Europe,
it must be possible to found a state where you already are.
Which state is not also a prison of nations,
a few more added every day?
You have always wanted to found a state in which you could change who you ask for help if you want to flee
just as easily as you change your opinions – and you don’t even need to flee.
Yesterday you thought that the Jews would no longer want to have a state if they all got much older,
but today you have a different idea, so new that you don’t need to apologize for the old one.
You read the declaration of independence as if you are an actor who wants to make the audience cry, if necessary about how bad his acting is,
because he is not sure he can get them to laugh.
If you say that I am listening to you as if I have promised to die for the state, you are probably right,
and then I would also say what might make me die for the state or the state for me.
In Zion the Jew would be too busy building houses and living in them,
but in Europe it is as if he has been naked from the day of his birth and has never visited a barber, but this morning they dressed him, gave him a shave and cut his hair.
You can always continue longing for Zion like Yehuda Halevi because he thought he would have good neighbors in Jerusalem,
if he had bought a house there the price would have gone up because of the neighbors or perhaps because of just one neighbor.
What a surprise, Zion being like Sicily,
almonds and laurels.
My dear Jews,
shall we have breakfast first?
There are three possibilities,
but the one on the square is best.
They have tables on the sidewalk,
but if you go down the hall past the kitchen you come into a small courtyard.