Biblical Poetry Reflection
Tim Pownall-Jones, Healthcare Chaplain
The psalms ("songs") set for this Sunday by the lectionary include 8 and 26. Rather than choose between them, it is worth considering why the Bible includes any poetry. How might the significance ("sign-making") of poetry be approached? As someone who thinks about repetition, forgetting, dramatic tension, fear, restricting choice, music, verbal musicality (such as babbling and soundbites), and other mechanisms by which the human brain is controlled, I am reminded of one of Yogi Berra’s quips: "It’s déjà vu all over again."
William Empson wrote Seven Types of Ambiguity when he was only 21 and it has haunted literary studies since it was published in 1930. Interpretations of the ambiguous can be infinite and, because life has infinite potential, the Bible would not be fit for purpose if it did not include poetry.
What gives poetry a chance of being great, in an obvious way, is when form supports content and style matches theme. (The same could be said of paintings by Rembrandt, Protestantism’s greatest commentator on the Bible.) For example, the Song of Songs merges with other erotic poems from neighbouring cultures by ignoring themes that are irrelevant to the urgency of desire. Its title, not necessarily chosen by the author, could mean a medley of these poems. It could also be a superlative, as in the phrase “holy of holies” for the temple’s curtained-off area that was reserved for the high priest.
That a temple is a physical poem is suggested by the enthronement ritual for a new king: he emerges from the curtained womb covered in oil representing natal fluids. Acting as midwife, the high priest, having liberally applied all of this oil, then proclaims the king to be the newborn "son of God" (the literal meaning of "Baal"). (This is the origin of the baptism ritual which magnifies the element of the new "child of God" being washed in water, the washing away of sin being associated in patriarchal societies with removing the "impurity" of a woman’s fluids, represented by the baptismal oil applied by a priest.) The ambiguity of men dressed like women applying fluids that only women can produce, only to wash them off again, demonstrates the ambiguity that is familiar in poetry.
Poetry can also have life-or-death consequences. As a declaration of loyalty to a new king, "Hallelujah" ("Shine, Yahweh") was shouted in front of the glistening king. Yahweh’s presence was likewise associated with the shining face of Moses, the archetypal prophet-priest-king. The combination of ambiguity and danger is present in the advice given to Job by his wife: "Bless God and die" (Job 2:9). Barak, the Hebrew word for ”bless", can be a euphemism for "curse", depending on context.
When it comes to poetic achievement in the Bible, Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) is second only to Job. In Second Isaiah and in Job, we find universal themes of suffering, hope, and the crossing of national boundaries, physically and mentally. There are open-ended discussions, even in heaven, and a concern for the oldest known structures: mountains. "Almighty" is a very loose translation of the Hebrew for "mountainous" or "of the mountains". These writers want their work to last as long as mountains by featuring themes that never go out of fashion, in suitably open-ended styles.
Leo Perdue spoke for many Joban scholars when he said that Job was written at the same time as Second Isaiah during the Babylonian exile. We cannot be sure since the author tries to erase signs of its origin and includes fictional details that throw us off the scent, such as Job himself sacrificing instead of having a priest offer sacrifices. Here is a portrayal of the ancestral age but some of the vocabulary is more recent than that. Israel is not mentioned because of the author’s desire to make this a universal story.
In Second Isaiah there are two main ambiguities. One is the jarring presence of 43:18 ("Do not remember the former things") and 46:9 ("Remember the former things"). There is a question mark over how Israelites are to think about their past. At the very least, the writer wants his compatriots to think about this question instead of rushing to make Babylonian customs their own and losing their Israelite identity. The second ambiguity is around the servant of Yahweh. Is he the Israelite nation personified? Presented as an agent of the divine, is he himself divine? Is he Jesus? The most that the text allows us to say is that this is the creation of a job description that Jesus will view as his own.
Harold Bloom thought that poets write with the aim of correcting what they mistakenly think earlier poets meant. This purpose in writing is an attempt by poets to justify their activity because their knowledge of others’ poetry causes them to worry that they are not being original. Hence the title of Bloom’s seminal work is The Anxiety of Influence. It is an open question how much the biblical historians, prophets and psalmists felt this anxiety. One way of applying Bloom’s thought would be to say that Jesus behaved in a way that did not entirely match Second Isaiah’s writings (he was not strictly silent) and that each evangelist sought in his own way to reconcile Jesus’ life with various writings.
One source of unintended humour in the Bible is Matthew’s description of Jesus as "mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" as if two animals were being ridden simultaneously by Jesus. Along with most other Jews at that time, Matthew relied on a translation of the Hebrew scriptures but he missed the key feature of Hebrew poetry: parallelism. Instead of describing the same animal in two ways, Matthew gives the impression of two animals by adding the word "and" in imitation of the Greek translation of Zechariah 9:9. Without creating a strong, justified use of "and", such as Hemingway’s hypnotic staccato (inspired by the rhythms of J.S. Bach), Matthew’s reworking is weaker than Zechariah’s original.
A reworking can improve on the original. Even accounting for the change in language, the writings included in the original New Testament never reach the heights of William Tyndale’s New Testament, up to 85% of which was voted into the King James Version because of how good it sounded.
In "Is Fiction the Art of Living?" the Peruvian writer Mario Varga Llosa notices that, "Religious cultures produce poetry and theatre, not novels. Fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis...One can well understand why regimes that seek to exercise total control over life mistrust works of fiction and subject them to censorship. Emerging from one’s own self, being another, even in illusion, is a way of being less a slave and of experiencing the risks of freedom." This hints at a solution to an old problem summed up by the American writer Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" As someone who thinks about repetition, forgetting, dramatic tension, fear, restricting choice, music, verbal musicality (such as babbling and soundbites), and other ways in which the human brain is controlled, I am reminded of one of Yogi Berra’s quips: "It’s déjà vu all over again."
Poetry meets a need. For the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, it is a redemptive handrail. The near halving of Earth’s human population will create the greatest possible need for pastoral care. This event will leave its mark on high culture and on low culture, as will the extinction of animal bodies. Time is needed to find a perspective from which to create lasting poems, just as it took a few years for T.S. Eliot to register indirectly some of the impact of the First World War in The Waste Land. For individuals and for civilisations, spending time with poetry is a measure of maturity.
That leaves the question of how to judge poetry, biblical or not. There is a difference between being non-judgemental and having poor judgement. Unless they are careful, those who champion the former demonstrate the latter instead. Nevertheless, there is truth in the claim, often attributed to Carl Jung, that, "Thinking is hard, that’s why most people judge." Yet for thinking to be ethical, some gesture towards provisional judgement is necessary.
If the history of western philosophy is a footnote to the writings of Plato, the history of literary criticism is another. The ancient fascination with how to relate the good to the beautiful, and each of these to their opposites, is given modern expression by Louis MacNeice. He calls for poetry to be judged only as poetry while commenting on the work of a great poet with unusual views (W.B. Yeats): "Poetry gains body from beliefs but not necessarily because they are the right beliefs. It is not the absolute, or objective, validity of a belief that vindicates the poetry; it is a gross over-simplification to maintain that a right belief makes a poem good and a wrong belief makes a poem bad."
Judgement of any text ought to involve a conversation between standards at the time of writing and standards at the time of reading. The risk of conversation collapsing into dogma is what makes thinking difficult. The refusal to settle for simple answers, or low-hanging fruit, or any final verdict was called by Keats "negative capability". This resistance to closure is what makes Job, in Tennyson’s judgement, the greatest poem in world literature.
If Jesus preached a "kingdom", a way of living, but ended up with a church, institutionalisation is an inevitable consequence of the systematic thinking which Keats resisted by speaking up for "negative capability". This is the closest that a western writer has come to the sense of "negative space" that has been nurtured most carefully in Japan. Not doing things by halves, Japanese society tried to be more western than the West by dedicating itself to the doctrine of total war, until defeat in 1945. Since then it has rediscovered its earlier confidence by attending to the beauty of how things can be arranged and by valuing the space between them. This is the poetic way of living and glimpses of it can be found in Dutch design. An awareness of impermanence in the face of flooding or other natural upheavals may be the key factor shared by Dutch and Japanese culture. Just as the Dutch pretend to be "unshockable", Japan’s many enthusiasms mask melancholy. "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music" (Walter Pater), yet the Japanese tend to view all of this as secondary to the experiencing of a cherry blossom from the moment it falls from its branch until it hits the ground. Poetry challenges us to slow our perceptions down until a petal’s fall feels epic. Unlike with other art forms, a memory of a piece of poetry is a memory of the art itself, not a memory of a mere impression. Good writing is putting the right words in the right order. Understanding what is right requires us to do it. So, let us write.
The only recorded act of writing by Jesus was in the dust (John 8:6), an example of writing for its own sake: impermanent and with no chance of communicating anything beyond the moment.
There are some wonderful and much-needed commentaries on poems that lose much in translation, such as the brilliant satire on the fears that perpetuate patriarchy in the Song of Songs contrasted with its dream of equality. (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service plays this contrast for laughs until James Bond grieves by dreaming of what he has lost.) What is wonderful is catching the poet’s vision. If critics are parasitic on practitioners, I should redeem myself with some practice. Following efforts by a few Christian writers to improve "Monday’s Child", here is my attempt to make it less objectionable without sacrificing the style:
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child must set the pace.
Wednesday’s child is wonder-struck,
Thursday’s child is rarely stuck.
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living.
The child born on the Sabbath day
is wise and kind at work and play.
I was born on a Wednesday. On which day were you born?
The original third line, "Wednesday’s child is full of woe", ends with a part-rhyme for "Woden’s day", the literal meaning of Wednesday. Conscious of the French word "mercredi" (Mercury’s day), the line also hints at the pensive over-interpreting associated with Mercury/Hermes. From this character’s Greek name comes "hermeneutics" for the art of interpreting. The art of interpreting poems, ourselves and other beings develops as we mature - attending with our abilities, without attaching anything to our sense of self - and it never ends.