Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism

In an earlier post, I suggested an opportunity for students to “write the Bible.” This is another one, stolen from…er, inspired by, a friend.

Teaching biblical poetry to her students, my friend (who sometimes comments here as HebProf [whups: HBprof]) came up with a cool exercise: she gave them the first of a pair of parallel lines from a biblical poetic text. The students would then write a second line such that it is parallel to the first. For example, she might give them the first part of Psa 102:6 (English verse numbering; Hebrew Psa 102:7)

I am like a barred owl of the wilderness

The students would then each write a line they propose to be parallel to that first line. After comparing suggestions, they are shown the biblical parallel line, here

I have become as a screech owl of the wastes.

My own learners will be M.Div students reading the texts in English translation, and while there are more sophisticated ways of understanding Hebrew poetic parallelism, I think that Robert Lowth’s old “synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic parallelism” is a good place to begin. Given opportunity, I would look for ways to talk further with introductory students about “seconding” and “stair-case parallelism,” and only in a seminar setting get into ideas of grammatical, morphological, and semantic parallelism.[FOOTNOTE]

So, for example, the biblical line is clearly meant to be “synonymous” parallelism. By having students produce a range of alternatives, it can be made clear that “synonymous” embraces a wide range of possibilities to answer Psa 102:6a, such as:

I am adrift on the sea alone. Or,

I am a beat cop at midnight on a street corner.

A student trying to create an “antithetically” parallel line for Psa 102:6a might offer the following:

But you are like a new bride among the village women. Or,

But I will become like a crow among the flock.

For a “synthetically” parallel line, she might try:

with no cloud for shade. Or,

Who will tend me?. Or,

A raptor snapping at mice.

The difficulty that students would have grasping the nebulous category of “synthetic” parallelism would, I think, provide a wonderful jumping-off place into the more recent descriptions of poetic parallelism with their clearer engagement of grammar and linguistics.

What do you think of such an exercise? Do you have suggestions for improvement? Are there other exercises by which you have your students “write the Bible”?

BACK TO POST I am glancing at David L. Petersen and Kent Harold Richards, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry (Guides to Biblical Scholarship, Old Testament Series; Gene M. Tucker, ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chapter two. I think that this resource would be a great choice for a class of mostly English-language exegetes with a handful of students who have taken Hebrew as an elective.

[Write the Bible: Poetic Parallelism was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/11. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The Earth Quakes Before Them

Local Big Ol’ University is back in session now—they start later than us at Adjacent Seminary—and the students, they are thick on the ground.

Like autumn leaves, you kick up showers of them when you walk.

Like gnats, you catch them on your uvula when you open your mouth.

Like worries, they fill your field of vision when you close your eyes.

As the prophet Joel anticipated…

Before them peoples are in anguish,
all faces grow pale.

Like warriors they charge,
like soldiers they scale the wall.

Each keeps to its own course,
they do not swerve from their paths.

They do not jostle one another,
each keeps to its own track;

They burst through the weapons
and are not halted.

They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls;

They climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.

…they are climbing in the windows.

Plaintive Haiku: Summer Vacation Edition


No course load. Out there:

Warm, green, bright freedom. In here?

Chained fast to email.

Help Me Write a Metaphor

I am writing an introductory paragraph to an essay about poetics. I am trying to craft a catchy metaphor to kick things off. Need help. Here’s the idea behind the content of the essay, then I will show you the current state of my metaphor.

Overall, the quick-and-dirty that I am trying to get across is that poetic speech calls attention to itself, and yet, at the same time, tries to work with enough subtlety that its use doesn’t completely stop dead the basic task of communication.

The content: In normal communication, the language we use is trying to be a clear window: we do not want the hearer to pay attention to the language we use, but rather to the meaning alone. Just as she would look through a clear window to see what is behind it, we want her “listen through” the language to hear the meaning, the message.

In poetic speech, however, we deliberately “fog” or “tint” the window.* Our language is crafted such that it calls attention to itself. Take this sentence from Chapter 17 of the Hobbit:

Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak.

This is not a selection from a poem, but is rather just one sentence in a narrative paragraph. The wind is the first warning the protagonists receive that the Goblins and Wargs have arrived unexpectedly to join the battle in progress. Still, the sentence is strongly poetic, mainly in its use of alliteration (winter, wild, wind; rolled, roaring, rumbled; lightning, lit). The sonorant, liquid consonants beat forward, reaching a sharp but delicate crescendo in the unvoiced stops of the t’s in “lightning lit.” (In a comment I may say more about the poetics of this snippet.)

My point is that the alliteration slows the reader down slightly, calling her attention to the poetic device (the fog on the window, as it were). At the same time, the window cannot become so opaque that the poetic language stops the reader dead by distracting her completely from the meanings unfolding between her and the text: she either cannot or will not continue following the story. If the poetic language goes too far in calling attention to itself, communication stops. If the goal of everyday language is clarity, then the goal of poetic language is translucence, but not outright opacity.

The metaphor: At the start of the essay, I wish to compare the poet to a certain kind of criminal, the reader to a member of the public who hears of the crime, and the critic to a detective. I am thinking of cat burglars, or graffiti artists, or anyone else who commits an act that calls attention to itself, that seeks to send a message. On the one hand, this brand of criminal wants to accomplish a mundane task: she wants to steal something of value, or vandalize a public space. This mundane act corresponds in my metaphor to the simple act of communication. The criminal, like the poet, wants to get away clean with the task at hand (for the poet, the task is communication). On the other hand, the criminal wants the public not only to know that a crime has been committed, but to pay attention to the details of the crime: its difficulty, its elegance, its mystery, perhaps how it bears certain signature elements characteristic of the criminal. These elements call attention to themselves for the hearer the way that poetic language calls attention to itself.

Sometimes some of the witnesses will be aware that a crime has happened (something’s missing, a wall is tagged), but lack comptetence to see the artistry (no sign of forced entry; there’s no apparent way to get to that wall). The detective, though (our literary critic), has enough experience to help other witnesses see the elements that they might otherwise miss.

This is the background thinking going on behind my paragraph. All I want to do is to pique their interest in poetic language by capturing some of the romance and grandeur of the master criminal. At the same time, I do not want to bring in the grisly, darker side of the metaphor (serial killers harvesting trophies, and such). Also, it has to be quick and short. Here is my first draft:

The writer who employs a poetic device—say a metaphor, or a bit of satire—is like the criminal who commits a sensational crime. On the one hand, the act must be done covertly enough to accomplish its work. The criminal wants to put over her crime and steal on. On the other hand, the act must be overt enough to be recognized for what it is. Those who discover the crime—say a cat burglary, or a bit of signature vandalism—must “get it,” must have a moment of “a-ha.” The artist walks a tightrope: how shall she weave language that calls attention to itself as language, and yet do so in a way that operates on the reader before he becomes cognizant of the device? The reader, then, like the witness, is confronted with an act that is both showing and hiding itself. The critic, like a seasoned detective, has the task of determining whether the apparent elements of the poetry of the crime are intended by the criminal artist at all, and if so, to demonstrate them to the rest of the public.

It still feels clunky and a bit forced in some ways. In your view, is the metaphor working at all? Is the idea sound but my implementation flawed? In what ways is it not working? Are there elements of the metaphor that raise tactical problems that I’ve missed? What suggestions do you have for improvement?

*(The concept of poetic language as opacity I first found in Gian Biagio Conte and Charles Segal, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, Cornell Studies in Classical Philology vol. 44. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.)

The Literal and Figurative as Subsets of Religious Speech

I am working up a longer post on this topic, but for now, consider this statement attributed to Francis Collins, Obama’s nominee for Director of the National Institute for Health National Institutes of Health:

…he thinks the presence of the divine can be directly observed, even if it cannot be measured and tested…

Now, I would prefer a direct quote, and know that Collins’ words may have been slightly different, but I’m going to provisionally take it as stated.

When a scientist says that something is “directly observable,” but nonetheless “cannot be measured or tested,” I am inclined to think that they are not using the word “observe” in a literal way. At least they are not using it to mean, “available to the five human senses or to instruments designed to extend the human senses beyond their normal reach.”

Rather, I suspect that the word “observe” is being used as figurative speech: a metaphor, a figure, a kind of poetry. I should add that I do not consider figurative speech to be a kind of window-dressing to literal speech: a figurative utterance has cognitive uniqueness; it signifies in a way not reducible to literal speech. For example, the figurative utterance

The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower

is not simply reducible to some literal paraphrase like, “There are many stars out, and the moon has waxed to full.” The figurative speech (Tolkien, by way, from the final chapter of The Hobbit) means uniquely: it signifies something that no other utterance can quite match. That something is not “testable or measureable,” but it is something private, a something that unfolds between the text and the individual hearer. Therefore, it is not ultimately shareable, though productive conversation on the work might be shared.

I want to say that religious claims should be divisible into two kinds: literal claims that submit to “testing and measurement” (this would include religious claims about the age of the earth, the nature of sexuality,  and so on), and figurative claims that have the status of works of art (which might also mean to effect public opinion and policy, but after the fashion of Huckleberry Finn or the Corporate American Flag rather than in the way of a scientific discovery or a poll). When we say, “God is love,” or “God answers prayer,” or “God acts in history,” we should be able to make a clear accounting as to the literalness or figurativeness of our speech, submitting the former to “testing and measurement” and the latter to the rather different critical norms of art.

Ultimately, I have hopes that this line of thinking may help introductory students in religious studies to systematize and clarify the claims they make in collaborative discussion.

Thoughts on these reflections in progress?

Accentual Rhythm in a Modern Hebrew Poem

John Hobbins wrote up a translation and some commentary on a Hebrew poem by Shimshon Meltzer. When I tried to comment, TypePad declined to accept my data. Presumably, I had too darned many tags in my comment, what with my endless italicizing of stressed syllables. So, I am posting my comment here and linking to it over at John’s.

John, thanks for including the notes on rhythm. The default 4-3 line is like half of a ballad stanza (“There are strange things done in the midnight sun / by the men who moil for gold”). Those first four lines use it consistently to “get things rolling.” The occasional 3-4 lines first create a sense of suspense by failing to deliver the fourth beat in a half-line (your translation preserves this well: “Adam and his wife, sinners—”) then compensate and close with the four-beat finale (“Nahash the deceiver, piercing curse”).

Wonderful that the poet first makes that rhythmic break at the narrative point where the young students (just freshened in their naivete by the exercise: line three) first read for themselves of Adam and Eve’s sin.

It would be fun to experiment in English accentual poetry using this scheme.

Out of the Belly of Grading I Cried

The cords of Grading are wrapped around my neck,
The snares of Grading confront me.

I have gone where there is no blogging
Nor memory of blogging.

Until the LORD brings me up alive from Grading,
Restoring me to life from those who go down into the Office,

You may as well stop by Four Stone Hearth 67,
Visit the anthropology news of which Duane makes me aware.

Why Do They Have To Be All Wrong…

…For Us To Be Right?

I am teaching adult ed at a community church this weekend. The topic has evolved from “Hebrew poetry” to “things that Hebrew poetry shares with Ugaritic narrative poetry.”

I will be showing them the usual grab-bag of divine epithets and motifs: divine council, mountain of God, cherub throne, cloud-rider, and so on. I am going to teach them enough about the Ugaritic pantheon that they can distinguish between El elements and Baal elements, with some historical notes on how Israelite religion embraces or rejects such shared elements over time.

In order to relate the data to modern pressing theological concerns, I will invite them to reflect on how we reflexively attach theological importance to what is (or is thought to be) uniquely “Israelite.” As the title of G.E. Wright’s The Old Testament Against Its Environment (1950) suggests, Christian biblical scholarship has tended to theologically privilege whatever it thinks is uniquely Israelite, whether that thing is ethical monotheism, or social egalitarianism, or what have you. (Not to dismiss clear counter-currents: consider the title Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context [Yairah Amit et al, 2006.]) Where the “uniquely Israelite” is theologically privileged, any religious elements that Israel shares with its neighbors and that we find unfamiliar or problematic are dismissed as “borrowings” or “accretions” (insofar as Israelite religion is viewed as originally wholly unique), or as “primitive” elements rightly left behind (insofar as Israelite religion is viewed as arising from its ancient Near Eastern context but as evolving toward uniqueness). Conversely, elements we prize in Israelite religion will tend to be denied its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

This embarrassment about shared religious expression lays bare a very human, but wrong-headed, emotional reflex: a conviction that the overlap between “our” religious system and “theirs” should amount to zero, or put another way, that in order for “us” to be right about some things, “they” must be wrong about all things.

This urge to deny shared convictions can give rise to an arrogant sense that we know other faiths better than they know themselves. So, many Christians will insist that their own good works are responsive to a covenant dependent upon God’s gracious act, yet declare the covenant of the people Israel with God to depend upon works of the law: never mind how the Hebrew Bible or Jews in history have described their experience of covenant. Or, a Christian may hear with suspicion the Muslim claim to revere God as “merciful and gracious” (cf. Exod 34:6-7): they can’t really mean it or understand it, the implication runs, with an appeal to the existence of Islamic terrorists.

My favorite thing about introducing Ugaritic narrative poetry to lay Christians and entering divinity students—aside from its innate beauty and grandeur—is the challenge that it presents to this habit of denying to the “Other” particular religious convictions that we embrace for ourselves.

Do you see the impulse that I describe here as “they must be wrong about all things for us to be right about any things”? Are there areas or episodes in religious or academic life where you see it played out?

[Edit: added hyperlink, because I remembered that this is the internet.]