Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing a psalm

I have now been intensely studying the Psalter for 5 years. At the beginning, I looked word by word and phrase by phrase at various forms of micro structures. Conceptual repetition I enjoyed colouring, but who says my concept is the same as another reader's?  Antithetical parallelism I could also see, but it seemed also subject to my sense of what was opposite.  On the other hand, figures of speech like assonance and repetition present themselves right at the beginning of the Psalter.

אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ
אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד
וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב
1Happy the one
who does not walk in the advice of the wicked
and in the way of sinners does not stand
and in the seat of the scornful does not sit

Assonance like this (asheri ha-ish asher etc) is an objective feature of the poem. So also is the careful binding of the parallels in this verse: verb-noun, noun-verb, noun-verb. So also is the repetition of the negative - not - not - not.

Rabbi Magonet instructs us in his introductory book: A Rabbi Reads the Psalms, to read the psalms with  coloured pencils in hand and colour the repeating words. So he makes sense of even the most difficult psalms. E.g. Psalm 137 as noted here.

Starting from his instructions, I have now mapped hundreds, nay thousands, of recurring sounds and words in the Psalter. My intent is to find the frames which the poets were working with. (I have been correcting and refining sounds and derivations for a couple of months so there is some stability in the overall geodesic dome. You can find the first and last uses of frames by book here.) 

Now it occurs to me that these views might also suggest how to discover how a psalm was conceived. Some are very simple, like the one for psalm 114. Some have pairs of words (as psalm 114 does and as psalm 137 does) that tie the end to the beginning. So also psalm 1 is tied to psalm 2 and to psalm 144 in their use of happy. Some psalms form sections by sequence of recurrence, and some by reversing the sequence of the recurrence, circling their prey like psalms 22 (surrounding the hart, eating, worship, and the kingdom) and 51 (surrounding three recurrences of righteousness). And then there is psalm 145 with its 17 repetitions of the word all as a backbone and the rhyming cacophony of the second person singular ending. And psalm 37 with its 14 uses of wicked.

Could we write such poetry today? Coherent, framed, circling the key concepts, using parallels and chiasms and so on, formed by the word and sound into stanzas and sections...

Poets - think about it - let the pen become both impetuous and disciplined within its zeal. Perhaps in the morning you will find a thought implanted that will form itself into arresting verse - and then we won't have to endure the rewriting of ancient hymns into politically correct language. We will have new ones to sing.