Saturday, August 27, 2011

On poetry and form

poetry or prose
A friend labelled my translations of a psalm as a 'prose psalm'. Well, they don't rhyme, and they don't scan, but they are not prose.  They are Hebrew poetry, trying to preserve Hebrew thought forms and drama, in English. And my desire is to hear and see them as they would have been heard or appeared to those who read them say any time between 2000 and 2500 years ago. What is poetry as they knew it?  It is not as foreign to us as we might think. We have blank verse, and free verse, and these days (compared to my youth) poetry is poetry if the poet says it is. (Too postmodern).

But it is foreign and not only in language but also in time and place. How does one see Hebrew poetry?

John Hobbins (Ancient Hebrew Poetry) has a very nice rule of 2 and 3 which we discussed in 2007 - also a long time ago in a different place. He suggests that the total number of lines in a poem may follow a rule.
A poem, if it contains more than 10 lines, typically consists  of 12, 18, 22, 28, or 36 lines, or combinations thereof. Among the Psalms, 14 lines is also a common length.
I did a quick test (I can count the occurrences of a line feed in the data) and it's not impossible that my psalm lengths in lines might cluster around these numbers. But I wonder if I 'made it happen' whether it would be proof of form.

Tim Bulkeley (Sansblogue, 5-minute-Bible) sent me this response to my question on form:
I think there will always be disagreement about poetry, and that we are having delusions if we expect it to neatly fit any "rule". But I find that counting word units usually gives a fair sense of regularity. With 3 as the commonest line length and 2 or 4 as variants (with often a shorter line at the start and/or end of a unit).
I like John's approach for its simplicity, though we will find more numbers than 2 and 3 as part of the forms. I like Tim's comment because it leaves me free to read (and I always found poetry difficult).

formal elements
While the brilliance of the poetry of the Countess of Pembroke is to be delighted in, it is not Hebrew poetry that she writes - though there is no doubt she heard it well and, I might add, her training in the classics far surpasses my own. She writes English poetry, I do not. (Her book is linked here under psalm 123.) Whatever the Hebrew forms are, they only occasionally rhyme, and there is no agreement on meter that I can hear at the moment. There is pulse as there is in Latin and English plainsong - so the rhythm of the final form will be important.

But I do not want to obscure what I have found in the words I have read and that is obscured in every translation I have looked at. What I have considered the most important is evident in all the tables of recurrence that I have put in my posts on the psalms. Also important are the ways in which such recurrence works: chiasm, parallels, and larger ring and cell structures. These structures work in tandem with the traditional parallel rhyming thoughts that we have recognized since the work of Lowth. (Though it is to be noted that Medieval commentators often interpret both sides of a parallel as if they were independent.)

Also I want to note that while I cannot imitate the language games that Hebrew poets play such as alliteration, or assonance, I do try to point them out. Metaphor and simile are easier to retain, and of course letter games, palindrome and acrostic are often poignant and sometimes structurally significant on a large scale. The large scale forms are both memory aids and teaching aids. I always translate an acrostic as acrostic using the Hebrew letter sequence.

Within these parameters, however, is the life-giving and life-sustaining interaction in covenant of the elect poet, expressing and representing individual and corporate lament, praise, joy, and story.

the choice of words
I have voluntarily constrained my glosses primarily in order to preserve recurrence, secondarily in order to facilitate hearing and seeing larger scale structures in the Psalter. I have had to search out many English synonyms because Hebrew has a large number of different words that mean similar things. In earlier work in 2009 on Job, I wrestled in public with many word groupings. I have not been so public with the psalms, but the wrestling was deeper and more prolonged. Many of the same groups appeared - like fear, dread, terror, or shake, shudder, and quake, or destroy, annihilate, cut off, or man, male, warrior, human, and so on. These groups of words are much larger than two or three and often overlap. Sometimes I have been chasing up to a dozen words at once. I have disallowed overlap to prevent the same English gloss from reflecting more than one Hebrew root. Exceptions are for homonyms and for acrostics - where I let myself go quite silly at times.

an example:
A single root in Hebrew may carry many meanings and shades of meaning just as homonyms do in English. אל for example may be a negative particle, a preposition, or a short word for God, or even a phrase implying importance, strength, power, or rank. We hear the different connotations in context. Most of the time, this little word gets ignored. It's just part of another thought. Occasionally, it is a puzzle as in psalm 82:1 where, at the moment, I am trying out 'rank' as a gloss (uniquely). This colon plays on the sound of אל (El). And the same word Elohim translates differently within a few words of itself.
אֱלֹהִים נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת אֵל
בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט
So how would one approach these 7 words.
אֱלֹהִים stands in the counsel of אֵל
in the midst of אֱלֹהִים he judges
These are traditional glosses. I did not choose stands because I have already used it as the preferred gloss for עמד. In this case, I chose takes a stand. At least for now. I also allow stand to be distinguished from stand firm. As I describe this, I feel there are a lot of other choices I could consider. I also chose in the close combat of rather than in the midst of since again I have used in the midst of for בתוך. Further, I did not use counsel (עצה) but assembly (עדה). But which Elohim should be God and which Gods or gods? And what will we do with El?
אֱלֹהִים takes a stand in the assembly of אֵל
in the close combat of אֱלֹהִים he judges
The choices depend on who is doing the judging. It is singular like the singular form of takes a stand but I wonder, could El be the subject? I tried a few ideas

God takes a stand in the assembly of rank
in the close combat of gods he judges
I intended rank as signifying importance, not its homonym, putrid or smelly. But I think the adjective divine works. It fits the parallel: the divine A assembly B, the close combat B` of gods A` (just think politics). Verses 6 and 7 also helped determine my choice.
God takes a stand in the divine assembly
in the close combat of gods he judges
Close combat also reminds us of psalm 55. Why? The word recurs there 6 times.

You can find some other renderings of psalm 82:1 from the glue factory here.

The whole psalm as it currently stands for me is here. [p.s. my comments on the 'meaning' of this psalm will be posted on Sept 19 at PoC. I was surprised that this example arose in me today.]