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Why Poetry Matters

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

My recent post on line breaks in the Bible didn’t draw much attention.  I’m not surprised.  Most people run from poetry as if it had the ability to free itself from the book binding and chase people around the room.

Notwithstanding this public distaste for verse, the fact remains that a third of the Bible is poetry.  Why would God choose such a complex form of communication for something so important as revealing his will to mankind?

Maybe the answer lies in understanding what poetry is.  W.H. Auden said, “Poetry must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective.”  More than anything else–more than rhyme and meter, metaphor and simile, assonance and enjambment, or any other poetical devices–I think it’s the “unique perspective” that frustrates people the most.

Poetry skews the familiar just enough to get us to meditate upon it.  This is what makes it valuable.

After I read the following lines from Ted Kooser, I have never looked at a wheelchair the same way again.

“A Rainy Morning”

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

One of the problems with modern translations that approach the text through dynamic equivalence (attempting to translate the thoughts of the writers rather than the words) is that by simplifying the language, they destroy the poetry.

Take, for example, the ESV’s translation of Psalm 78:33: “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV).  Compare this rendering with the NIV: “So he ended their days in futility”; or the New Living Translation: “So he ended their lives in failure.”  The more abstract passages have deprived us of the imagery afforded by the idea of “breath.”  Not only do we lose the original wording, but we lose the poetry as well.

Consider a lengthier example from Psalm 73.  The ESV reads:

For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.  (Ps. 73:4-7)

Now read the bland attempt of another translation that takes it upon itself to make the meaning “clearer”:

They seem to live such a painless life;
their bodies are so health and strong.
They aren’t troubled like other people
or plagued with problems like everyone else.
They wear pride like a jeweled necklace,
and their clothing is woven of cruelty.
These fat cats have everything
their hearts could ever wish for! (NLT)

It’s hard not to blush when you get to the fourth couplet and read “fat cats.”  If we didn’t know better, we would think Asaph listened to jazz and had a closet full of zoot suits.

A common statement about easy-to-read translations is, “I can understand God’s word when I read this!”  But the truth is, you may not be reading God’s word.  Comprehension is an important goal, but updated idioms and a watered-down vocabulary do not always help us reach that goal.  When it comes to poetry, the twists and strange perspective improve our understanding.  Only when we get comfortable with them will we really be making comprehension our goal.

Line Breaks in the Bible

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

One-third of the Bible is written in poetry.  It would follow, then, that a devoted student of the Bible would study carefully the nature of biblical prosody in order to mine every possible nuance of divine truth from the rich caverns of God’s word.  But the reality is that few Christians even realize they are reading poetry when they approach, say, the book of Psalms, let alone make the time to understand its devices.

Biblical poetry is a deep and complicated study, one that would take several articles to explore.  For now, I would like to limit this discussion to the fundamental question of line breaks in the Bible.

One disadvantage of the King James Version is that it does not make a distinction between the prose and poetry of the text.  The Revised Version (NT: 1881, OT: 1885), known in the U.S. as the American Standard Version, was the first English Bible to typeset biblical poetry in indented poetic lines.  This precedent has been followed by most modern translations in recent years.

It should be pointed out that, as far as we know, line breaks did not exist in the original Hebrew manuscripts.  However, as Robert Lowth argued in his monumental work, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753), there is a definite balancing of thought in Hebrew poetry.  This “sense rhythm,” as it is sometimes called, is reflected in the Masoretic text on which most modern translations of the Old Testament are based.

Furthermore, the inspired writers of biblical poetry wrote with great passion, and, as Merril Unger has pointed out, unconsciously produced the phenomena which later developed into more definite ideas of meter.  Just because these writers predated the study of formal meter in poetry, that doesn’t mean we should not seek out the natural rhythms that flowed from the expressions of their emotions.

Perhaps the reason most Bible readers ignore line breaks in their Bibles is because they can be pretty confusing.  Most of us like to have as many tools as possible in our Bibles–chain references, two column formats, footnotes, page numbers, chapter and verse divisions, headings, etc.  All of this crowds the page, which is bad for poetry.  To compensate for this, translations that give attention to poetic lines use a system of indentation and line breaks that is somewhat complicated and, as I have discovered, never explained in the preface to their versions.

The majority of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, the balancing of thought in verse so that one line is an echo of another.  Deeper meaning occurs to the reader as he meditates upon the relationship of the lines.  As Lowth pointed out, parallelism takes three basic forms: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.  Psalm 19:1 is an excellent example of synonymous parallelism:

     The heavens declare the glory of God,
       and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (ESV)

The second part (also called the second colon) repeats what is said in the first colon, only in different wording that provokes the reader’s meditation.  This is an example of a bicolon (parallelism with two cola, or parts).  Sometimes tricola appear in which the verse occurs in three parts (cf. Ps. 18:35).  It is important to understand this before trying to dicipher all those line breaks and indentations in your Bible.

As a rule, each verse, or thought, begins with one indentation.  A line with two indentations signifies the second colon.  This is plain in the example cited above.  However, three indentations occur in many examples, such as in the following bicola from Psalm 137.

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of
           my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy! (ESV)

In the first bicolon, “let my right hand” begins the second part of the verse.  “Skill” is indented three times because it is merely the rest of the second line, not a new colon.  The same thing happens with “my mouth” in the second bicolon.  All of this is necessary because of cramped space on the page.

Here is what it would look like if the translators did not have to work around two columns and a chain-reference down the middle of the page:

     If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget its skill!
     Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
     if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy!

Now the reader can plainly see the three bicola. The meaning is clearer, but the format would never work in a two column Bible.

Here’s another example from Habbakuk 3:17-18:

     Though the fig tree should not
        nor fruit be on the vines,
     the produce of the olive fail
        and the fields yield no food,
     the flock be cut off from the fold
        and there be no herd in the stalls,
     yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
        I will take joy in the God of my
           salvation. (ESV)

If it were not for the three indentations in line two, the reader would think “blossom” was the second part of the verse.  The same goes for “salvation” in the last line.

This discussion may seem overly technical, but I believe it is very important to the understanding of the poetry of God’s word.  The Lord would not have couched his will in poetry unless he regarded it as an essential and effective way of communicating it to us.  That places a burden upon me as a believer to learn how the poetry of the Bible works.  Discussions of imagery, rhythm, and parallelism are important to this, but all of it begins with a basic understanding of the line breaks in our Bibles.