Poetry and the Bible Speaking in Unison
Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology
David Curzon, editor
(Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1994) 377 pp., $35.00
In the modern world we often think that biblical interpretation is the province of the scholar, archaeologist or theologian, specialists who have access to the primary languages and historical data. This wonderful book reminds us that the poet too has a powerful voice in biblical interpretation. Poets plumb different depths than scholars; they are concerned more with the human soul than with the text, more with the present than the past, and their tool is not analysis but artistry. In these respects, as David Curzon elegantly notes, modern poets responding to the Bible are most like ancient or medieval interpreters than modern scholars.
Curzon suggests that modern poetry on the Bible is akin to the imaginative flights of interpretation that the ancient rabbis called midrash. Midrash takes as its point of departure problems or gaps in the biblical story or text and weaves extended meanings into the story, often drawing into the interpretation verses from other parts of the Bible. So too in the poems selected for this anthology, odd or striking features of the biblical text are often the point of departure and new meanings are woven in, frequently linked with other biblical stories or verses. These works are therefore not merely allusions to the Bible, as one typically finds in modern literature, but are poetic reflections on the Bible, yielding a new form of midrashic vision.
The 173 poems selected were all written in the 20th century, some by famous poets of the early decades such as Robert Frost, W. B. Yeats and Rainier Maria Rilke, and some by famous living poets, including Seamus Heaney, Yehuda Amichai and Czeslaw Milosz. Others are less well known but deserve more renown, especially many of the American and Israeli poets. Jews and gentiles, women and men, are all represented, as are many different regions and nationalities. The result is a rich treasure of remarkable poetry. As Curzon notes in his fine introduction, “Akhmatova and Szymborska on Lot’s wife; Borges and Kafka and Seifert and Fried and Milosz and Rilke and Auden on the expulsion from Eden … These are conversations in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Reading through this book one is struck by new insights drawn from familiar biblical passages. Like a classical biblical commentary, the biblical text is printed on one side, the poetry on the other, so that they seem engaged in dialogue. In a response to Genesis 1, Linda Pastan, an American poet, wonders what would have happened
“If God had stopped work after the third day
With Eden full of vegetables and fruits,
If oak and lilac held exclusive sway
Over a kingdom made of stems and roots”
The world would be a very different place, where nature and not humans were “the genius of creation.” But would God have been satisfied with such a world?
“Would he have rested on his bank of cloud
With nothing in the universe to lose,
Or would he hunger for a human crowd?”
This is creation with a new twist, and food for thought in our environmentally conscious age.
Another intriguing question is posed by Jorge Luis Borges, the late Argentine writer. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, how did Adam 013respond to his loss? Borges’s Adam wonders if it was all a dream, “a Magic fantasy / Of that God I dreamed.”
“Now it is imprecise
In memory, that lucid paradise,
But I know it exists and will persist
Though not for me.
The unforgiving earth
Is my affliction, and the incestuous wars
Of Cains and Abels and their progeny.
Nevertheless, it means much to have loved
To have been happy, to have touched upon
The living Garden, even for one day.”
A wistful, thoughtful Adam looking back at his memory of Eden adds a missing dimension to our sense of the paradise he lost.
Other missing moments or lost perspectives are fruitful occasions for modern poetry. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova considers the sad fate of Lot’s wife. This woman could not overcome her nostalgia for home, her sense of relating to the place where she grew up, married and raised her children. Akhmatova hears the restless voice in the woman’s head, harrying her with memories:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage bed.”
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound …
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.”
In this elegy the poet honors Lot’s wife and grants her a dignity missing from the biblical story (we do not even know her name!). As we share her memories and grieve for her, Lot’s wife becomes a character with longings like our own.
A number of poems by Israeli poets evoke a sense of the biblical landscape and the biblical memories of modern Israel, showing how the Bible tangibly affects everyday life in the Holy Land. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai weaves together several biblical images as he stands on the lovely beach at Ashkelon, facing the Mediterranean Sea. His reveries echo the poetry of Ecclesiastes:
“Here on Ashkelon beach we arrive at the end of memory
like rivers that come to the sea.
The recent past sets into the distant past and the past rises from its depths to the near.
Peace, peace—to near and far.”
The past of Ashkelon as a city of the ancient Philistines comes to memory as “the past rises from its depths to the near” before the city’s ancient ruins. The poet’s mind turns to Samson and his tragic but noble end in a Philistine city. Yet how did Samson pull down the pillars of the Philistine temple? The Bible is obscure on this point, prompting the poet’s response:
“Here, among the ruins of statues and columns,
I ask—how did Samson raze the temple
in which, blind, he stood and said:
‘Let me perish with the Philistines!’
Did he embrace the columns as in a final love
or push them away—
to be alone in his death?”
Like the ancient midrashist, the poet does 014not know the sure answer, but raises new possibilities. Beachcombing in Israel brings Ecclesiastes and Samson back to life, as if they dwelt forever on the shore.
The modern world has brought not only the landscape of Israel into the consciousness of the poet, but also the tragic events of the Holocaust. A number of poems in this collection muse on the effects of the Holocaust, as if the enormity of those events need somehow be related to the Bible. Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet, wonders at the strangeness that the Nazi troopers must also have been made in God’s image:
“No no: they definitely were
human beings: uniforms, boots.
How to explain? They were created
in the image.”
The clash of God’s intention in Genesis 1 with the Nazi soldiers creates a chilling effect, pointing to a profound moral paradox.
The Czech Nobel laureate, Jaroslav Seifert, offers another such reflection, juxtaposing images of the Nazi murder of innocent women and children with the beauty of the names of biblical women:
“Adah is Ornament and Orpah is a Hind,
Naamah is the Pleasant,
and Nikol is the Little Brook.
Abigail is the Fount of Exultation.
But if I recall how helplessly I watched.
as they dragged off the Jews,
even the crying children,
I still shudder with horror
and a chill runs down my spine.
Jemima is the Dove and Tamar is a Palm Tree.
Tirzah is Pleasantness
and Zilpah a Raindrop.
My God, how beautiful this is.”
The simple beauty of the names and the horror of the poet’s memories create a powerful work, one that lingers long in the reader’s memory. Is it possible, as the poem ends, that the beauty of these names is all we have?
Another powerful piece contemporizing the Bible with the modern Jewish experience of the Holocaust is a simple imitation of the Song of Songs by the Greek poet Iakovos Kambenelis. Each verse ends with the biblical refrain, “Have you seen the one I love?”
“How lovely is my love
in her everyday dress
with a little comb in her hair.
No one knows how lovely she was.
Girls of Auschwitz
girls of Dachau
have you seen the one I love?”
In this midrash we see the Song of Songs, a true song of innocence, become a tragedy against the shadows of the crematoria. The spiritual force of the Bible becomes transformed in the wake of the tragic events of our century.
In a very different sort of contemporizing midrash, even modern science can be transformed into biblical poetry through the art of the poet. The simple and heartfelt emotion of praise, as captured in some of the late Psalms, beautifully echoes modern scientific idiom in the hands of the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal. This piece is a re-creation of Psalm 150, the last in the Psalter:
“Praise the Lord in the cosmos
with a radius of a hundred thousand million light years
Praise Him through the stars
and the interstellar spaces
Praise Him through the galaxies
and the intergalatic spaces
Praise him through the atoms
and the interatomic voids.”
The poet continues his song of praise with modern music—with violins, flutes and saxophone, with symphonic orchestras, jazz and Negro spirituals—until at last “every little cell” joins in the final Hallelujah.
For this anthology, in which the Bible and modern poetry speak to us in unison, one can only repeat the refrain: Hallelujah!
Chapters Into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible
Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder, editors
(New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993) Vol. One: Genesis to Malachi, 511 pp., $25.00; Volume Two: Gospels to Revelation, 420 pp., $25.00
This two-volume collection or English poetry “inspired by the Bible” is more ponderous than David Curzon’s anthology. Gathering together major and minor poems from the 16th century through the present, the editors hope to bring to the public’s attention the Bible’s profound influence on the history of English poetry. In their brief introduction they note that many of the greatest English poets of the past, such as Shakespeare and Shelley, rarely chose the Bible as their theme, taking rather Greek or Latin poetry as their inspiration. As a result of this gap, many minor poets are represented in this collection, including such forgettable figures as Francis Quarles, George Herbert and a host of English lords, counts and countesses, who apparently had extra time on their hands. All too often the poetry inspires yawns, reminding one of fidgety afternoons in high school English class.
The density of mediocre poetry in these two volumes is a shame, for there are also many wonderful pieces here. What a relief, after plowing through the turgid verses of the Earl of Rochester or the Countess of Winchilsea, to come upon the luminous poetry of Walt Whitman or Emily Dickenson or William Blake. Consider the two verses of Dickenson’s little piece:
“Eden is that old-fashioned House
We dwell in every day
Without suspecting our abode
Until we drive away.
How fair on looking back, the Day
We sauntered from the Door
unconscious our re-turning,
But discover it no more.”
Her song is worth all the cherubs and apostrophes to heaven of the respectable English gentry.
These two volumes have treasures in them, but the reader a high threshold for musty rhyme and strained earnestness. The New Testament volume is better than the Old, since most of the poems have a more personal tone, and as a result they lose most of the cherubs and harps. The editors mention that they were tempted to include elegies by Francis Quarles after every verse of Lamentations. However, they say, “considerations of space, tempered in some cases by mercy toward the reader, prevented such an encyclopedic approach.” As it is they could have been more merciful and less encyclopedic and made one superlative volume instead of two tomes with too much by Francis Quarles and his peers.
The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus
Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar.
(New York: Macmillan, 1993) 553 pp., $30.00
This ambitious book has a number of interrelated goals: As a contribution to the quest for the historical Jesus, it seeks to indicate by color-coding which sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels actually come from him. As a fresh translation, it attempts to render the original texts into contemporary American English. In a conscious break with the traditional canon of Scripture, it seeks to elevate the Coptic Gospel of Thomasa to the status of “a fifth independent source” alongside the four canonical Gospels.
How well are these goals achieved? To begin with small but symbolic matters, confusion in the color-coding system does not bode well for the larger project. A book that cannot name colors correctly does not inspire great confidence in its more weighty judgments. The introduction explains that the printing of sayings in red indicates that “Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.” Pink indicates that “Jesus probably said something like this.” Gray indicates that “Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained” in the saying “are close to his own.” Black indicates that “Jesus did not say this,” and the saying “represents the perspective of a later or different tradition.”
The problem is that the book does not reproduce the colors as described. Red turns out to be a reddish orange, pink inexplicably turns out to be mauve or lavender, and gray looks something like a pale blue or aquamarine. Black, thankfully, is black. Since the whole color system was chosen to make the book user-friendly to 015the uninitiated, and since the commentary regularly refers to red, pink, gray and black, we are dealing with more than a minor typographical flaw. The publisher should recall the book and reprint it with the proper colors.
Still, the color-coding does highlight an intriguing result of the Jesus Seminar’s deliberations. In the whole of Mark’s Gospel, only one saying of Jesus (the famous “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” [Mark 12:17]) is printed in red. As for the Gospel of Thomas, despite its exaltation by the Jesus Seminar as an important new source for Jesus research, only three short units from this Gospel are printed in red, and all three units were already known from the Synoptic Gospels. Consequently, Thomas adds nothing completely new to the “red” data base. In addition to Mark and Thomas, the other Gospel sources provide eleven more sayings in red. However, some of the eleven cases are little more than a word or two, such as the opening address of “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer or the opening command “Love your enemies” in Luke 6:27b. One wonders whether the Jesus Seminar has cut the ground out from under its own feet. Do the results of the voting ultimately confirm the skepticism about the historical Jesus that the book’s introduction strives to reject?
The second aim of the book is to supply a new, accurate translation that will sound like contemporary English instead of translation-English. The Jesus Seminar calls its translation “The Scholars Version.” The results are, at best, mixed. Jesus’ inaugural proclamation in Mark 1:15 becomes: “God’s imperial rule is closing in.” Unless my ears fail me, this is not readable contemporary English. It may sound like an awkward translation, but it is not even an exact translation of the Greek, which reads, “The kingdom has drawn near.” In Mark 2:28 Jesus concludes the dispute about plucking grain with: “So, the son of Adam lords it even over the sabbath day” (standard translations read, “So, the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”) In Luke 1:34 Mary asks the angel Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?” This is a strange claim for a girl who is already betrothed to the man she will soon marry. In Luke 2:7 Mary lays Jesus in a feeding trough, “because there was no space for them in the lodge.” Is this the way “lodge” is usually employed in contemporary American English? A jaunty Jesus says at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22): “Have some, this is my body!”
The translator’s rendering of the eucharistic discourse muddles the thought of the Fourth Evangelist in John 6:53, 56: “I swear to God …. Those who feed on my mortal flesh and drink my blood are part of me, and I am part of them.” The author of John carefully avoids the gnostic and magical connotations of “being part of” the divine and uses the metaphor of abiding or remaining in by writing, “[they] remain in me and I in them.” At times the translation is both paraphrased and inaccurate. The famous beginning of John’s Gospel (“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God”) becomes: “In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was with God, and it was what God was.” This windy paraphrase loses both the tightness of John’s Greek and the dialectical use of “God” (theos) for both God the Father and the Word.
In the end, one wonders for what audience this translation was prepared. It is too paraphrastic and at times inaccurate to be used in classrooms, yet too awkward and lacking in rhythm to be used in large public gatherings. Despite the introduction’s overblown claims to innovation, various “contemporary English” translations are already available. One need think only of Goodspeed, Phillips and Today’s English Version. They have nothing to fear from this translation.
The third aim of the book is to accord equal status for the Gospel of Thomas as an independent source for the quest of the historical Jesus. One would not guess from The Five Gospels that a large group of scholars would not accept what is at the core of the Jesus Seminar’s reconstruction of Jesus: an enigmatic sage whose teaching was not focused on an eschatologicalb message—the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. The Five Gospels implicitly raises the Gospel of Thomas not only to the canon but to the “canon within the canon.” Its gnostic portrait of a Jesus without eschatology becomes the viewpoint from which the canonical Gospels are read, with their heavy eschatological freight tossed aside as a product of the early Church. Such a view does not represent any scholarly consensus. “The Scholars Version” should be more accurately labeled “Some Scholars Version.” But then, when even the labels of colors are wrong, why shouldn’t the book’s title be as well?
Poetry and the Bible Speaking in Unison
Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology