Parallelism & The Beauty of Hebrew Poetry
One of the most mysterious things about Christian poets today is how little we talk about the poetry of the Bible. We have… It’s true we might sprinkle Bible-y stuff here or there in our poems, but we have yet to explore how the very structures and techniques of Hebrew poetry could inspire our work on a more fundamental, craft level.
I think there may be a few reasons for our timidity:
1) Some writers already feel conflicted about either their faith or their faith in their writing. It’s both a personal struggle and a cultural one. How do we speak authentically about our own faith experience (and what do we even mean by that?)—and in a way that is comprehensible (acceptable?) to the world at large? So we attempt to keep it light by using the Bible in ironic or literary ways that let the reader know there’s some distance between us and all that religious stuff.
2) Many (though certainly not all) of the poems in the Bible are devotional. Religious poets today, I think, are particularly jumpy around devotion. There are many Christians who write religious poems, but few who write devotional ones. We are wary of the ‘sentimental death trap’ that seems to be an eternal red line of poetry, although it’s a relatively modern invention.
3) Perhaps most likely, the poetry of the Bible confuses us just as much as it does everyone else. It can strike us, at times, as overly redundant and belabored. It can seem rather plain and abstract in parts. And it requires some understanding of a whole historical background that many of us don’t have.
So to inspire some discussion on this point, I would like to share two examples of what I see as master touches of Biblical poetry as poems.
I think we are often blinded to the artistry of these poems because they are at once both too familiar and too strange.
They permeate our language and metaphoric atmosphere, but we also don’t have much experience interpreting them as works of art.
In his book The Art of Biblical Poetry, Robert Alter argues that what on the surface seems overly redundant in Biblical poetry, is actually quite subtle and expansive. Parallelism always suggests forward movement, either as an elaboration, qualification, emphasis, or as cause and effect. And the larger structural arcs of the poems move in these same patterns as well. The poems are never static; they are always vibrating, expanding, swelling.
The truly masterful dynamics of Biblical poetry come when the expectation of the parallel structure challenges the reader to bring together two very different images, almost super-imposing them upon each other. One graphic example of this comes in Psalm 58, in which the poet is begging God to stop the advance of powerful manipulators:
“O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
In the first parallel, the second line vivifies the first with sharper detail. In the second pair there is a parallel of metaphor, but also a movement between disappearing water followed by withering grass. But what about the third? A snail dissolving into slime, then a stillborn child. The juxtaposition is jarring. The structure of the poem pushes us to read these on top of each other, simultaneously. The image of snail slime and that of a dead fetus.
This kind of move is similar to that often used by Milton, in which two opposed or unresolvable ideas are crammed together. In one famous example in “Lycidas,” Milton is decrying the abuse of priests in his age and he cries out, “Blind mouthes!” The linking of these two words is startling, and it cannot be resolved logically, though it can be understood. The phrase seems to capture entirely the total moral vacancy of the preachers of his day.
My favorite example of this technique is Job 29. The book of Job is, in my opinion, the most masterful book of poetry in the Bible. Its moves and patterns and shapes are some of the finest works in all of literature, rich with philosophical, psychological, and emotional texture. The final response from God is not just an argument; it is a panorama, a massive mural of images that showcases all of existence in it sublimity. The answer to Job is not a list of reasons but a work of art.
In Job 29 Job is looking back longingly at his old life, in which he was rich, powerful, and respected. And yet what fills Job’s thoughts most of all was how he was able to use his power to aid the powerless:
O that I were as in the months of old,
as in the days when God watched over me;
When the ear heard, it commended me,
and when the eye saw, it approved;
Because I delivered the poor who cried,
and the orphan who had no helper.
The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
I was father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made them drop their prey from their teeth.
They waited for me as for the rain;
they opened their mouths as for the spring rain.
I smiled on them when they had no confidence;
and the light of my countenance they did not extinguish.
I chose their way, and sat as chief,
and I lived like a king among his troops,
like one who comforts mourners.
The final line here is so sweet, so exceedingly tender, and if we aren’t following closely we might miss it: “I lived like a king among his troops, / like one who comforts mourners.” Job paints a scene of his entering the city. (The scene is never set up explicitly, only in that particularly Biblical way does the scene emerge from the individual couplets.) When he arrives all the people of the city look to him with hope, hanging on his every word. Job is basically describing his former life as a superhero. When Job enters the city, the widows, the beggars, the suffering look up and smile, “Here comes our savior, Job. Here comes our hero.”
Job pictures himself like a warlord, surrounded by his army, perhaps cheering him on, lifting him up on their shoulders, all kneeling down before him, as he rouses them to battle. But who is his army? Who are his faithful warriors? The blind, the lame, the starving, the stranger, the widow, the orphan. He enters the city, takes his noble seat, and pours out his compassion upon the weak.
This very simple pairing, which I argue should be read as a simultaneous and unresolving image, calls into question what we mean by goodness. Our modern idea of “righteousness” is much too thin. When we read Job we hear he was “blameless and upright,” and we think he didn’t swear too often, or he didn’t yell at people. Mostly we think it’s about stuff he didn’t do. And yet I wonder for myself, when I enter the city who looks with joy at my arrival? Who looks up and says, “Thank God, Ryan is here. Now I know everything’s going to be okay?” When I am old will the oppressed of my city carry me through the streets, singing my praises?
Ryan Pendell received his MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. His collection of poems, Say To These Bones, Live!, was published by Ice Box Press in 2008. His poems have recently appeared in Saint Katherine Review and are forthcoming in Anglican Theological Review. Ryan currently teaches at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.