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The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter (Basic: $17.95; 272 pp.)

December 08, 1985|Robert M. Polzin | Polzin is co-editor of a new series, "Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature" (Indiana University Press). and

Modern biblical scholarship can be intimidating to the general reader. A biblical archeologist, for example, who must be able not only to control stratigraphic evidence but also to read exotic languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic, remains a remote figure to the most educated of us. So when Robert Alter begins his book with the hope that it will be instructive to "specialists and general readers alike," one may infer that something profoundly engaging is at issue here. After all, Alter's is a modest volume, unpretentious in its footnotes and sparing in its backward glances to previous scholarship. In the difficult terrain of biblical poetry, can the imagined gulf between specialist and general reader really be so slight that such a slim work can span it? Unfortunately, this is precisely the case. Both of Alter's intended audiences are, by and large, dangerously uninformed. With the general reader, it is the danger of "a little knowledge;" with the biblical specialist the problem is greater--lots of little knowledge.

The causes of such disciplinary limitations are complex. However, if we understand "ideology" in a positive sense, as a view of the world filled with its own objects, meanings, and values, then surely the modern failure to focus on the most crucial aspects of biblical poetry is partly the result of separating aesthetic form from ideological function in the proposing of theory or the discussing of texts.

Whether the subject is Hebrew meter or a method such as syllable count or syntax as the governing principle of a biblical poem, in most cases poetic style is a garment which, once removed, is studied in and for itself or else dismantled in favor of the substance beneath it. Thus when one encounters scholarly treatments of biblical poetry, the emphasis usually is on either Adam before the fig leaf or the coat of many colors to the neglect of Joseph. With respect to poetry, few biblical scholars have recognized that clothing indeed makes the man.

Alter therefore begins his work by stating that over the last two centuries most of the scholarly literature "written on biblical poetry is in some way misconceived and, however imposing the intellectual equipment of the writers, tends to be guided by rather dim notions of how poetry works."

The emphasis throughout Alter's book is on how biblical poetry works semantically, although despite his disclaimer the book is studded with apt illustrations of relevant phonetic and syntactic features of poems under discussion. Following three chapters on biblical poetry in general, five interpretive chapters concentrate on specific texts from the Book of Job, the Psalter, the Prophets, Proverbs, and Song of Songs.

Briefly put, Alter's assumptions and assertions about biblical poetry include the following. With James Kugel (see his recent "The Idea of Biblical Poetry"), Alter believes that the key poetic device of semantic parallelism, discovered by Bishop Lowth in the mid-18th Century, involves a dynamics of repetition rather than a static repetition of synonymity. (On the other hand, biblical poetry is for Alter a formally distinct mode of expression; for Kugel it is not.) A poetic line is composed normally of two, occasionally of three, versets. The poetic relations between lines mirrors or follows upon what happens between versets within the line. These relations are dynamic, and involve two kinds of movement: either metaphoric or narrative development, that is, what Alter terms, "structures of intensification" or "structures of consequentiality."

He wisely warns us that these two generative principles of biblical poetry, while useful, are sometimes hard to distinguish in practice. Biblical poetry distinguishes itself, first, by episodic narrativity, that is, the narrative development of metaphor rather than narrative proper, and second, by metaphoric patterns of intensification in which the movement of meaning is toward a heightening "of focusing, specification, concretization, even what could be called dramatization."

When Alter turns his attention toward specific poetic texts, his fundamental question is always the same: What difference does it make to the content of texts that they are poems? His basic answer, articulated for the Psalter, but more or less appropriate, I think, to many of the texts he discusses, is clear and powerful, ". . . the poetic medium made it possible to articulate the emotional freight, the moral consequences, the altered perception of the world that flowed from this monotheistic belief, in compact verbal structures that could in some instances be simplicity itself." Even when the poetry is not so simple, as in the prophets, his answer is similar, "Since poetry is our best human model of intricately rich communication, not only solemn, weighty, and forceful but also densely woven with complex internal connections, meanings, and implications, it makes sense that divine speech should be represented as poetry."

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