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Divine poetry

The Book of Psalms A Translation With Commentary; Robert Alter; W.W. Norton: 518 pp., $35

September 30, 2007|Mark Doty | Mark Doty is the author of several books of poetry, including "School of the Arts" and the memoir "Dog Years."

Of the ancient, foundational books of Western culture, the Psalms are unique; they're the text with which readers have sustained an intimate relation. They have been so often sung into the ears of congregations, recited over the newborn and the newly wed and the newly dead that they seem not the products of individual, human makers but, rather, like spells, archaic and beautiful formulae that have always existed. Ask practically anyone to complete this phrase, "The Lord is my shepherd . . . ," and you're likely to get the correct answer. A great many people have heard the 23rd Psalm so many times, and felt the power of its assurances so profoundly, that they've committed the poem to memory, often without trying.

Of what other 3,000-year-old poem can this be said?

Such cultural validation and the authority that comes with it make it hard to think of the Psalms as a book of poems. This is precisely the use of a new translation, such as Robert Alter's readable, scholarly renderings. A fresh look wipes away the patina of familiarity and allows us to see the poems not as the accumulated history of our relationship to them but as something made by human hands and breath. Poems are artifacts of the processes of thinking and feeling. Only history lends them the literary and theological weight that the Psalms have.

Not that you would want to take that tradition away, exactly -- rather, it becomes possible to see the texts in a fresh light, to engage with them more freely, without the lulling effects of language made safe by familiarity.

Indeed one of the best outcomes of Alter's translation is a sense of an abrupt, muscular intensity; he restores to the Psalms a kind of strangeness that emanates from an encounter with a culture we recognize yet is distinctly alien to us, far removed in time and frame of mind. Here, for instance, is a passage from Psalm 29, in which the deity figures as a storm god:

The LORD'S voice is over the waters.

The God of glory thunders.

The LORD is over the mighty waters.

The LORD'S voice in power,

the LORD'S voice in majesty,

the LORD'S voice breaking cedars,

the LORD shatters the Lebanon cedars,

and he makes Lebanon dance like a calf,

Sirion like a young wild ox.

The LORD's voice hews flames of fire.

The LORD'S voice makes the wilderness shake. . .

The LORD's voice brings on the birth-pangs of does

and lays bare the forests.

There's something primordial about those lines, the human awe in the face of ferocious natural power. And something very moving about its contrasts: implacable thunder god and childlike, dancing calf, ferocious male deity and birthing doe. That polarity, along with the unmistakably genuine wonder the speaker feels in the holy face of thunder -- well, these make the poem feel primitive in its forcefulness and very much alive. Here is the King James Version of those three opening lines: "The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters."

There are obvious felicities in this version. The single sentence yoked together by two colons makes for a sense of unity. "Upon the waters" is more surprising and somehow more physical than "over the waters." And that "many" in front of "waters" is simply a beautiful choice of adjective; it multiplies and amplifies the presence of a noisy God. And of course there will be those readers who take delight in "thundereth," whose double "th" somehow comes closer to suggesting the sound of thunder.

But such comparison is probably unfair. The King James Version appeared in 1611 and promptly began to shape poetry in English, from Donne to Whitman, to Ginsberg to Bob Dylan to Anne Carson, with its parallel structures, its rhetorical doublings and its gorgeous trove of metaphor. It comes encrusted with veneration, both religious and aesthetic. And it can be much easier to feel the depths and dimensions of a poem if we aren't told in advance it is (a) a masterpiece, (b) the source of much succeeding literature and (c) the word of God.

And depth and dimension are here in abundance. Surely one reason for the longevity of these texts is how acutely the psalmists portrayed despair; they're peerless in their evocation of psychic depths:

Rescue me, God,

for the waters have come up to my neck.

I have sunk in the slime of the deep,

and there is no place to stand.

I have entered the watery depths,

and the current has swept me away.

I am exhausted from my calling out.

My throat is hoarse.

My eyes fail

from hoping for my God.

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