Page 45 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 44

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Aspects of Biblical Poetry
d o
I know a poem in the Bible when I see one? Many may
take such a question as cute and facetious, but in fact experts can­
not agree on whether there is poetry in the Bible at all let alone
reach consensus on what it is that characterizes biblical poetry.
Much if not most of the discussion and debate revolves around
problems of definition.
Let us take, for example, the following famous lines:
The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not be lacking.
In grassy pastures he has me lie down.
By still waters he guides me
(Psalm 23:1-2).
Are they poetic? I f so, what makes them poetic? Even if the lines
are poetic, do they amount to a poem, or a part of a poem? The
question formulated in the last sentence points to an important
distinction that we do best to bear in mind. Whatever it is that we
call poetic may refer either to special features of any lines of liter­
ature, or any specimen of language; or to an entire unit of compo­
sition. Discourse that does not comprise a unit that we would
regard as a poem may display qualities that we would term poetic.
We should differentiate, then, between formal features that we
associate with poems and, accordingly, call “poetic,” and an entire
unit of discourse that is pervaded by the “poetic” quality and we
view as a poem.
Within the academic debate over what is biblical poetry one
encounters two principal perspectives on the question. The more
abstract view regards poetry not as a form but as a way of seeing,
as Robert Alter will occasionally describe it in
The Art of Biblical
(New York: Basic Books, 1985). Alter, however, does not
explain precisely what he means by this, especially when he will
also (p. 6), following Barbara Herrnstein Smith, define poetry in