The original psalmster: King David on the harp. (Getty Images)
I’ve spent the past week happily reading your collection of essays For the Love of God, as well as Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms. In your essay “Psalm and Anti-Psalm,” you mention that “[t]he Psalms are the prototype in English of devotional poetry and possibly of lyric poetry in general.” You quote from Psalm 23, surely the best known of all Psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.” Alter’s version of the psalm begins:
A David psalm.
The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
He brings my life back.
Alter’s note for this is tart: “Though ‘He restoreth my soul’ is time-honored, the Hebrew nefesh does not mean ‘soul’ but ‘life breath’ or ‘life.’ The image is of someone who has almost stopped breathing and is revived, brought back to life” (Alter, 78). Is it weird for me to find this interpretation ghoulish?
Your commentary on these lines in your essay is closer to my sense of things: “The ineffable sweetness of this pastoral image surely taps a deep human desire to be relieved of responsibility, including the responsibility of being human.” But you go on to offer an interpretation of the Hebrew word in question—nefesh—that differs markedly from Alter’s: “In ‘He restores my soul,’ the Hebrew for ‘my soul’ is nafshi, a term humans share with animals. It is wonderful, too, that the Psalmist does not declare ‘I am a sheep’ or ‘I am like a sheep,’ but speaks directly as from the animal soul, the nefesh, itself” (58).
What do you make of Alter’s stance on this term? I recognize that one of his purposes in his translation is not so much to strip the Psalms of their Christian varnish (as many of the reviews of the book seem to have it), but to release the Psalms from being transformed (or translated) into an anticipation of the Christ to come. Fair enough. It’s hard to get at the poetry through the glare of two millennia of constant Christian use. But I wonder if this doesn’t make a sacrifice of some elemental feature of these poems: the body’s sense of itself in relation to God.
If the Psalms aren’t poetry, they are useless. For their splendor to survive, it is essential that the translations be poetry too. And how does one retain the resonance of the Hebrew? As a poet, I love the King James Version of the Bible for its sheer beauty as well as the fact that English literature from the 17th century on is saturated with KJV phrases. But it is wonderful to have translations that speak to our own time, without flattening the richness of Biblical imagery and metaphor. Alter cares about these things. He also cares about meter. No other translation I know of uses indentation to highlight the parallelisms, and let us see and hear the cadences, the way his does.
One of several problems in translating the beautiful and moving 23rd Psalm is that nefesh can mean “life,” “body,” “being,” or “soul,” among other things. When Genesis describes God creating the animals, nefesh is usually translated “creature.” For example, “God created great whales, and every living creature (nefesh) that moves . . .” (Gen. 1:21). A little later, the same word is usually translated as “soul” when God creates man: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nefesh)” (Gen. 2:7). So the Bible is telling us that at the very beginning of things, animals and human beings share something—they are similar creatures, souls, beings, physical bodies. We are not yet separated from the natural world. This seems to me a lovely piece of wisdom. And it seems a pity that most translations at this point want to imply the superiority of “man” (literally adam, a pun on adamah, earth) to other living beings.
So when the nefesh shows up in Psalm 23, it seems to me, it harkens back to the animal self, the self that feels like a sheep peacefully tended by a shepherd. I don’t see the sense of crisis that Alter sees here. Also, some Jewish liturgists today translate the proper name JHVH not as “Lord” but as “Jah,” which is the first part of the name and makes a sound a little like breathing, and is the last syllable of hallelujah, which simply means “praise God.” This keeps the intimacy of a personal name, which is actually what’s there in the Bible, but is understood to be too holy to pronounce in full. So a possible translation might go like this: “Jah is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores (or perhaps renews) my whole being.”
Obviously the Psalms underlie devotional poetry in English. Poets like Herbert and Hopkins blossom directly from that root. Christopher Smart, too, and parts of T.S. Eliot. But isn’t an apparently secular poet like Whitman, exclaiming, “all goes outward and onward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier,” imbued with the ardor of the psalmist? Isn’t all passionate praise, all passionate lamentation and longing, derived in some way from the Psalms?
I didn’t mean to sound skeptical about Alter’s translations. (I hope I didn’t!) I’ve been learning something on every page of his book, not least from the notes. One of the more scholarly reviewers of the book (Anderson) disparages some of the notes; I’m grateful for Alter’s speculations about where and how each of the Psalms was composed. And there’s no question about the boldness in his act of translating: adhering to the poetry, illuminating its components, resisting the lure of King James phrasing.
One of my favorite of the Psalms is number 46, which Alter tells me is “a national psalm, evidently a collective thanksgiving after victory over an enemy” (162). I was first attracted to this one for the schoolboy trick of counting in the KJV 46 words from the beginning and the end of the poem. Forty-six words from the beginning: “shake”; 46th from the end: “spear.” But the cadences in the KJV surge like a massive tide: “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of most High.” Seriously, what are you going to do with that?!
Hats off to Alter for providing:
A stream, its rivulets gladden God’s town,
the holy dwelling of Elyon.
God in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks.
Nations roar and kingdoms collapse.
He sends forth His voice and earth melts.
I treasure this psalm for its conclusion: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” (And I cherish the ambiguities of the prepositions in the KJV: in the earth?!) Alter’s version brings a suitable bass note to the music: “Let go, and know that I am God. / I loom among nations, I loom upon earth.” What’s lost in the mantra-like pronouncement “Be still” is compensated by the menacing, potent claim of looming.
Thanks to you, I’ve just reread Alter’s translation of Psalm 46. It is strong and stark, going for present rather than past tense (Hebrew verb tenses are notoriously ambiguous) in lines such as “Nations roar and kingdoms collapse. / He sends forth His voice and the earth melts,” where the KJV has “The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved; he uttered his voice, the earth melted.” Then having God frighteningly say, “I loom among nations, I loom upon earth” (Alter) is completely different from “I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (KJV). Both are sublimely triumphalist, but looming is something God does, and being exalted, raised up, is something done for God, by humans who praise and worship him. The deep vowel of “loom” casts an earth-covering shadow, with a rhyming undertone of “doom,” while at the same time there is a connotation of God as weaver. “Exalted,” on the other hand, is almost a pun on “exulted,” and makes me wonder how Alter would translate Isaiah’s famous prophecy “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”
But beyond the nuances of translation, as you suggest, is the acute issue of God as “Lord of hosts” (KJV), “Lord of armies” (Alter). The whole point of Psalm 46 is that God is on our side. Does this sound familiar? If you were alive during the Vietnam War, you remember Bob Dylan’s ironic ballad with that refrain—a history of America’s genocide against the Indians, followed by the Spanish-American War, the Civil War, two world wars, the need “to hate and fear” the Russians, and the threat of nuclear war:
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side.
God in the Psalms is shepherd, comforter, beloved. He is also a supremely powerful judge and warrior. The Book of Psalms is filled with images of the enemy, the wicked, the sinners, whom God is invoked to punish, to slay, to destroy. Here are just a few instances. “You will smash them with a rod of iron, / Like a potter’s jar you will dash them” (Ps 2). “He rains fiery coals on the wicked” (Ps 11). Psalm 137, the famously beautiful psalm of mourning in exile, ends with a curse against “Babylon the destroyer”:
Babylon the destroyer
Happy who seizes and smashes
your infants against the rock.
Western history has overflowed with wars of horrible destructiveness in which both sides invoked God in noble language ultimately derived from the Psalms. All three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—use this rhetoric. Zealots of all stripes consider themselves “righteous” and others “wicked.” After the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, I was painfully struck by the way the language of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his tapes, and that of the suicide bomber Mohammed Atta in his diary, resembled the language of Psalms. This is what drove me to write the essay “Psalm and Anti-Psalm,” trying to explain to myself what I love, and what I deplore, in Psalms. How can I avoid wrestling with a tradition that is both wonderful and terrible—and that exercises so much power in the world?
William Blake, in his late prophetic poem “Jerusalem,” exclaims, “Are not Religion and Politics the Same Thing?” Possibly this is why so many of us today for whom writing is a spiritual path are working at the very margins of conventional religion, or even outside its limits.
Yours at the margins,
There’s fire in the belly of your last letter. The looming, triumphalist God is so entrenched in our imaginations—our ever bellicose imaginations, in some readings of it (I’m thinking of Robert Duncan’s great essay “Man’s Fulfillment in Order and Strife”)—it seems difficult at times to perceive God as anything other than the savage commander.
One of my teachers from the Divinity School, the historian of religions Bruce Lincoln, wrote an astute and menacing book called Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, that includes a shrewd analysis of the similarity in the rhetoric and message of the speeches Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush gave shortly after the attacks. He demonstrates that, essentially, both men are arguing for the power and authority of the same God, using nearly identical patterns of rhetoric and scriptural allusion. In a similar vein, Lincoln includes an analysis of how the events of September 11, 2001, played into the apocalyptic eschatology of some evangelical Christians in the United States, and how President Bush—and his speechwriters—alerted these citizens, crucial to his base, of his sympathies with their beliefs. God’s “just avenging ire,” as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost, was alive and well.
Why does it seem so unusual, or so problematic, to respond to the idea of God’s just avenging ire, as acted out on the frightening political stage, with poetry? Is it simply secularization that’s at work to make this seem an odd direction to cast one’s thinking? Or are we toiling in dark Satanic mills in spite of our sweet hymns to democracy? Do you think of yourself as a religious poet? I’ve been thinking and writing about this label for the past decade or so. In general, it makes people uncomfortable: both readers and poets themselves. In my case, much more often than not, the idea that I’m interested in religion—and that my work engages religious realities—is not as challenging as the idea that I’m a believer. Typically, in such situations, belief is understood as a choice. So there’s something unpalatable about a creative person choosing to believe in hierarchy, a resurrected God, spooky magic, and all sorts of other lunacies. (I’m a Catholic.)
Here’s some of Milton’s translation of Psalm 83:
Be not thou silent now at length
O God hold not thy peace,
Sit not thou still O God of strength
We cry and do not cease.
For lo thy furious foes now swell
And storm outrageously,
And they that hate thee proud and fell
Exalt their heads full hie.
Against thy people they contrive
Their Plots and Counsels deep,
Them to ensnare they chiefly strive
Whom thou does hide and keep
After enumerating the names and deeds of all these enemies, Milton finishes with this:
So with thy whirlwind them pursue,
And with thy tempest chase;
And till they yield thee honour due,
Lord fill with shame their face.
Asham’d and troubl’d let them be,
Troubl’d and sham’d for ever,
Ever confounded, and so die
With shame, and scape it never.
Then shall they know that thou whose name
Jehova is alone,
Art the most high, and thou the same
O’erall the earth art one.
Alter helpfully provides, in his notes for Psalm 83, this: “The situation of an alliance of surrounding nations plotting an all-out assault on Judea identifies this as a militant national supplication. Many interpreters have inferred that it was actually composed in a time of national emergency to be recited in public worship in an entreaty to God to intervene on behalf of his people.” I should say! Alter’s version begins:
O God, no silence for You!
Do not be mute and do not be quiet, God.
For, look, Your enemies rage,
and those who hate You lift their heads.
So with thy whirlwind them pursue. (Alter: “so shall You pursue them with Your storm.”) I don’t think Milton felt himself to be working at the margins of conventional religion. Well, having written that sentence, I realize immediately its problems. I can’t know what Milton felt—except that he felt proximity to Scripture. But more importantly, what counted as conventional religion to him? He certainly held some heterodox beliefs for his time, during which Protestantism was rapidly changing, altering, splintering. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, I see myself working at the margins. The present-day readership for religious poetry is small. The idea of belief is vexing.
Did Milton consider himself to be writing “on the margins” of his culture and/or his religion? What an interesting and unanswerable question. Certainly he took a firm stand inside his envelope, and then stretched and stretched it in Paradise Lost.
I wonder if the psalm in our own time, post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, has undergone a sea-change. Does God exist for the contemporary psalmist? Is God a metaphor, a symbol, a projection of our need? Is God even worthy of worship? Do we need to redefine what God “really” is, in the light of history and the biblical God’s apparent enthusiasm for violence and war? It looks as if poets after World War II reflexively undercut sublimity with the colloquial, and mingled faith with doubt. Berryman’s late, splendid “Eleven Addresses to the Lord” begins by addressing “Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake / inimitable contriver, / endower of Earth so gorgeous and different from the boring Moon,” and one stanza of this poem reads:
Unknowable, as I am unknown to my guinea pigs:
how can I “love” you?
I only as far as gratitude and awe
confidently and absolutely go.
Anne Sexton, who is vastly underrated as a religious poet, has a sequence of 10 extended “psalms” under the title “O Ye Tongues,” modeled on Christopher Smart, beginning “Let there be a God as large as a sunlamp to laugh his heat at you,” with lines like “For I pray my two cats will enter heaven carrying their eyes in little sand pails. . . . For I pray that God will digest me. . . . Rejoice with the roach who is despised among creatures and yet allowed his ugly place. . . . For God was as large as a sunlamp and laughed his heat at us and therefore we did not cringe at the death hole.” Berryman and Sexton drive themselves to celebration. But death is the bass note of many contemporary psalms. I’m thinking of Allen Grossman’s “How to Do Things with Tears,” which begins:
In thy springs, O Zion, are the water wheels
Of my mind! The wheels beat the shining stream.
Whack. Dying. And then death. Whack. Learning. Learned.
Whack. Breathing. And breath. Whack. Gone with the wind.
Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris fruitlessly addresses an “unreachable father.” Jacqueline Osherow writes wisecracking but Holocaust-haunted psalms in Dead Men’s Praise. And then there is the bitter riddling of Celan, all of whose family were slain in the Holocaust, here in John Felstiner's translation:
No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,
no one incants our dust.
Blessed art thou, No one.
In thy sight would
I also wanted to ask you, Peter, about your poems in Depth Theology, which are so dazzlingly learned, so ecumenical, so filled with the world’s “unreachable innerness,” and with phrases like “God exists in centrifuge, wholly ionized air smelling / of rosin,” “God in me is an endocrine,” or “What star / wasn’t once a God?” Can you say something about your need to redefine God?
You asked about redefining God; I might add the compulsion to redefine God. Strangely, no matter how moved I am by God’s pronouncement to “Be still, and know that I am God,” I’m made restless by it. I mean, I see it as an opportunity to make declarative statements about God—not to define God so much as to identify aspects of the radiating diadem of God’s afterimage—or God’s backside. The prototype of this act for me is Moses, peering into the thick darkness where God was (from Exodus 20:21). The darkness is thick, but it’s dazzling, as Henry Vaughan tells us in “The Night”:
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
Somehow, for me, in the moment of composing a poem, even if I’m actively resisting the compulsion, I find myself naming aspects of the divine, almost as a dare: summoning them. It’s as if I’m saying to God: if you’re everything, are you like this? You know, an endocrine, or the smell of rosin, or, in a morbid fantasy, my cats happening on my dead body and finally eating it? And in each case, I imagine God assenting: yes, like that, like that, and even like that.
Thick darkness. Dazzling darkness. Thick and dazzling darkness.
Do you feel marginal to your (academic/poetic) culture because you write as a believing Catholic? I should think so. Mainstream is adamantly secular. And do you feel marginal to your religion because the way you write is so far outside the conventions of Christian writing?
Depth Theologynot only draws on multiple traditions outside the Christian ones (notably Judaism, Islam, Gnosticism, classic polytheism, and the physical and biological sciences). It also is savage in its critique, for instance in these lines:
an epileptic god anymore? The sun throbs
with bloodletting. Will you shove your wallet in its mouth to save it
from swallowing its tongue?
Yet the structure of Depth Theology follows a pattern of moving from desperation to celebration. My collection of poems the volcano sequence, in its own way, does the same, although I am not at all a “believer.”
My writing is my spiritual practice. My writing is my prayer. I imagine this is true for many poets. William Blake says, “All deities reside in the human breast.” Wallace Stevens says, “God and the imagination are one.” Celan says, “Only in the space of this dialogue [i.e., his addresses to God] does that which is addressed take form and gather around the I who addresses it.” What am I doing when I engage the God of the Old Testament? Back to Catullus: I hate and love. I cannot “believe” in him, much less in any orthodoxy or hierarchy or religious authority telling me what I should believe or do, so I remain marginal to Judaism as well as to the larger culture. Yet I can speak to this Being, and try to listen, or I can be an aperture through which speech and hearing arrive, and I can try to imagine that which I might believe in, that which might be worthy of love, perhaps God as Lover, perhaps the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God in Kabbala, who may be burstingly immanent within the material world, and who may also be exiled, mute, amnesiac as I invoke her in volcano. . . .
Truly, at its best, poetry brooks no certainties, does it? Language, as a medium for art—unlike paint, say, or the pixels in a computer animation—is completely dynamic, uncontainably chaotic. Words are being coined as we write this exchange; others are going extinct. My involvement with faith is similar: I don’t trust religious certainties—dogmatic or otherwise. Fanny Howe, who is a Catholic convert, argues persuasively, to me, for “bewilderment” to be the definitive term for spiritual experience. To lose one’s sense of the place where one is. In the essay entitled “Bewilderment” in her fabulous book The Wedding Dress, she writes, “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability” (15). Furthermore, “[b]ewilderment circumnavigates, believing that at the center of errant or circular movement is the empty but ultimate referent” (20). Yes, I’ll take some of that, please.
“Christianity,” thanks to the politicization of religion at the hands of political conservatives in America, is often a dirty word. Fanny Howe writes about her discomfort at describing herself as a Christian. I think that’s a common feeling, amplified in the academic/poetic context of many a poet in America, where Christian belief draws spikes of anxiety among listeners, as I mentioned in an earlier letter. Do you sense any anxiety of this sort among your audiences? I accept, thrill at even, the idea that in poetry you are permitted to think about God, the soul, the realm of the sacred. For me, the volcano sequence is religious poetry, plain and simple.
You move from Whitmanian catalogue, to anxious dialogue, to spirited condemnation, to invitation (or is it seduction, the lure the divine must feel for life, however volatile it is?). Do I mistake to imagine that one of your “psalm” poems from the volcano sequenceregisters a counterpoint to a commanding God figure, a figure of awful intimacy? You begin by saying
I endure impure periods
when I cannot touch you
or even look at you
you are a storm I would be electrocuted
but by the end you are saying, “come, I think / you are at my fingertips my womb / you are the wild driver of my vehicle.”
If I “believe” anything, I believe that the being we call God the Father swallowed God the Mother in prehistory, and that she’s still there, inside, waiting to be delivered. Which is to say: I believe God is pregnant with his exiled, mute, amnesiac, repressed feminine side. Pregnant and in labor. Pregnant and in pain, for I believe our human pain is God’s labor pain, and that we can all collectively be midwives bringing the goddess back into consciousness. Madness? Or metaphor? I believe the goddess is already mutely present in our biological mothers, and much of the volcano sequence is about trying to find her there, and failing, because the time is not yet ripe.
The more I think about it, the more I think spirituality is sneaking back into American poetry all over the place. Some of it is feminist spirituality, as in the anthology She Rises Like the Sun, edited by Janine Canan in the 1970s. Patricia Hampl’s Burning Bright anthology is from 1995. The last few years have seen at least three other anthologies: Evensong: Contemporary American Poets on Spirituality, edited by Gerry LaFemina and Chad Prevost, and Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry, edited by Robert Strong, both of which came out in 2006; and Crazed by the Sun, Poems of Ecstasy, edited by Lynn Strongin and Glenna Luschei, which appeared in 2008. The journal Tiferet publishes prose and poetry from a range of religious and spiritual traditions. Lynn Domina’s collection Poets on the Psalms, published in 2008, contains essays by 14 poets exploring what the Psalms mean to them. So there is no dearth, at present, but a feast. Come all ye who hunger and thirst for poetry in our own time that speaks to the needs of the spirit.
God as pregnant and in labor, but hidden. (From us, at least.) This resonates with two ideas for me: Paul’s proclamation in Romans 8:22–3, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” In some sense, it seems possible—necessary even—to conceptualize these “firstfruits” (ho aparchen ho pneumatos: literally, the first fruit of the spirit) as the explosion of our current ideas of God into something unanticipated, new, primary, harvested. The idea that God is hidden from us brings to mind the belief in the hidden imam, or Mahdi, in the Shi'ite tradition. The Shi'a believe the imam resides for centuries in a spiritual hiddenness, an occultation, in an astral realm from where he pulsates prophetic knowledge, awaiting the right moment to return to the material world to guide it from error and tyranny. This is an ancient mystical configuration, in my mind: hope and hiddenness. As a result of general ignorance and sometimes active misunderstanding, most Westerners regard Shi’ism as bizarre, irrational, even insane. But this occultation—which is a doctrine of considerable complexity I can’t do justice to in a paragraph—is a really beautiful notion to me. It seems to state, no matter how much you understand, that the actualities of divine reality can be accessed only by giving yourself over to a state of spiritually negative capability.
Yes, there is the hidden God, invoked in Psalm 30.8, translated by Alter, “When You hid your face, I was stricken.” The yearning in Paul, and in Shi’ism, and surely in all mysticism, is the yearning for the hidden holiness to become manifest. Yet there is also the visible, already with us, as we learn from our great teacher, Whitman:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Yours, in journey-work,