I have been learning much and enjoying Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry; as much as I found his texts on biblical narrative intriguing, this book appeals to me more not just on the levels of scholarship, history, and explication but because he clearly loves and understands poetry. Which cannot be said about every scholar who writes about the Old Testament books (and they are many).
For example, Alter recognizes that trying to categorize biblical poetry into formulaic genres is useful only in the most general way, because the most enduring (poetically ‘best’) verses persist as significant and special because they are excellent poems. Which means they may not follow stereotypical genres or fit the “given conventions of style” of a type of poem. Indeed, he refers to the author of Job’s Voice from the Whirlwind and the prophetic author known as Deutero-Isaiah as geniuses. Then he provides evidence of this genius through explications that rely not only on scholarship and historical sources and contextual information but through the beautiful poetry itself.
Convention gives writers of both verse and prose a solid framework in which to construct their own discourse, but good writers always exert a subtle pressure on convention…remaking it as they build within it.Robert Alter
Paradoxes and “radical ambiguities” abound in these ancient poems, and the urgent ideas they chose to convey through poetry manage to feel significant even today, thousands of years later. The fictive aspect of poetry–its imaginative spur–appears in the biblical imagery of (imagined) apocalypse, (imagined) utopia, (imagined) peace and bounty. [Non-believers might add: (imagined) god.]
Alter writes with some wit and considerable modesty, though maybe it’s false modesty since he’s clearly attached to his arguments concerning the Masoretic text, translations of biblical Hebrew, and the structure and syntax of these poems. At any rate, his style permits him to write for the non-scholar. Much appreciated by this non-scholar!
Poetry…is a particular way of imagining the world–particular in the double sense that poetry has its own logic, its own ways of making connections…and because each system of poetry has certain distinctive semantic thrusts that follow the momentum of its…habits of expression.Robert Alter
I gleaned from this book some approaches to writing poetry that remain useful today, things I’ve heard mentioned in interviews with contemporary writers, methods I have employed in my own work without recognizing their long lineage. Then again, I spent many hours in church pews when I was growing up, listened to many an Old Testament reading from the pulpit, and sang hymns with lyrics often drawn from those passages. I suppose the forms have plowed grooves in my brain.