Rewriting the Psalms

Laurance Wieder joins the great poetic tradition of reading the psalms by reimagining them

BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell

There's nothing new about turning the Bible's Psalms into poetry. John Milton, Philip Sydney and Samuel Coleridge all wrote their own versions. But American poet Laurance Wieder has made re-imagining the Psalms a particular compulsion, resulting in "Words to God's Music," a collection of all 150 Psalms rendered into modern verse. We talked to Wieder recently about the life of the Psalms and his life with them.

There's a long history of translating, rewriting or otherwise rendering the Psalms. Who are your favorites among your predecessors?

Christopher Smart. Smart used to fall down on his knees in the streets of London, and invite passersby to pray along with him. John Milton's one of my favorite poets, but his Psalms are more dutiful than participatory. P. Hateley Waddell, Robert Burns' editor, did the Psalms into Scots, and I like them a lot.

David Rosenberg, in "Blues of the Sky," translates 20 Psalms. He is direct and

Psalm 23
Read three versions

sweet. It shares a common ground with Daniel Ladinsky's translations of Hafiz: both have great heart, and the appearance of artlessness.

How did you come to write the Psalms?

In the early 1990s, I wrote a book called "Duke: The Poems, as told to Laurance Wieder," which was the result of watching all John Wayne's movies again on tape, and reading every first-hand account I could find and then giving the Duke the benefit of whatever knowledge and skill I have. That turned out to be my training run for the Psalms. The difference being that everybody knows Wayne's voice. It had been inside me since childhood. Now, David was the

Psalm 46
"God is our refuge..."

anointed King of Israel, and perfect in God's sight. I could never imagine myself as that. But I could voice the poetry I heard in the Psalms. By poetry, I mean an individual voice speaking directly to me, or through me. Measured and inflected, no cant, no waste.

Did you do much research before you started?

I own and have read the Tyndale, Geneva, Douai and, many times, the King James Old Testament, the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, and most of the Anchor Bible. I also reread all the poets' versions of the Psalms, and did my feeble best with the Hebrew and the Latin.

Are any of those versions of the Psalms particularly good poetry?

All have great strength, but none put poetry on a par with authority.

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