2017-07-12
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.

In the translations, is there a remnant of the original voice of the psalmist?
Emphatically, yes! It's not the voice of a particular individual. The Book of Psalms traditionally assigns the poems to ten authors, a minyan: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph, and three court musicians, the sons of Korah. The Midrash records also that the poems themselves are of ten varieties: "glory, melody, Psalm, song, praise, prayer, blessing, thanksgiving, Hallelujah, and exultation."

So King David didn't actually write them.
The whole book is said to be David's because his voice is the sweetest--by which I understand that in David we have an entire life, personal and public, singer and warrior, shepherd and king. His life and the whole history of Israel are rolled up into one sweet

Psalm 84
Read three versions
ball. One finds Psalms about his dancing before the Ark, his feigning madness in the presence of King Achish, wisdom pieces, pleas and blessings, songs about the Exodus, or the Captivity, or the building of the Temple--events before and after David's lifetime that nonetheless bear the stamp of personality. This attribute is not discernible in other writers of the Psalms.

But we've gone very far afield. The poetic voice of the Psalms is really the voice of the reader in communion with the Psalmist. My psalms are in my voice, my reading written down as it happened. Most people don't keep this kind of record, or if they do, they keep it in their own way.

What was the process of writing like?
When I wrote, I had the Anchor Bible in front of me, open to the notes. I asked, "What's this psalm about?" The poem is my answer. Sometimes I clarified or paraphrased, other times I answered what it said with what I believed.

Take Psalm 23. Who could match it? Why try? It's recited when in peril or unease, to ward off, to cure. I didn't want to versify the thought, like George Herbert did, or make some extended riff on shepherds and sheep like Crashaw's. Instead, from the strength and safety of my study, I thought about necessity and great mercy.

How did this differ from how you usually write poems?
I don't usually write poems. I collect bits of things, and wait for the poem to arrive. The Psalms gave me a defined task, a model, a known territory, ready for remapping. Oddly, I know procedurally exactly how I wrote my psalms. But these Psalms don't feel like mine at all, don't belong, don't pertain to me personally the way everything else I've written does.

But also, the poetics of Psalms are so different from English poetry. The verses of the Psalms divide in half--the second half being a variation or comment on the first half; and the sense of each verse is often complete in itself. The verse that precedes or follows may not connect in the way lines in English poetry flow into each other.

One of the great things about the King James Version Psalms is that it recreates this modular structure. Psalm 119, for instance, is like an anagram writ large. That is, each stanza of eight verses each corresponds to a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In the King James, any verse can stand alone, or be juxtaposed with any other, so one can spell out or generate new stanzas in infinite variety. Now that's Renaissance wit.

Does the Book of Psalms as a whole tell a story?
Tradition states that the order of the Psalms is concealed. If they were arranged in their proper order, Rabbi Eleazar taught, then anyone who read them would be able to resurrect the dead and perform other miracles. But even in the received dis-arrangement there's order. The first Book, Psalms 1 through 41, is largely personal; Book Two, which is 42 through 72, concerns the individual as part of a nation; Book Three, 73 through 89, sings the individual as a part of history; the fourth Book, 90 through 106, rehearses that history as public worship; the fifth and last is a book of praises.

In your versions, the psalmist often seems alone and desperate, or recalling times he was.
Alone and desperate are two different things. That each of us is ultimately on his own, even in a family or community, is part of the Psalms' realism. Psalms are all addressed to God, which means they talk at once to what's within, and what's beyond. But they are always spoken by an individual.

Part of the poetry is that the Psalms help those who write and read them understand what it means to be fully human. The poems offer an occasion to vibrate outside history, just as the Passover Seder, which incorporates Psalms, provides an opportunity for the celebrants to sit down at the same table with all who ever did or will remember the Exodus from Egypt. Our access to the timeless present is another aspect of being made in the Divine Image.

John Donne observed that if you want to know what the human is, you have to discard all the accidents: of birth, of name, of place, of station, of attainments, of family--everything that distinguishes one person from another. What's left is the human--which is also the divine image, visible as air.

What's your favorite psalm?
My favorite because most personal is Psalm 45, "Daughter," because, well, it's what I wish for my daughter and I mist up whenever I read it.



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