Saturday, February 4, 2012

If it’s poetry, why doesn’t it rhyme?

            The students in my Old Testament Tour 2 class are in for a real treat. I don’t mean food, although there are some holidays coming up:  Purim begins March 7 and Passover April 6. Hamentashen first and then charoset. Those are sweet treats. (We won’t mention the parsley dipped in salty water and the horseradish…)
            No, the treat the kids will experience this coming week is my unit on Hebrew poetry. By the time we finish, they will have written their own psalms, specifically laments. I may write a new one myself.
            Academic information rarely excites anyone, but I was amazed at what I learned when I first prepared this unit on Psalms. Although Psalms are poetry, they don’t rely on rhyme or meter like traditional English language poetry.
            Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, where the second line completes or repeats the thought of the first line. Someone—wish I could remember who—said ideas rhyme instead of words.
            Psalm 19:1 displays synonymous parallelism—the second line echoes the first line in similar words, or synonyms.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (NIV)
            As I wondered why God chose this poetic style for his collaboration with human authors, I pondered the difficulties of translating poetry: Words that rhyme in one language usually don’t rhyme in another. Likewise, a two syllable word in one language may translate into a four syllable word in another. So much for meter or rhythm. To truly appreciate a poem, you have to read it in its original language.
            Parallelism avoids these difficulties and translates well. The second line echoes or complete the thought of the first line in any language.
            Then it hit me:  God never meant Psalms to be an obscure poetry anthology for a tiny nation of Hebrew-speaking people who lived three millennia ago. Instead, he planned that any person who understands any language in any location in any era might access the wealth of encouragement, insight, and inspiration in Psalms.
            Now that’s exciting!

            Thank you, God, for your incredible book, written in ages past, transcribed and translated by your faithful servants over the centuries. Now it speaks your voice in my mother tongue. Amen.