Poetry is not just a set of techniques

from Robert Alter The Art of Biblical Poetry

“Poetry is not just a set of techniques for saying impressively what could be said otherwise. Rather, it is a particular way of imagining the world—particular in the double sense that poetry as such has its own logic, its own ways of making connections and engendering implications, and because each system of poetry has certain distinctive semantic thrusts that follow the momentum of its formal dispositions and habits of expressions.”

ummmmmm semantic thrusts, and distinctive ones at that…..


and a small commentary on ongoing Obamania

“[This rhetorical structure] is surely not an effort at serious historical explanation, and like any utopian statement it is accountable to history only as a projection, from the scant historical grounds for hope, of how history might be transformed.”

ok, it’s actually a quote from Robert Alter about the nature of critiques of social order in “thanksgiving” psalms, especially the royal ones. But still.

fresh images beget

from Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, chapter three

The fact is that poetry in general involves, necessarily, a linear development of meaning, which means that in one respect it is a linear form of thinking or imagining. “Those images that yet/fresh images beget,” Yeats wrote in one of his most famous poems about art and the imagination, and that approximately, is the way most poems would seem to work: one image suggest a related one, or a further manifestation of the same underlying image; one idea leads to a cognate or consequent one; one pattern of sound, interinvolved with a particular semantic direction, leads to a similar pattern that reinforces some underlying similarity of suggestive antithesis of meaning.

The Sound of Silence

The Sound of Silence
Elliott batTzedek

Reunion tour, two men, singing in tempo, in tune,
in time, but in no visible intimacy.
They sang how terribly strange to be
—poignancy of what youth couldn’t know
dulled by pre-arranged contractual promise of an audience
coming to deliver poignancy.

Crash course of greatest duo hits, crowd sighing
none of us are young anymore remember when?
The Everly Brothers are still alive?

Then those first solo songs, all Paul,
oh what he could do with lyric and line, so fine,
so lush. So full, so complete. Then that most
familiar high tenor was suddenly there.
There, where it hadn’t been but had to be.
There, one song then the next. Each one created
unfinished. In everything an empty space
for this voice, in every foundation a crack sealed
with session takes so only one would feel
the chill wind howling through.

He left a space in everything, a space that cast
a lanky bushy-haired shadow. Those city boys,
those neighborhood boys, this loss
that only love could lose.

What my love could never lose is its dignity, gained
by struggle, gay and lesbian brought out of shadow
into space blown open for complex sexualities.
Still, when I think of the road we’ve traveled on, I wonder
what we’ve lost, why we have no word for them,
these two aging men, with their passionate love played
on stage and jumbotron every night. If they,
if I, if you, make love, and refuse to mean
a trite euphemism for genital muscle spasms,
then in place of a name for this love I have
only longing and silence. And didn’t we dream
those would shatter no more souls? But here
we are. We’ve bought the tickets and t-shirts and yet
what we clearly see confuses us. But I know
how love sounds when it’s sung, and it’s alright,
it’s all right, it’s all right. And we’re trying to get,
that’s all, that’s all, that’s all
we’re trying to get the rest.

I would never have heard the space, my ears don’t work like that. Otter heard it, it made her cry, and me too, when she explained why what I was hearing mattered. Poets are like crows, I think, gathering shiny things, a habit some call theft but crows call instinct. So the insight is Otter’s shiny thing, and the poem is mine.

This poem has been sitting in me, trying to find a shape, since 2003. That it came out now was in part triggered by watching an astounding video of Paul Simon singing “American Tune” with just his guitar on

perceptual psychologist defining structural use of poetic discourse

1. I used to talk like this all the time, back in my UCIrvine critical theory experiment

2. Here’s what Barbara Herrnstein Smith says, which is incredibly useful:

As soon as we perceive that a verbal sequence has a sustained rhythm, that it is formally structured according to a continuously operating principle of organization, we know that we are in the presence of poetry and we respond to it accordingly […] expecting certain effects from it and not others, granting certain conventions to it and not others. One of the most significant effects of meter (or, more broadly, of principles of formal structure) in poetry is simply to inform the reader that he [sic] is being confronted by poetry and not by anything else… Meter serves, in other words, as a frame for the poem, separating it from a ‘ground’ of less highly structured speech and sound.

3. So I’ve usually written a very free verse, where what marks it as “poetry” is short lines and more metaphorical language. Do these say “poetry” to readers? Do they say enough?

4. Who are these readers who read enough poetry to know it as different from the ground when they read it?

On not taking scholarship too seriously….

from The Art of Biblical Poetry by Robert Alter

“In the 1930s, an Orientalist, Paul Kraus, set out to show that the entire Hebrew Bible, once properly accented, could be demonstrated to have been written in verse. When he discovered two-thirds of the way through his analysis that the texts no longer bore out his thesis, he took his own life.”

ok, so I can be an intense theory-head, but jeesh. Who the heck was on his tenure review committee? Elohim the big ole’ thundering mountain war god?

They say that “Time assuages”

Emily Dickinson

They say that “Time assuages”-
Time never did assuage-
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age-

Time is a Test of Trouble-
But not a Remedy-
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady

wow, found this poem this evening. Didn’t know this one, and it really speaks to me right now. Time is a test of trouble….

Some thoughts on Midrash and the women of Judges

So I set out, as a writing assignment, to create poems about the characters Deborah, Yael, Sisera, and Sisera’s mother from the stories in chapters four and five of Judges. Chapter 4 tells their story in prose – Deborah was a “judge”, which was a kind of charismatic leader/seer. She pushed the general Barak to take on King Jabin, who was oppressing the Israelites. Jabin’s army was wiped out, except for the general Sisera, who ran off to the tent of Yael the Kenite, who killed him. The story then shifts to Sisera’s mother, who is waiting for her son to come home triumphant. Chapter 5 tells the same story, but in a war poem which is one of the most ancient texts incorporated into what became the Bible/Tanakh, so clearly comes from a much earlier tradition.

I wanted to write about these women, but I just couldn’t. I started reading Judges, and writing about Judges, and was just totally stopped. Like a lot of Jews, I never actually read all that stuff that’s in the Tanakh but not in the 5 books of Torah. And while a lot of Feminist midrash has been created about women in Torah, the women from the rest of the Bible are rarely mentioned. Reading Judges was astounding and awful, as it has a subtext that is completely about the continued transfer of power from women to men, and the ongoing decay of women’s status as the Israelites moved from tribes toward a central government with a central temple and priesthood. The story is all told from the point of view of these central powers, of course, who in the book are explaining why life had become so morally decayed that they HAD to take over, with the repeated refrain “there was no king in Israel/every man did as he pleased.” Which became the justification for the ultimate imposition of patrilocal, patrilineal rule, headed by male king, male priests, and their male god.

Now I know that this book, in part, is wish fulfillment on behalf of the cult of the single male war god, since women continued to have power in home and society, and continued to have goddesses in the Temple until it was destroyed. Judges is a fantasy of class, caste, and gender, pretending that if they tell the story it will mean only what they said it means.

Yet even so, the steady decline of women in the book is awful. At the beginning is Deborah, clearly the story of a culturally vital woman, incorporated into this story with only a few additions of text linking her to this god. Oh, and thousands of years of intentionally obtuse translation which insists that both she and Yael are identified by their husbands, when the Hebrew probably identifies them by where they are from. Next, an unnamed woman kills off the evil Abimelech by dropping a millstone on his head from a tower in which the people had taken refuge. Also an earlier story, I think, incorporated here with another odd twist – Abimelech asks his attendant to stab him, so that they will not say of him “he was killed by a woman.” Yeah, gotta get rid of THAT story.

Next up is Jepthah, son of a tribal leader but whose mother was a “prostitute.” Nonetheless he comes to power, after his tribe begs him, vowing that, if he wins, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns home. This is his daughter, unnamed, who gladly gives herself up to sacrifice, asking only that she and the other maidens have two months in the mountains to bewail her maidenhood. Granted, sure, then she was killed. Fun, huh? Leaves me wondering if Jepthah’s mother was in fact a priestess who conceived him in a power/fertility rite with a locally powerful man, conferring on Jepthah special powers. If this was the original story, then the priestly class that shaped these stories into Judges needed to delegitimatize Jepthah and end his line, so why not invent this story of the vow and child sacrifice? I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I have read a lot, and the whole set up does make me wonder.

Next up in Judges is Samson, which is really interesting to read. Also clearly a much older story, probably a cycle of stories and legends about a local hero, his story is full of puns, riddles, humor, vows and reversals. The woman here is Delilah, who betrays her husband three times and ultimately was killed along with all her people. She had no power of her own, a far cry from Deborah and Yael, but at least she had a name.

Next, and this is my favorite, a Levite from Ephraim takes a concubine, who runs away from him. He tracks her to her father’s house, who welcomes him warmly and gives her back to him (with her consent, it seems, but we know who wrote the story). They travel to the town of Gibeah, where, in a re-telling of the also disturbing Sodom story, the men of the town storm the door and demand the man be turned over to them “to be intimate.” His host instead offers the concubine and his own “virgin daughter, “ saying “have your pleasure with them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.” So the man shoves his concubine out the door, and, in the morning, seems surprised that she has been raped to death. So, to get revenge, he cuts her into twelve pieces and sends her to 12 tribes as evidence of the crimes of the men of the town. Some of the tribes come to his aid, war breaks out, the Benjamites are defeated.

Big problem ensues – everyone realizes they are not allowed to wipe out one of the 12 tribes, but they’ve also vowed to not let their daughters marry the Benjamites. But the B’s need women to continue! What to do? They decide the men of Jabesh-gilead weren’t sufficiently loyal, so everyone goes there, kills everyone except girls of marriageable age who are still virgins, and “marry off” all 400 of these girls to the B’s. But they need more women! What to do? Everyone treks off to Shiloh, to the annual Feast o’ The Lord, where the men of B are invited to kidnap every girl who comes out of town for the festival.

Gotta love it, yes? Women go from Deborah, of such power that her story could not be simply suppressed, to woman-as-temptress, to unnamed girl willingly sacrificed to keep a single man’s vow, to single unnamed woman raped and dismembered, and ends with hundreds of unnamed women kidnapped and raped to keep men’s vows.

What in the hell can a feminist say? I couldn’t write about any of these women, at least not the kind of midrash that exists to give them a name, tell the story from their point of view, because this would give some legitimacy to the original story. That’s my critique now of so much of what has evolved as “women’s” religious practice in Judaism – the stories are treated as stand-alone stories, and writers work to fill in the gaps. But Judges isn’t just a story, it’s a piece of political propaganda, created by someone for a specific reason, and that reason needs to be explored and questioned. As a feminist, I’m more interested in an analysis that understands personal relationships as the epicenter of social power, gendered power, yes, and also race, class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, and more. I need more than just finding the women – I want to find the power, and reveal it, and then reimagine and reshape. I want to re-understand history and so change the future. I’m just no longer interested in midrash whose goals is to elevate imahot to the same height as avot. I want to knock those damn fathers off their throne and figure out where we are all together, starting from new ground.

I want not just the why or the how, but the why.

And the why of the stories woven into Judges is a need to justify kingship to a people whose religious/cultural tradition had been as a people who lived under God and didn’t need kings. Power had to justify itself, had to explain why it was now legitimate, and the power stripped away from women was part of this process. The dead that pile up in these stories – and there are thousands upon thousands – aren’t supposed to matter, and we aren’t supposed to count them. The point of these stories is to enforce a peculiarly Jewish way of telling history, set in theology, in which the Jews sin against God so are handed over to their enemies until a leader rises to take them back to God’s law. Then they live “rightly” for some time, until they sin and the whole cycle starts over again. The sacrificed women, all those slaughtered, are only ways to advance the plot. We aren’t supposed to count them as people, we aren’t supposed to mourn them. They don’t matter—only we matter, the “we” who live to tell the story. This is how the survivors go on surviving, where genocide is such a given that it gives one no moral rise.

Which is exactly why I’m a Reconstructionist Jew and reject this doctrine of being “the chosen people.” History, oppression, war – these haven’t happened only because the Jews have pissed off their big daddy war god. That’s the storyline I’ve walked out of, to demand an end to that understanding of history. I want Jews, Jewish culture, and Judaism to enter shared history, where God is not the only cause, and where the dead count.

And when I count the dead in Judges, I find women’s lives, women’s truth, the story of women’s power and meaning all buried under the rubble of the record of Samson’s destruction. When I count the dead, I count the women of Judges: Deborah, Yael, the woman who defended her people by killing a king, Delilah the trickster, the daughter sacrificed, the woman killed and dismembered, all the women kidnapped and raped. I count them all.

To find out more:

I ended up writing two pieces: “________ bat Jepthah” and “Israel Beiteinu.” You can find them both here on my blog.

Alicia Ostriker, The Nakedness of the Fathers, “Judges, or Disasters of War”

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, “Warriors by Weapon and Word”

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, “May My Lord King David Live Forever: Royal Ideology in Samuel and Judges”

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women “The Song of Devorah and Yael”

not the fundamental I but the deep you

from “Proverbs and Songs”
Dedicated to Jose Ortega y Gasset
Antonio Machado

But look in your mirror for the other one,
the other one who walks by your side.

Between living and dreaming
there is a third thing.
Guess it.

Look for your other half
who walks always next to you
and tends to be what you aren’t.

In my solitude
I have seen things very clearly
that were not true.

Water is good, so is thirst;
shadow is good, so is sun;
the honey from the rosemarys
and the honey of the bare fields.

Form your letters slowly and well:
making things well
is more important than making them.

Wake up, you poets:
let echoes end,
and voices begin.

But don’t hunt for dissonance;
because, in the end, there is no dissonance.
When the sound is heard people dance.

What the poet is searching for
is not the fundamental I
but the deep you.

Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:
waking up.

If a poem becomes common,
passed around, hand to hand, it’s OK:
gold is chosen for coins.

But art?
It is pure and intense play,
so it is like pure and intense life,
so it is like pure and intense fire.
You’ll see the coal burning.