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Laurance Wieder


In a Strange Land

Poets on the Psalms.

The Book of Psalms is unlike any other part of the Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, it follows the Prophets and begins the section called "Writings." That is to say, it mediates Malachi and Proverbs. The King James Bible places Psalms between Job and Proverbs, following the end of the Babylonian Captivity as recounted in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.

A song of praise both sacred and lyric, yet, unlike the Song of Moses, or Miriam, or the Song of Deborah, or the Song of Hannah, a psalm makes sense independent of its original context. Its lyric "I" (implied or stated) is always the reader/reciter, its setting the present moment. The reader steps inside the song, outside the self. The "place" of the psalm dwells in the sayer or singer. Hence the uncanny power of the word "Jerusalem." Recited, psalms speak in as many voices as there are people who say them.

Some of the fourteen essayists in Poets on the Psalms treat the invitation extended by the editor, Lynn Domina, as an occasion to talk about their own poetry. Others take the opportunity to teach a psalm or psalms, exercising scholarship, associative commentary, or close reading. Some look to the landscape to talk about psalms, some look at themselves. Some expand the meaning of a particular psalm or line autobiographically; others employ psalms to articulate their understanding of what's happened to them, and where understanding ends. Some anchor in the grave occasion, others in the intimate.

Given that these are poets' responses to one of the oldest poetry books in the world, the unanswered question is, What makes a psalm a psalm? I don't think it's enough to ask, as Carl Phillips does of his poem "Anthem": "If I call it a psalm, is it? / —Isn't it?" Psalms are simultaneously public and private, in voice, in matter, and in occasion. The Psalmist is often sore-tried, surrounded by enemies, wondering how long and why the wicked prosper, and when his chance will come, but nowhere is the incomprehensible confused with the ...

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