On Hebrew psalms and English poems

I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ve been doing #NachYomi, studying one chapter from the Prophets and Writing sections of the TaNaCh (Hebrew Bible) a day. Right now, we’re in the middle of the Book of Psalms (known in Hebrew as Sefer Tehilim), and as each psalm is written in verse, I’m learning a lot about poetry as we march to the end of the Book (we have about 2 and a half weeks left).

A translation of Psalm 23–probably the most famous psalm to English-speakers

Incidentally, April was National Poetry Month, and I wrote a poem for every day of the celebration. I felt inspired to do so after a spree of poetry reading. Then I spent a chunk of May revising some my April poems. (I actually submitted one of them yesterday. I felt very brave.)

Anyway, I’ve noticed some interested contrasts and comparisons between Hebrew poetry and English poetry, and I thought it might be interesting to explore them.

One trend you see in Hebrew poems is manipulating a particular aspect of the Hebrew language–many conceptually-related words will derive from the same two or three letter root (called a shoresh). A common example is the following: chai, which means “live,” shares a root (chet-yud) with chayim, meaning “life;” chayot, which means “wild animals;” and mechaye, which means “revive.” Additionally, one way to emphasize a word in Hebrew is to double it. Me’od me’od, for example, means not just “a lot” but “very, very much,” and mot yamut means not just “will die” but “will surely die.”

In English poetry, and writing in general, we are discouraged from having the same word appear multiple times, close together, in the same text. Occasionally, it’s used for effect, but it’s one of those things writers usually edit out.

However, in Hebrew, you might see the same word appear several times in just one psalm, if not in its identical form, in a related term which shares the same shoresh. This happens throughout the Book of Psalms, such as in:

  • Psalm 150, which contains 13 words based on the root hey-lamed (“praise”) in just 6 lines.
  • Psalm 130, which contains such lines as verse 5 קִוִּ֣יתִי יְ֭הֹוָה קִוְּתָ֣ה נַפְשִׁ֑י וְֽלִדְבָר֥וֹ הוֹחָֽלְתִּי׃ (“I look hopefully to the LORD; my soul hopes for Him, and I await His word.”) which repeats the root koof-vav, for “hope” just two words apart, heightening the affect.

It’s not just Biblical era poetry which does this, but many Hebrew-language modern poems, as well. The entire phenomenon makes me wonder how much the actual construction of the English language affects poetry written in English.

Noticing the repetitions in Hebrew poems has not led me to introduce them into my English-language creations. However, it has helped me see how a deep theme, image, or symbol, when worked throughout a poem, creates impressions in the reader which enhance both the meaning and the beauty of the text.

If you have thoughts about Hebrew poems, poetry in general, or psalms (from a writerly perspective), I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

2 thoughts on “On Hebrew psalms and English poems

  1. Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig wrote about “leitworter” (theme words? I’m not quite sure how to translate, but like leitmotif in music), key words or word roots that appear multiple times in a passage, prose as well as poetry. They were not the first to notice it, but they were the first to give it a name. They tried to write a translation of Tanakh that would pay attention to them, as other translations tended to disguise them by trying to translate the same root differently for variety.

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