Anul III, Numărul 1/2005
The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Epistemological Issues
It is possible
that reading POETRY has fallen into desuetude in our ultra-technological
society, because the poetic rendering of reality does not provide the type of
instant information we expect. Nevertheless, a rhymed structure gives flavour
to a card, as much as a balanced quatrain makes a song immortal. What makes
POETRY stand in such a privileged and yet, intriguingly, ignored position? Is
it the coexistence of non-sense and emotional value that meet in POETRY? Or
rather a deep inner sense of rhythm that binds our life from the thinking
process to the most ordinary activity?(Aviram 1994, 43) Shall we
hope for a better and easier understanding of POETRY if we approach literary criticism
expecting to perceive poetic structures?
It might seem
obvious that as meaning derives from form, so a proper understanding of
specific literary forms (genres, subgenres) should precede our understanding of
POETRY. However, does our own experience confirm this theoretical knowledge?
How frequently do we leave a poem with the satisfaction of having understood
it? Probably even at the theoretical level things are not as clear as we might
expect? Moreover, can we nonchalantly transfer this modern concern into old,
remote and non-cognate literatures, specifically Hebrew?
As we will
indicate below, the issue of reading Hebrew literature intelligibly is a
painful exercise, which involves interdisciplinary knowledge, exquisite
sensitivity and elevated literary ability, to name just a few qualities. Given
the large and varied corpus biblical texts offer and the variety of theoretical
approaches as well, a few preliminary delimitations are in place.
Epistemologically, we do not perceive form without content, meaning being a
natural outcome of the balanced observation of the two. Nevertheless, besides
the text itself (utterance), the hermeneutical circle comprises an encoder
(writer), a decoder (reader), and the proper response of the decoder to encoder's
stimuli. All these elements are important for the interpretation of the text.
This theory of the process of communication, guarantees that our expectations
of finding meaning in literary forms might be met, if our response to original
stimuli is calibrated in accordance with the author's intention by the mediacy
of stylistic devices (henceforth, SDs).
The enterprise of reading POETRY with understanding, and
differentiating POETRY from PROSE, constitute two basic issues, which one needs
to address before launches the search for a methodology. They enable us to
mould our method in close correspondence with the peculiarities of literary
language, avoiding breaches in literary theory. There is a general distinction
assumed here, one between POETRY and PROSE, which leaves unnoticed a large
diversity of texts. As the following discussion will indicate, a general
description of the ANE literary texts as POETRY against PROSE should be
neutral, without entangling the difficulties prompted by the modern literary
typology as genres.
How do we differentiate POETRY from PROSE?
this question we have entered the field of literary criticism. Critics
generally agree on the matter that if there is such a thing as literature,
there have to be at least two main literary genres, PROSE and POETRY. Both of
them, whether oral or written, are responsible for creating a specific effect
on the audience. Most times, they are judged on the level of aesthetics, POETRY
being related generally with subjectivity, vivid expression and atemporality,
PROSE being completely the opposite. Theoretically, however, defining POETRY as
opposed to PROSE proves to be rather a difficult task. This delimitation, as
many others might be, proves to be extremely difficult in the post-modern
context, where relativism replaced standardization, and deconstruction became
norm (cf. Jakobson 1987, 368ff).
the traditional definition of aesthetics, refraining from defining pure
categories of POETRYand PROSE. Instead, he promotes POETRY and PROSE as
hypothetical directions (Aviram 1994, 44f).
The two opposite extremes are by themselves theoretical probabilities and
factual impossibilities. Both of them represent asymptotic ends. One to apply the idea of
binary scale to biblical criticism was Tremper Longman III (1987, 20-1), who
concluded that POETRY is characterized by a higher level of artistry than
A similar dissatisfaction with the procedures available for discriminating
literary texts is expressed by Alonso Schökel too (1988, 19).
at one end of the spectrum there is ordinary language which is supposed to be transparent,
i.e., it draws the reader's attention not to its rhetorical features (style,
images, figures), nor to its formal features (how it sounds), but rather to its
thematic content. Expository and scientific writing share this very quality. At
the other end of the spectrum there is opaque language, i.e. language
with a strong interest in sounds, and therefore very difficult to understand.
One can discover its meaning only in the larger context of a conventional
system of signs with potential meaning (Aviram 1994, 49).
One can render
the binary opposition transparent: opaque as the two extremes of a bipolar
spectrum because of the dual nature of the linguistic sign, as first described
by Saussure. Transparent language focuses our attention on the signified,
whereas opaque language focuses it on the signifiers, which always mean more
than just one thing. Signifiers are bound together into a network of contexts, and
can easily lose their meaning, reverting to meaninglessness. This means that,
in the case of POETRY, the surface signifiers demand a great deal of attention.
What characterizes POETRY then is the tension between sense and sound, between
meaningful and meaningless, between transparent and opaque, which tend to be in
some kind of a balance, whereas in PROSE form is supporting content. That makes
a poem to be an utterance designed to draw the receptor's attention
simultaneously in the opposed directions of mere sound and meaning (Aviram
aware that advocating an identical perception of POETRY throughout history is
not an eligible choice, as the assumption that the original reader could
understand the old POETRY. It is very probable that at any particular time, for
any particular reader, some kind of spectrum existed. This is particularly true
because 'art is an integral part of the social structure, a component that
interacts with all the others and is itself mutable since both the domain of
art and its relationship to the other constituents of the social structure are
in constant dialectical flux' (Jakobson 1987, 377). In other words, an ordinary
citizen and speaker of a given language would have recognised with ease the
quality of a given text (written or spoken) to stimulate aesthetics more than
Aviram is promoting a unique organizing principle, i.e. rhythm (see infra),
with particular embedments throughout history, because the concept of POETRY is
conditioned temporally. One may suggests two basic tests to distinguish POETRY
from PROSE: (1) if a part of a text, out of its context, cannot be identified
as POETRY, the text is PROSE; (2) if for a given text a paraphrase can easily
be made, the text is PROSE. The reciprocals are also applicable. These
affirmations can help us to define POETRY by contrast, because it is obvious
that PROSE's function is bound to the context and it facilitates an easy
understanding of the text.
Far from being
comprehensive, this definition requires further refining. Context is equally
important for PROSE as for POETRY. The longer the poem is, the more important
the context of the individual sayings becomes. Moreover, an easy paraphrase
does not necessarily imply prosaic features. Due to their clarity in meaning,
i.e. they are easy to paraphrase, nursery rhymes continue to entertain children
any longer. Therefore, one needs to regard these tests from the perspective of
the bipolar spectrum suggested by Aviram. There are infinite options of
registers on which one can arrange any work of literature without risking total
failure, and they compensates the lack of an ideal representative. Jakobson
militates for a liberal approach to POETRY, but holistic, according to which
poeticity is not to be reduced mechanically to its components. Instead, he
invokes emotivity and opacity as main characteristics of such texts:
how does poeticity manifest itself? Poeticity is present when the word is felt
as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an
outburst of emotion, when words and their composition, their meaning, their
external and inner form, acquire weight and value of their own instead of
referring indifferently to reality. (Jakobson 1987, 378)
It is obvious
that both emotivity and opacity display a high degree of subjectivity. We are
still left without a decisive, objective criterion to distinguish POETRY from
PROSE in world literatures in general or in ANE literature in particular. If
the means to stir emotions in the mind of an Ancient Semite were different,
which were they? If rhythm as a state of mind was embodied in a particular way
in ANE literature, what was it? The matter of conscious use of structures noted
by modern scholars by the ancient poets stays with the purposive value of
poetic language (Jakobson 1987, 250-61). Spontaneous creation is not excluded,
particularly when revelatory texts are concerned, but this cannot restrict us
from assuming consciously and painstakingly the mission of careful analysis of
How do we read POETRY with understanding?
be no question about the linguistic value of the poetic discourse. Since it
makes use of the verbal art, poetics is notoriously part of linguistics, in
spite of all critics. Nevertheless, as one can approach linguistics
synchronically and diachronically, so can POETRY itself (Jakobson 1987, 63ff).
It seems that we need to find out particular textual devices, which embed
Aviram's timeless principle of rhythm in HPy. Are rhetorical devices, as
material devices, all that matters, or are they to be considered in addition to
a much more rigid poetic form? Our search seems to be a matter at the
interface between form, content, and meaning.
understood the relatedness of the three concepts in three main directions
throughout the history of literary criticism. The first one, which found recent
support in New Criticism and post-structuralism, considers poetic form a plain
rhetorical device. Form is a matter of style and, thus, subordinated to
meaning. The second option, highly appreciated by the structuralists (Jakobson
and Lévi-Strauss), admits that form has meaning by itself and depends on the
mediation of conventional social codes. They promote the existence of a formal
tradition, certain ideas being associated with each form in part. Consequently,
meaning in POETRY would derive from the interpretation of the allegorized
tradition, but form and meaning have no relation whatsoever. What actually
happens is that poetic form is beyond meaning and therefore, uninterpretable by
itself (Aviram 1994, 111).
option, the one Aviram embraces and considers a middle way, would be when form
transcends its traditional associations. Then POETRY has a dual nature, being
an intriguing association of meaning and sound (not identical with form
in the previous theories), and thus responsible for drawing the mind in two
opposite directions: sense and non-sense, transparency and opacity. POETRY is
both a statement that makes sense (has meaning) and a sequence of sounds producing
a rhythm and drawing attention to the physical properties of its words (has
sound). As seen above, Aviram talks of rhythm not as a rhetorical device
but as a controlling principle for both meaning and sound. It relates to the
mental process of comparing and contrasting, which produce metaphors. By
itself, although it has no meaning, rhythm still has an aesthetic value,
because one can experience it physically and cognitively. Rhythm is the
expression of a human social need for less formalism. Aviram (1994, 135-51)explains
human reaction toward rhythm as a drive towards it, just as in similar terms
Freud spoke about human activities in general as based on the pleasure
not ignore this reality when he spoke of the proper interpretation given to
POETRY. On the contrary, he admitted "the poetic function projects the
principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of
combination" (1987, 71). Obviously specific poetic genres display a
conflation of the verbal function with the dominant poetic function. Thus, epic
poetry (third person oriented) involves the referential function of language,
lyric poetry (first person oriented) is connected with the emotive function,
exhortative poetry (second person oriented) has rather a conative function
(Jakobson 1987, 70).
ones thoughts metaphorically, i.e. allegorizing the reality, the poet(ess)
attempts to access the sublime, which in most cases means a challenge of the
tradition. The sublime power of rhythm consists exactly of this challenge
balanced by the intrinsic ability of becoming a tradition on its own. Two
contradictory principles inherent to rhythm - destabilization and tradition -
both undermine the provinciality of day's Weltanschauung and encourage
its reformation (Aviram 1994, 229). Finding meaning in POETRY is the mental
process that allows the reader to understand the metaphors across their
discontinuity, thus revealing the riddle the poem is.
The theory of
POETRY advocated by Aviram preserves the importance of sound (form)
without subordinating it to meaning, thus without reducing it to a
rhetorical device. The relation between sound and meaning is
analogous to Nietzsche's relation between the Dionysian and the Apollonian:
they are mutually dependent, but the process of reading treats meaning
as an interpretation (representation) of rhythm (Aviram 1994, 236). In
conclusion, form is not all we seek, neither rhetorical devices, nor content
itself. Aviram applies his method to several old and new ballads, making clear
the procedure he favours. The thematic meaning of a poem comes first as an
aftermath of a traditional consideration of the content, from which the poem is
approached as an allegorized expression of its rhythmical form.
As a mental
principle, rhythm is a paradox; it is both difficult to perceive and easy to
guess. It is easy because human experience and thinking share common basic
processes. On that basis, we can assume how a human might have reacted or might
react to a particular stimulus. If social strings that might have constrained
that human being to react in a particular way are unknown to us, then rhythm is
more difficult to perceive. In short, POETRY interpretation is a complex
process that cannot restrict itself to literary forms, rhetorical devices, or
internal content. The older the poem, the remoter its setting-in-life is; the
remoter the setting-in-life, the stranger its author is; the stranger the
author, the harder its interpretation is. It is our desire not to obstruct the
beauty of the poems and the skilfulness of their authors, but the only chance
we have in order to assess these relates strictly to a careful consideration of
the forms. It is all we may be certain of having. The larger the corpus and
more analytic the approach, more certain is the reconstruction of the
traditional forms, and clearer the derivative meaning.
what criteria matter in such an analysis? This question will receive a proper
answer if a further distinction is in place, that between pure linguistic
analysis and stylistic analysis (Riffaterre 1959, 154). The distinction is
based on the effect that both language and style have on the reader. While
language expresses, style stresses. Hence, style is understood as an emphasis
of some kind (expressive, affective, aesthetic), added to the information
conveyed by the linguistic structure, without alteration of meaning. Whereas
the linguist has the task of collecting all the features of the speech of his
informant, the style analyst chooses only those features, which carry out the
most conscious intentions of the author. Whilst the linguist's purpose in
analysing the data is reconstructing a past state of the language, the style
analist's purpose is to reconstruct the effects the poem's style had at the time
of its creation, and to suggest corresponding reactions of the modern readers
or even correct the wrong ones.
traditional and Gricean understanding of communication have in common an
encoder and a decoder as the two poles of the communication system, being in
contact by means of an utterance, which is interpreted according to a decoding
system. Although the patterns set for the control of decoding remain unchanged,
the decoder's linguistic frame of reference changes, as time passes by. For
this reason, a stylistic analysis should encompass both synchronic and
Synchrony refers to the state of the language in its
structural integrity and its pre-set stylistic patterns of decoding control
frozen by writing. Diachrony refers to actualizations of the poem's potentials,
by succesive generations of decoders, within the limits of the poem's patterns
and the reader's codes, conflicting or not. (Riffaterre 1959, 160)
analysis has some limitations, as pointed out by Riffaterre (1959, 166-8): the
state of the language the reader knows, difficulty in judging between SDs
(consciously intended features) and automatisms (unconscious mistakes,
mechanical imitations or self-imitation), lack of an ideal norm to base
stylistic judgements (where writer intention converge with reader's
perception). The solution offered is by promoting context and convergence as
criteria for an objective discernment of SDs from mere linguistic devices. The
stylistic context is a linguistic pattern suddenly broken by an unpredictable
element, the resulting contrast creating a stimulus, which has stylistic value.
Converging SDs produce a convergence of their effects into one more powerful
emphasis. Therefore, convergence is "a heaping up of stylistic features
working together." (Riffaterre 1959, 172) Consequently, we need to be
looking for forms with meaning. However, our intention is to organize the
linguistic data during the heuristic stage and consider their stylistic
significance during the interpretative stage. It is precisely in the area of
stylistics that Jakobson's own suggestion fits. The sense of measure (limited
number of syllables of sequences), versification (rhythm, be it syllabic verse,
accentual verse, or quantitative verse), intonation, rhyme (beware the homoioteleuton),
and alliteration (and any sound figures that involves repetition of sounds),
grammatical parallelism, metaphor (and other tropes) (Riffaterre 1978, 71-84).
These might be abstracted somehow by saying that any repetition of equivalent
units is poetically valuable, be them at the sound or grammatical level.
reiterates Aviram's caution towards the imprecision one encounters when
searching for pure species:
How the verse instance is implemented in the given delivery instance
depends on the delivery design of the reciter; he may cling to a
scanning style or tend toward proselike prosody or freely oscillate between
these two poles. We must be on guard against simplistic binarism which reduces
two couples into one single opposition either by suppressing the cardinal
distinction between verse design and verse instance (as well as between
delivery design and delivery instance) or by an erroneous identification of
delivery instance and delivery design with the verse instance and verse design.
(Jakobson 1987, 80)
So far, we
have noticed that we, as humans, share a dyslectic behaviour toward POETRY,
balanced by an inner preference for rhythm, that determines us to avoid
it but still to look for it. It is our intention to contribute to the
discussion of distinguishing between POETRY and PROSE so that the spiritual,
intellectual and emotional elevation experienced through reading a canonical
poetic text will not be overshadowed by a discomfort reclaimed by its supposed
interpretation. It also seems obvious that a sharp distinction between the two
types of texts is not to be expected, once authors might have been easily
implied the mixture of the characteristic devices for particular purposes.
Instead, in searching for meaning, we should consider the dialectics of POETRY,
and extract them through the interpretation of form and function in relation to
the pressure tradition exercised upon the author. The outcome of this odyssey
may be refined as the style a particular author might have developed. It might
also convey information about the author himself, his community, and the frame
of mind that inspired the origin of the texts. For now, one suggests using the
broad categories of POETRY and PROSE only as qualifiers for those literary texts
that manifest an obvious tendency towards opacity or transparency,
Alonso Schökel, Luis. 1988. A Manual of Hebrew Poetics. Subsidia Biblica 11.
Translated by Adrian Graffy. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press. [Previously
published in Spanish, Barcelona, 1963].
Aviram,Amittai F. 1994. Telling Rhythm: Body
and Meaning in Poetry. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan.
Jakobson, Roman. 1987. Language in Literature.
Ed. by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge, Mass. and London:
Longman, Tremper III. 1987. Literary Approaches to
Biblical Interpretation. Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation 3.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
O'Connor, Michael Patrick. 1980. Hebrew Verse
Structure. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns.
Riffaterre, Michael. 1959. Criteria for Style Analysis. Word
_______________. 1978. Semiotics of Poetry.
London: Methuen, 1978. Reprinted in Advances in Semiotics, Bloomington, Ind.:
 Niccacci's courageous attempt to propose pure POETRY on the basis
of his criteria, as opposed to Aviram's suggestion, is presented below.
 By doing so, Aviram hopes "to isolate the qualities that serve
as criteria for what is more poetic or less poetic," so that he might
formulate a definition of POETRY (Aviram 1994, 46).
 Longman defines artistry in terms of rhetoric. He identified three
synthetic characteristics of HP as present in all works of Hebrew literature,
i.e. parallelism, imagery and terseness. On might penalize the school of New
Criticism for mixing rhetorical devices with stylistics and structuralism (O'Connor
 After presenting the insufficiencies of Russian formalism, Aviram
traced his own theory down to Nietzschean tradition (chapter 8) in general, and
to Freud's and Lacan's psychoanalytic revisions of Nietzsche.
 It might become clearer now the reason which motivated so many
exegets to avoid a singular exegetical method when applied to Psalms
interpretation. Some of these methods will be reviewed in another article (e.g.
D. Pardee, E. Wendland).
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