Dear Helen,

My favorite opening to a poem are the first three words of the first Psalm: (אַשְֽׁרֵי־הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר). No translation can capture the wonder of these words because their beauty is all in the sound. Ashrei ha-ish asher, blessed is the man who…

Psalms are the longest living poetic tradition. They’ve been recited and sung in prayer and celebration and mourning since time immemorial. When all other public poetic traditions disappeared, they remain.

There is another Psalm I love, 133. I think it is the first “modernist poem” (forgive the anachronism):

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת לְדָוִד הִנֵּה מַה טּוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם יָחַד
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב עַל הָרֹאשׁ יֹרֵד עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
כְּטַל חֶרְמוֹן שֶׁיֹּרֵד עַל הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהֹוָה אֶת הַבְּרָכָה חַיִּים עַד הָעוֹלָם

The old Greek translation:

ᾠδὴ τῶν ἀναβαθμῶν τῷ Δαυιδ
ἰδοὺ δὴ τί καλὸν ἢ τί τερπνὸν ἀλλ᾽ ἢ τὸ κατοικεῖν ἀδελφοὺς ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό
ὡς μύρον ἐπὶ κεφαλῆς τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ πώγωνα τὸν πώγωνα τὸν Ααρων τὸ καταβαῖνον ἐπὶ τὴν ᾤαν τοῦ ἐνδύματος αὐτοῦ
ὡς δρόσος Αερμων ἡ καταβαίνουσα ἐπὶ τὰ ὄρη Σιων
ὅτι ἐκεῖ ἐνετείλατο κύριος τὴν εὐλογίαν καὶ ζωὴν ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος

A modern translation:

A song of assents. Of David.
How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together.
It is like fine oil on the head running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down over the collar of his robe, like the dew of Hermon that falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the Lord ordained blessing, everlasting life.

At first glance, it seems like a typical Psalm, but the details of it are strange. Unlike classical Latin and Greek poetry, which were distinguished from prose by meter, the poetry of the Bible lacks a clear mark of separation from prose; it has patterns and literary devices, but debates continue over whether such and such Biblical passage is poetry or not. The most important pattern and literary device that distinguishes Biblical poetry is parallelism, a device that allowed the ancient Hebrew poets to construct coherent, beautiful poetry without meter or rhyme.

Psalm 133 does not contain parallelism, but it is undoubtedly a poem. Much as the modernist poets abandoned rhyme and meter in the English tradition while continuing to produce writing that was unmistakably poetry, the Psalmist here abandons the traditional parallelism of Biblical Hebrew poetry in favor of alternative literary techniques (simile, imagery, and anadiplosis) that are nonetheless poetic.

The images and similes in the Psalm are bizarre. How is dwelling together like fine oil? Is it the dwelling or the oil that is like dew? How does the drew of Hermon fall on the mountains of Zion? Hermon and Zion are a long way apart from one another. And what are ‘the mountains of Zion’ anyway? The phrase (הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן) appears nowhere else in the Bible. My favorite moment in the poem is the anadiplosis of beard/beard of Aaron (עַל הַזָּקָן זְקַן אַהֲרֹן), which none of the translators retain. (In Arabic, Aaron becomes Harun.)

It’s a poem of katabasis, as its sister poem (Psalm 134) is a poem of anabasis. A beautiful mystery in the heart of the Psalter.

I’m very interested in the ‘turn’ of a poem. This Psalm has two turns: from the brothers dwelling to the oil and from the oil to the dew. Strange turns. Hayim Bialik has a poem that turns from a walk in the suburbs to the Akedah. I dream of writing a poem with such a turn. To write one memorable poem. One worthy poem.

When the wind fails, the sailor turns to oars.

vale bene,