Poets of our time

When I was young, I was told that the Psalms were the hymn book of the Bible. In the church were I was raised, we didn’t have a tradition of singing the psalms. They were read, usually responsively, from the section of our hymnal that had no tunes. I guess there was a certain musicality to the combination of voices in our congregation. I can still almost hear the booming bass of the judge who was always at least a half syllable slower than the majority of the congregation. I didn’t really think of the psalms as songs, however. Later, when I was a bit older, I undertook reading all of the psalms to myself. I was a bit surprised at the amount of anger and anguish reflected in them. I guess I was expecting all of the psalms to be upbeat and filled with praise. There are a lot of psalms of lamentation.

As an adult, I discovered the psalter and the techniques of canting psalms with simple repetitive tunes and occasional responses from the congregation. There is a particular beauty in this way of singing the psalms, but I’m fairly certain that it has little connection to the way that the ancients recited the psalms before their original tunes were lost to time and multiple translations of language.

I guess we’ll never really know the tunes that were used wth the psalms in their original expressions. Perhaps not all were sung in the sense of a melody, but repeated with a consistent rhythm. There is a kind of sing-song way of reading Hebrew that is common that is not dependent upon pitch, but rather rhythm.

As a seminary student, I discovered that there is much more poetry in the scriptures than just the psalms. I studied Isaiah with Father Carroll Stuhlmueller at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He was an expert on the history of Israel and the background from which the words of the prophet arose. He was, however, careful, to keep the text in front of us. We read it together in class. We looked at it in detail. He taught me one of the great lessons of my preaching career: “When the people leave the room which would you prefer for them to remember, your sermon or the Biblical text?”

Somewhere along the line in my education, I decided that I wasn’t much of a fan of poetry. Through my college and graduate school years I read a few poets, mostly because teachers made the assignments or fellow students recommended them. My source of poetry in those years were the lyrics of songs - some better and more lasting than others.

Now that I have a few years behind me, I’ve discovered that reading poetry is a very important part of my life. There is something about the compactness and density of poetic expression that stirs deep emotions and calls forth reflection from me. I often read poetry out loud down in the basement of our home where no one is listening.

I have begun to wonder who the poets of our time are. Of course there are all kinds of places to look for the transformative poetry of our day. The Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress and serves a one-year term that is renewable. The position was first recognized as the nation rose from the Great Depression towards the end of the 1930’s. Some, like Billy Collins, who served from 2001 to 2003 have become quite famous. Others are more obscure.

Canada has a Parliamentary Poet Laureate who serves a two-year term and is named in a joint appointment of the Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Commons. Other nations also have official positions for poets. The term poet laureate, however, is often given informally as a description of someone whose poetry reflects the character or the mood of a particular country or region.

Perhaps most recognized of the poets are the songwriters. This year Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. I’ve already blogged about the recognition. There is something symbolic in his decision not to travel to Sweden to receive the award in person, but I’m not sure that I understand much except that he is a person who does not want to be defined by public recognition and honors.

In the public eye for the past couple of weeks has been Leonard Cohen, who dies on November 7 at the age of 82. Since K.D. Lang sang Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the simple lyrics of that song have been a part of the culture of both Canada and the United States. Cohen’s death has prompted a lot of play of that song by a wide variety of artists. The words recall the story of the biblical King David, but they also speak of the power of human effort in the face of difficult odds, of trying and failing, of resilience and the ability to get back up after you get knocked down.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

Mostly, however, it is the repetition of the single word, hallelujah that marks the song. It is an emotional expression, but time will tell whether or not it is the poetry that will mark our generation in the way that the poetry of Isaiah marked the time of the exile. Then, again, perhaps I am expecting too much of the poetry of our time. After all the great biblical poets didn’t arise in ever generations. True poets, it seems, are few and far between.

Still, I continue to search and to ask, “who are the poets of our time?” “Who will find the right words to express this moment in history?”

Perhaps they are the ones who can say the ancient words in a new context and keep them ringing in our ears.


Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!