Archive for September 13th, 2007
Are advertising a Risk Free Pants Offer. I’d say those are the only kind of pants I want to wear.
These are the same people that once offered me a Free Tank with Every Lip Gloss Purchased.
It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that James Kugel once accused Robert Alter of plagiarism. Kugel’s book, The Idea of Biblical Poetry was published 4 years before Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry and he felt that his ideas and some of his examples were being appropriated by Alter without due recognition. Alter pointed out that he had been teaching these things and using these examples for years before Kugel’s work came out. It’s true that Alter probably needed to make some reference to Kugel and explain the distinct features of his work more carefully.
Kugel’s work is subtitled ‘Parallelism and its History.’ For Kugel, parallelism is the fundamental idea of biblical poetry. His whole work is focussed on this subject and his not-so-revolutionary ideas about that.
Alter’s work is rightly titled The Art of Biblical Poetry. For Alter, parallelism is just one poetic device in the armoury of the Hebrew poet to be considered alongside things like alliteration and assonance, metaphor and simile, ellipsis, hyperbole and so on and so forth. Alter’s discussion of parallelism takes up just 24 pages of his book.
Alter’s background is in English literature. Reading his work, it’s clear that he has a sensitivity towards poetry and language that seems wholly lacking in Kugel. Where Kugel wants to reduce parallelism to a simplistic statement of ‘A is so, and what’s more, B is so,’ Alter explores the dynamic function of the parallelism in a variety of ways. And where Kugel dismisses poetry as ‘merely heightened prose’, Alter embraces the poetic form and allows it to function in its own way.
There is a mechanistic, minimalistic approach to Kugel that is typical of much biblical scholarship. Rules need to be found, criteria should be established, scientifically measurable features should be discerned. Poems should be conformed to an externally imposed structure that determines the length of colon, line, or stanza. Parallelism should be observed and categorised. Figurative language should be ‘translated’ into literal. And then, finally, we can discern the meaning of the poem and abandon the frippery of the poetic form.
What I like about Alter, and others with a more literary approach, is the high value that is given to the poetic form. Poetry is not worth less than prose. Indeed poetry can communicate much, much more than prose in its terse lines and its richly evocative imagery. Poetry can speak many meanings at once at many levels. Poets are recognised as truly creative writers, playing with forms and structures and patterns in different ways. Each word with its particular sound and form is given due significance. Meaning is multiplied and rich, not minimalised and narrow.
It seems clear to me that poetry that has been reduced to prose is poetry that has been destroyed, and poetry that has been conformed to rigid structure is poetry that has been strangled.
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It’s no secret that I find James Kugel’s work on Hebrew poetry to be less than helpful, much preferring that of Robert Alter and other, more literary-minded, critics.
Here’s a helpful summary of the reasons why, from David M. Howard’s article on Recent Trends in Psalms Scholarship.
While Kugel’s work may not be “literary” in the pure sense, three works that can be unquestionably be grouped together as truly literary studies are those of Alter, Alonso Schökel, and Fisch. None of these authors attempts a theoretical explanation for Hebrew poetry, but all display masterful eyes to the details and nuances of poetry as literature, as works of art. In The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985), Robert Alter begins with a discussion
of “The Dynamics of Parallelism” that echoes Kugel’s, in that he sees the second “verset” of a couplet going beyond the first in any of a number of ways, only one of which might be synonymity (and that only very rarely). Others include complementarity, focusing, heightening, intensification, specification, consequentiality, contrast, or disjunction. Along with Kugel’s observations, this work effectively demolishes the idea of complete
synonymity between lines. Alter’s treatments of larger units (“From Line to Story”) and other forms (e.g., “The Garden of Metaphor”) are instructive in the appreciation of the art of poetry, and they are delights to read.
This from The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. I haven’t read it but I came across this and thought it very true.
Well, I’ve only read one book about a bird before, Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, later retitled Kes to tie in with Ken Loach’s film adaptation of that name. You, dear reader, are much more likely to have read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull than Kes, I suspect, and our respective tastes in bird books reveal something fundamental about our cultures. An Amazon reviewer describes Jonathan Livingstone Seagull as ‘a charming allegory with a very pertinent message: ‘DON’T ABANDON YOUR DREAMS.’ I would not be traducing the message of Kes if I were to summarize it thus: ‘ABANDON YOUR DREAMS’. in fact, ‘ABANDON YOUR DREAMS’ is a pretty handy summary of the whole of contemporary English culture – of the country itself, even. It would be great to be you, sometimes. I mean, obviously our motto is more truthful than yours, and ultimately more useful, but there used to be great piles of Kes in every high-school stock room. You’d think they’d let us reach the age of sixteen or so before telling us that life is shit.