The Magazine

Selah

A piercing new collection of the Psalms.

Jun 16, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 39 • By ALAN JACOBS
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Words to God's Music

A New Book of Psalms

by Laurance Wieder

Eerdmans, 186 pp., $25

WHAT MAKES for a good translation of the Psalms? It depends on what you mean by "good."

There are at least three criteria one can employ: accuracy of translation, devotional usefulness, and poetic merit. And typically the translator can achieve one of these qualities only at the expense of the others. Laurance Wieder's "Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms," clearly strives for poetic merit, and largely achieves it--though I must admit that his prefatory "Brief Explanation" very nearly scared me away from the whole project.

In that introductory note, Wieder says that, as far as he knows, he is "only the third poet to produce a complete English version," the others being the sixteenth-century team of Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, the Countess of Pembroke (whom Wieder counts as a single poet), and, two centuries later, Christopher Smart. Since I could immediately think of half-a-dozen such versions--including Gordon Jackson's quite recent "Lincoln Psalter"--I was puzzled by this claim. It turns out to be based on Wieder's belief that "poets' versions differ from psalms found in translations of the Bible, and from the metrical psalms found in hymnals."

The first distinction I won't dispute, because Wieder doesn't explore it in any detail; but the second, deriving from Wieder's conviction that psalms "written to fit received melodies for singing" and psalms that "have a sectarian cast" aren't really poetry, and their authors not really poets, simply can't be sustained. (The late great English poet and scholar Donald Davie, who devoted much of his career to renovating the poetic reputations of such hymn-writers as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Cowper, is probably sputtering in heavenly rage at this moment.) The effective severance of poetry and music happened long ago--their marriage recalled only in the term "lyric"--but to say, as Wieder seems to, that if you can sing it it's not poetry, is absurd, as is denying to Isaac Watts the title of "poet."

It is a testimony to Wieder's skills that his poems were able to get me out of the funk induced by his "Brief Explanation." Their signal trait is terseness, concision, as is indicated by his titles, which are usually a single word: "Shake," "Crooked," "Trespass." In contrast to Gordon Jackson's long-lined, expansive meditations, almost all of Wieder's psalms are shorter, often considerably shorter, than other English versions, like a sauce reduced and intensified. Thus "Please" (Psalm 125):

As mountains ring Jerusalem

So God surrounds the people,

Chosen by heart, not by lot.

They are cedars on mountains.

Wind twists the evil ones, fearful.

High hills protect Israel.

Sometimes Wieder squeezes his syntax too tightly, as in "Festival" (Psalm 100), when he speaks for Israelites who did not praise God loudly until God made us / Enter squally bawling thank-yous / In our lifetime, children's children. And sometimes the colloquial note is discordant, as in "Memo" (Psalm 64): Great detective! / Who escapes deduction? / Not the mouthpiece chopping / Logic, who'll have to hear his heart / Attacked. That cheers me up. Both the concision and enjambment recall the great and recently deceased Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. But in general Wieder has found an idiom that communicates the gnarled energy intrinsic to the originals.

Concision can't do everything, of course. When he comes to some of the more elaborate and rhetorically extravagant of the Psalms--Psalm 19, for instance: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork"--Wieder doesn't attempt even to paraphrase:

Big, shy, a schoolboy

Canters laps around the ballfield,

A dapple colt escaped both dam and stable

Grazing the green theater of his being.

To see it clearly's sweet as sunlight

On an autumn shoulder, shining on the face

Of harder laws than stadiums in stone.

I learned a lot just sitting in the bleachers:

To understand, and not mistake, my own

Words for the breath that makes me pause.

God, give me enough light and will

To say just what I see,

See what I do,

Do what I say,

Say what you will.