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Semitic Poetry / Traditional Hebrew Verse / Biblical Verse


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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

Semitic Poetry, Traditional Hebrew Verse or Biblical Verse is certainly best exemplified in the Old Testament of the Bible some of which dates back to 3000 BC. When researching this genre my first instinct was to pull out a Bible and read it with discernable literary patterns in mind to get a better feel for the craft of the Hebrew writer. I then realized that the content, the tone, some of the techniques used by the original writers may still come through in today's modern versions but in reality, I am reading a translation of a translation of a translation and so on... The original Hebrew writers wrote in a language I cannot interpret, in an alphabet I can't even decipher well enough to see patterns. Therefore I am dependent on articles in English by Hebrew scholars.

The Bible begins with the Hebrew version of the beginning of time and tells of events that happened long before writing was invented. So like most ancient verse it relied on memories passed down through the centuries by an oral tradition. However unlike many other cultures of ancient times, it did not use meter or rhyme as a memory aids but focused solely on the meaning behind the words. It relied heavily on poetic devices such as repetition, reiteration and parallelism to deliver and retain the message. We are unsure who some of the ancient Biblical poets were but their works are the widest known of the ancient world and are repeated in every language in the world today. It has endured countless translations in many languages and yet the meaning behind the words still rings true.

Psalm 1:1
How blessed is the man
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers;

Some credit Moses with the first books of the Bible but there is evidence that the Pentateuch or Torah were not put together as we know them today until 450 BC, long after Moses' died. The Bible is written in bits and pieces by countless poets over centuries and yet it tells a cohesive story. The earliest of the Biblical poets, sometime in the 10th to 9th centuries BC are referred to as J Yahwists because they use the name of Yahweh (also spelled Jehovah) when referring to God. The Yahwists simply told stories, earthy stories of the heart. They are probably the most artistic in their manner of writing. The focus was on God's love relationship with man. The Yahwists were followed by the Priestly poets of the 8th and 7th centuries BC whose style was more formal than the Yahwists'. They focused less on story telling and more on ritual and law, their portrayal of God more distant from man. At the same time the Deuteronomists focused on stories of family, morality, loyalty and their style was more eloquent, with repeated verbal patterns. Also, from 900 BC came the Elohists who stressed the role of the prophet and used the name Elohim when referring to God. The writing carries a strong tone and is more concerned with the covenant with Moses than kings or priests. The writings of all of these poets are scattered throughout the books of the Bible, it is a great adventure to read and see the changes back and forth of style and focus. Believe what one will about the Bible but is if nothing else it a great literary collection written by master story tellers and some believe the words were inspired by God, the greatest story of them all.

Grammatical parallelism, the Psalms and the Abacedarius were elements which I had already explored and parallelism comes to the forefront of almost every article I came across in my quest to understand the origins of Hebrew verse.

As a written form Hebrew or Biblical verse also often uses poetic devices like repetition, and reiteration. Repetition binds verse together and gives it emphasis. It is also a great memory aid. Reiteration is the repetition of an action or a process. Retelling the same event or story reinforces the truth of the meaning of the words as understood by the writer. As example the story of creation is told twice, once in chapter 1 and again expanding the process in chapter 2 adding another perspective and reiterating the truth of the words. The truth as the Hebrew writer saw it was, God made the earth and everything upon it and it was good. The first story tells how he made the earth as the writer imagined but the how process was left out in the second story, The second story reiterates what is believed to be the truth of the story, that God made the earth and was pleased. It then goes on to tell about the creation of man, a love story. This occurs over and over reiterating a single action within a story or repeating the event as told by another.

The long lines can be found described in a loose frame of stressed and unstressed syllables and sources equate much of Hebrew verse with twos and threes. Without uniform metric pattern the words carry the ups and downs of everyday language. When I transferred the counts to some of the English translations I found, the patterns don't fit. So I am afraid this is a language specific pattern. Still I include it here because it shows that the ancient writers were not only concerned with content, but also with their craft. I believe we can benefit from all study of patterns in structure to see our own writing in a more cohesive way.

Traditional Hebrew verse frame seems to build on itself.  The elements are:

  1. use of repetition, reiteration and parallelism to reinforce its message.
  2. never rhymed.
  3. strophic,
    • The lines are usually grouped into 2 or 3 line strophes.
    • The strophes are then grouped into 2 or 3 strophe "divisions".
    • 2 or 3 divisions are grouped into a section and 2 or 3 sections make up a poem.
    • Coherence between 2 sections, either the first 2 sections or the last 2 sections is greater than their coherence with the odd section.
  4. usually begins with versets or phrases within the line.
    • Often a verset is credited with 2 or 3 stresses and carries a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 10 syllables.
    • There are then 2 or 3 versets in each line.
    • A 2 verset line has 8 minimum and 24 maximum syllables per line.
      Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 1-8 11
      King James Version

      To every thing there is a season,
                          and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
      A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant,
                          and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
      A time to kill, and a time to heal;
                           a time to break down, and a time to build up
      A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
                           a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
      A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
                           a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
      A time to get, and a time to lose;
                          a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
      A time to rend, and a time to sew;
                          a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
      A time to love, and a time to hate;
                          a time of war, and a time of peace.

      He has made every thing beautiful in His time.

A few of the poetic genres, forms and devices in this category are:

Catalogue Verse
Sumarian Couplets
Yiddish Folk Verse

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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