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Reading Biblical Poetry

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A companion to Reading Biblical Narrative, this volume provides an authoritative introduction and overview to biblical poetry. Fokkelman describes in step-by-step fashion how the poets produced their poetry. Full of examples, Reading Biblical Poetry makes available a holistic and integrative approach to understanding poetry found nowhere else.


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A companion to Reading Biblical Narrative, this volume provides an authoritative introduction and overview to biblical poetry. Fokkelman describes in step-by-step fashion how the poets produced their poetry. Full of examples, Reading Biblical Poetry makes available a holistic and integrative approach to understanding poetry found nowhere else.

30 review for Reading Biblical Poetry

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mario Tafferner

    With his monograph "Reading Biblical Poetry", J.P. Fokkelman attempts to make Old Testament poetry available to modern readers of biblical literature. Because of his dissatisfaction with traditional approaches to Hebrew poetry which are broadly characterized by a focus on meter and parallelism, Fokkelman introduces his own "Text Model" which highlights the balancing aspects of OT poetry to his audience. Method: Throughout the book, Fokkelman emphasizes that his own method consists of a continuous With his monograph "Reading Biblical Poetry", J.P. Fokkelman attempts to make Old Testament poetry available to modern readers of biblical literature. Because of his dissatisfaction with traditional approaches to Hebrew poetry which are broadly characterized by a focus on meter and parallelism, Fokkelman introduces his own "Text Model" which highlights the balancing aspects of OT poetry to his audience. Method: Throughout the book, Fokkelman emphasizes that his own method consists of a continuous rereading of the textual unit of interest. Scholars need to focus on every important grammatical and literary aspect on all levels of the poem in order to identify markers, repetitions, and boundaries. Because of the balancing nature of his text model, Fokkelman constantly counts linguistic markers like syllables, cola, short verses, long verses, strophes, and stanzas in order to demonstrate the organization of Hebrew poetry and his own recognition thereof. Assumptions: Certain assumptions underly his work. Fokkelman's understanding of the Hebrew poem as being most fundamentally concerned with matters of a controlled combination of language and number (the relation of quality to quantity) through a hierarchical structure forces him to presuppose a relatively numerical balance identifiable in most OT poems (p. 34). Moreover, during his analysis of the poems, he applies a hierarchy of levels which is not immediately evident from the text itself such as cola, verses, strophes, and stanzas. Fokkelman himself, however, successfully anticipates this possible objection and points to different texts in order to show that his structure is not pressed upon the text but already present in the ancient compositions. Psalm 119's organization along alphabetic acrostics, for example, demonstrates the poet's awareness of stanzas while cola and verses are observable in the masoretic rendering of the text (p. 118). Content Summary: The first chapter of Fokkelman's work serves as an introduction to poems in the Hebrew bible and certain poetic devices with the help of a brief analysis of Isaiah 1 and 2 Samuel 1. In his second chapter, Fokkelman describes his dissatisfaction with traditional definitions of Hebrew poetry which mainly rest on two pillars: meter and parallelism. According to him, the threefold typology of "synonymus", "antithetical", and "complementary" parallelisms does not provide a comprehensive explanation of the data. Especially the last category is rather unspecific while the terms "synonymus" and "antithetical" are misleading because all parallelisms function through similarities and differences. The problem with meter, according to Fokkelman, is the scholarly misunderstanding of this literary concept. Not the quantity of syllables, but their stress determines rythm and meter in Hebrew poetry. A new understanding and definition of poetry which demonstrates that a poet's job is to convey meaning and sense through relating the quantity and quality of language is needed. Fokkelman notes: "A poem is the result of (on the one hand) an artistic handling of language, style and structure, and (on the other hand) applying prescribed proportions to all levels of the text, so that a controlled combination of language and number is created." (p. 35). The third chapter provides the methodological core of Fokkelman's book and introduces the "Text Model" approach to poetry. Based on his research, he demonstrates that in a Hebrew poem, a colon consists of two to four beats/stresses, a verse of two or three cola, a strophe of two to three verses, and a stanza of two to three strophes. However, these numbers cannot be treated as absolute mathematical constants. Moreover, Fokkelman introduces the typology of short (consisting of two verses) and long strophes (consisting of three verses) in order to be able to note down the structure of a poem as "LSL" or "SSSL". This numerical balance of the poem can be demonstrated on all literary levels. Fokkelman dedicates his fourth chapter to the issue of cola and verses and claims that the poet's main strategy to shape the verse is semantic. Moreover, a special act of repetition on this level can be described as the "Parallelismus Membrorum" which might even cross verse boundaries. Against the older consensus, Fokkelman maintains that parallelism (which might be structured concentrically or parallely) creates word pairs (it is not the other way around). Such structures show balance, reciprocal meaning, or opposition. Fokkelman also asks the question why anything should be mentioned twice anyways and concludes that parallelism is similar to seeing in "stereo". While either the A or B colon in the parallel represents the center of semantic gravity, their difference enhances the communicated meaning of the verse. In the fifth chapter, Fokkelman climbs up the ladder of structural hierarchy and discusses strophes. In order to find a method to identify them, he investigates their internal and external cohesion. Internally, a strophe may "constitute a syntactic unit, formulate or explain a thought, present its cola as a clear series, be an embedded speech, present or work out a metaphor or simile, demarcate itself by means of inclusio" (p. 89). Externally, a strophe always functions in relation to other strophes with visible transitions. A change or discontinuity on any literary or linguistic level might indicate such a boundary. The stanza (one level above the strophe) is treated in the sixth chapter. While stanza boundaries might not always be clear, the existence of stanzas can be demonstrated with the help of Psalm 119's structure. Usually, stanzas are about two to three strophes long while a stanza and a strophe might also overlap when positioned in the center of a concentric structure. The beginning of a stanza is often indicated by repetition or a parallel structure. The seventh chapter discusses the literary unity of a poem. Fokkelman mentions three markers demonstrating the closure of a text: a) beginning and end are parallel; b) a frame with a slide variation of the introduction; c) the use of refrains. Generally, the conclusion functions as a form of closure, climax, or supplication to the poem. Given these ultimate boundaries of a poem, the poet can structure the content along familiar lines. Chapter eight functions as an application of the method discussed in the previous chapters to Psalm 103. Fokkelman concludes that repetition and the appearance of certain keywords are essential factors in the structure of each poem. In chapter nine and ten, Fokkelman demonstrates that his text model might also be applied to wisdom literature and love poetry. According to him, an atomistic approach to the book of Proverbs (past chapter 9) is the result of the traditional definition of poetry. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide an exemplary analysis of the poetry of Proverbs. However, he mentions some helpful guidelines for reading Song of Songs: it is a composition of seven blocks, the change of voice is important to understand the structure of the poem, most of the metaphors use landscape imagery, there is an ongoing refrain throughout the book (Songs 2:7). The final chapter discusses reader attitudes which are necessary to understand Hebrew poetry. Generally, Fokkelman calls for an open-minded approach, patience while studying a passage again and again, and a focus on the text instead of its literary history. Conclusions: Fokkelman's own conclusions (p. 49) can be summarized as follows: First, the numbers two and three are important on all levels of the poem. Second, the building blocks colon, verse, and strophe are fundamental to the structure and semantics of a poem. Third, the numbers seven, eight, and nine are important. Fourth, the poets were concerned with the numerical aspects of their poems. However, Fokkelman's definition of poetry as a balanced handling of linguistic devices represents his most important conclusion.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Therese Broderick

    This book was very enlightening and amply rewarding for me to read, but ONLY after I accepted the fact that it is definitely NOT (as its subtitle claims) "an introductory guide." For sure, scattered within these pages are a few sentences that do, indeed, reassure a beginner who's easily frightened by the dense scholarly analysis of Hebrew verse offered in most of these chapters. For example, any beginner would be encouraged by this statement: "listening closely is really all that is required" to This book was very enlightening and amply rewarding for me to read, but ONLY after I accepted the fact that it is definitely NOT (as its subtitle claims) "an introductory guide." For sure, scattered within these pages are a few sentences that do, indeed, reassure a beginner who's easily frightened by the dense scholarly analysis of Hebrew verse offered in most of these chapters. For example, any beginner would be encouraged by this statement: "listening closely is really all that is required" to understand the poems of the Bible (page 200); and any beginner would be grateful to know that "Love and concentrated attention are far superior to theories." (page 35) To such beginners, I recommend entering this book by reading Chapter 11, "The Reader's Attitude", before any other chapter; and I recommend reading the poetry analysis in Chapter 10, "Love Poetry: The Song of Songs," before reading the author's earlier, extremely detailed -- yet very valuable -- examinations of the poetic structure of psalms, proverbs, Job, etc..

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Hatt

    It starts to get frustrating by the end of the book after all the assumptions after assumptions. I agree with the basic thrust Fokkelman is getting at, but when you are constantly saying how everyone else got it wrong, I think it’s time to pause and reflect.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I found this book extremely enlightening. Prior to reading, I did not understand the structure of the psalms nor had I ever heard of the cola or strophe. Fokkelman notes:"the text is a hierarchy of layers, each layer having its own characteristics and rules and making its own particular contribution to the overall effect of the work of art on the reader." I am now able to see the structure the ancient writers were working within and the impact it has on the meaning of the text. I found this book extremely enlightening. Prior to reading, I did not understand the structure of the psalms nor had I ever heard of the cola or strophe. Fokkelman notes:"the text is a hierarchy of layers, each layer having its own characteristics and rules and making its own particular contribution to the overall effect of the work of art on the reader." I am now able to see the structure the ancient writers were working within and the impact it has on the meaning of the text.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Decker

    Not written well nor explained Biblical Hebrew poetry well. More like a commentary of selected passages from the OT. His insights were helpful if you know what he is saying. But I can't see this used in many circles. Not written well nor explained Biblical Hebrew poetry well. More like a commentary of selected passages from the OT. His insights were helpful if you know what he is saying. But I can't see this used in many circles.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Grace

    Sometimes smug, but he's clearly put in the technical attention to make that almost okay. Not the most page-turning reading, but impressive. Sometimes smug, but he's clearly put in the technical attention to make that almost okay. Not the most page-turning reading, but impressive.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    I have read numerous books on Hebrew poetry, Alter's book and this draw the reader into the world of poetry in unparalleled ways. Highly recommended. I have read numerous books on Hebrew poetry, Alter's book and this draw the reader into the world of poetry in unparalleled ways. Highly recommended.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

  9. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  10. 5 out of 5

    Barbara Boruff

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katy Went

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Stark

  13. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Cellilli IV

  14. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Davenport

  15. 4 out of 5

    C W

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matt Miller

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stacey Douglas

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nathaniel Hodson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dougald

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jack Hayne

  24. 5 out of 5

    William Horne

  25. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

  26. 4 out of 5

    Josiah Aston

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kirk Miller

  28. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Rodrigues-Martin

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gerrit

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Childs

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