My history with the Bible goes back a long way and has materially influenced the course of my life as well as my intellectual, artistic and religious development.
As a militant teenage atheist from an a-religious background, I would nevertheless regularly read the King James Bible — as ‘literature’ (that is, for enjoyment) but also as a kind of prophetic occult text; in a dark-mirroring of the truth-mining hermeneutics of fundamentalist Christians, I read it alongside my explorations of Aleister Crowley and Nostradamus in order to find revelations about angelology, demonology and ‘the Apocalypse’. It is this relatively recent quasi-scientistic misconstrual of the Bible as a repository of ‘truth’ (religious, historical, scientific, moral and so on) which is the main reason for its contemporary cultural marginalisation outside explicitly Christian contexts.
Although there is a long history of engagement with Biblical texts in English poetry (think Milton, Smart and Hopkins for example), and many contemporary poets occasionally adopt Biblical subject matter and forms (Andrew McMillan has written about Jacob’s wrestling match with ‘the angel’ at Penuel, the rhythms and phrasing of Kim Moore’s ‘In That Day’ have a distinct, if generic, Old Testament feel and Michael Symmons Roberts’ Drysalter is modelled on the Psalms), it nevertheless seems to me that many contemporary poets implicitly share the casual received opinion that because the Bible is manifestly and primarily an outdated, discredited and frequently offensive Handbook of Truth, it can now be properly consigned to the dustbin of history in favour of the of the Newer and Truer Testaments of Sam Harris, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins — sons of Scientific Light in the New Dispensation, lined up in a war of annihilation against the Pope-as-Jimmy Saville and his Da Vinci Code agents of Religious Darkness. (There’s an inverted fundamentalism at work here; the Bible is militantly not read because it is malignantly not true.)
My view has always been different. Aged eighteen, my imagination fired by Biblical narratives, I hitch-hiked to Israel/Palestine. I lived in that inflammatory ambience for a year, exploring Old and New Testament sites and immersing myself in Biblical literature and history. About this time, I began my marathon hokey-cokey with the Catholic Church, beginning the ‘left foot in, left foot out’ flirtation with conversion that went on for twenty five years before I was finally received into the church in 2009.
However the most important decision I took vis-à-vis the Bible took place in 1988 when, as a young mature student, I enrolled at the University of Sheffield to take a three-year B.A. course in Biblical Studies. At that time I was a totally unknown and virtually unpublished poet, married, with a mortgage, and a daughter imminent. I was working as a fork-lift driver in an industrial cold store — so people could understand my enrolment at university as expressing a desire to better my family’s prospects. What would I be studying? Law? Medicine? Business? Architecture? Ok, History then? English? No? What then? Biblical Studies? Why the hell would you want to study the Bible? Don’t tell me you want to be a Vicar?
Well, no. I wanted to be a poet. And I had decided to study the Bible for a reason that seems so perverse and hubristic that almost thirty years later, I’m still a little nervous about sharing it. I wanted the Bible (Biblical literature, history and ‘mythology’) to become for me what classical Greek & Roman literature, history and mythology had hitherto been for ‘English poetry’, particularly Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Graves. I intended to immerse myself in the Bible and come out at the end of the three year course writing ‘great poetry’ steeped in the Bible in the same way that The Cantos and The White Goddess were steeped in Greek mythology. Except, having started my course in October 1988, my poetry dried up almost immediately and I didn’t write another poem until November 2003; in fact, it wasn’t until 2006 that the Bible began to seep into, inform and influence my poetry.
However, by 2011, that 1988 decision was beginning to bear real fruit. My collection, Oswald’s Book of Hours, written in that year, includes forms based on the gospels and Psalms, and is suffused with Biblically-derived themes and content. My follow up collection, Englaland, (written 2009-13) is less overtly Biblically-influenced, but a close reading reveals a range of Biblical reference woven into the poems and sequences throughout. The projects I’m working on now, Incendium Amoris and Bloody, proud and murderous men adulterers and enemies of God, are similarly suffused with Biblical reference, content and forms. This usage and appropriation was and is largely incidental, arising organically from an imagination steeped in the Bible — the 1988 plan bearing the anticipated fruit. However, what I’m aiming for in The Word made Fresh is a conscious resort to Biblical forms and techniques with a view to appropriating and adapting them into contemporary poetic work.
A number of scholars, most notably Robert Alter, Adele Berlin and Shimon bar-Efrat have made the no-brain case for the ‘Bible as literature’. Around a third of the Hebrew Bible (broadly, the Christian Old Testament) is (Hebrew) poetry, with much of the rest being shaped by self-conscious literary art into highly poetic prose. The New Testament is less artful, although it does contain (in the original Greek) some poems and ‘hymns’ and a range of passages characterised by skilful deployment of metaphor, rhythm and compression that combine to produce a poetry-like compression and music. However it is not to the Hebrew and Greek texts I am proposing we resort (you’ll be pleased to know), but the various English renderings, many of which (most notably the King James Version of 1611) equal or surpass the poetic quality of the original texts in much the same way Ann Pennington’s translations of the Yugoslav poet Vasko Popa are said to equal the Serbo-Croat originals. By way of illustration, here’s an anthology of some of my current reading from Old and New Testaments:
Song of Songs VII
12 Ryse we eerli to the vyner; se we, if the vyner hath
flourid, if the flouris bryngen forth fruytis, if pumgranatis
han flourid; there I schal Yyue to thee my tetis. 13
Mandrogoris han youe her odour in oure yatis;
my derlying, Y haue kept to thee alle applis, new and elde.
(Wycliffe Bible, 1395)
An exhortation by the example of the dumbe creatures,
to feare God in his Church.
1When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Iacob from
a people of strange language: 2 Iudah was his sanctuarie:
and Israel his dominion. 3 The sea sawe it, and fled:
Iordan was driuen backe. 4 The mountaines skipped like
rammes: and the little hilles like lambes. 5 What ailed thee,
O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Iordan, that thou wast
driuen backe? 6 Yee mountaines, that yee skipped like
rammes: and yee little hilles like lambes? 7 Tremble thou
earth at the presence of the Lord: at the presence of the God
of Iacob: 8 Which turned the rocke into a standing water:
the flint into a fountaine of waters.
(King James Version, 1611)
28 Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
they toil not, neither do they spin: 29 And yet I say
unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.30 Wherefore,
if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to
day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he
not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
(King James Version, 1611)
I Samuel XV
32 ¶ Then said Samuel, Bring you hither to me Agag
the king of the Amalekites: and Agag came vnto him
delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitternesse
of death is past. 33 And Samuel said, As thy sword
hath made women childlesse, so shall thy mother
bee childlesse among women. And Samuel hewed
Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
(King James Version, 1611)
Who set the wild asse free? His tent is the salty earth.
(Modern rendering of Richard Rolle’s translation of the Vulgate.)
Texts like these, in Lawrence’s words, ‘sound on the plasm direct’ and lift the hairs on the back of your neck, passing the Welsh poet Alun Lewis’s test of ‘true poetry’.
My new online course, The Word made Fresh, will enable participants to consider these texts and a range of others and develop the use of characteristic Biblical techniques and effects, such as parallelism, cadence, repetition, rhetorical questions, compression and economy, patterns of imagery, distinctive approaches to conjunctions and prepositions and much more — as well as considering the distinctive content of the various texts and their ripeness for poetic exploitation.
We will consider why English is such fertile soil for Biblical translation (and why the Bible is such a fertile resource for English poetry) and identify some parallels between the verse structures of the original Biblical languages and Old English prosody that might at least partially account fore this. Participants will write a long poem, or a sequence of poems, under the influence of Biblical texts and techniques.
Acknowledgement: much of the above was originally published as part of English Bibles & English Poetry a lecture I gave at ‘Kultura at Kava’ in Todmorden, on 30th July, 2015 and which was published in pamphlet form by Anthony Costello as part of his Kultura lecture programme.
Identify the Biblical literary techniques and work their influence into your poetry on Steve’s new online course, ‘The Word made Fresh’ – Restoring the Bible to English Poetry. Book online or call us on 0207 582 1679.
Dear Steve Ely, I was very inspired by your history with the bible and it sounds like a similar stubbornness I myself would have to learn a language only to be able to read one book. I hope there is space for a Norwegian/english poet as well on this course, I am sure there are some words for boat that are still the same since Noah…Look forward to it 🙂
Thanks, Nina. Look forward to working with you.
A fascinating read. And course.
[…] (from my pamphlet, Backtracks) FINALLY: should you want to pursue the business of biblical (and other fabulous) languages in your poetry, then follow this link to Steve Ely’s online Poetry School course, and you will store up riches in heaven. http://campus.poetryschool.com/the-word-made-fresh-restoring-the-bible-to-english-poetry/ […]