Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide
A review of J.P. Fokkelman's, "Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Fokkelman, J. P. Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide. Trans. I. Smit. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. 2001. viii + 243 pp. Paperback, $24.95. ISBN 0-664-22439-3.
This book compresses Fokkelman's many publications of analyses of biblical poems into a handy volume suitable for introducing the student who is serious about reading the poetry of the Bible. At the same time the book provides an argument for reason (if not rhyme) to the analysis of Hebrew poems into stanzas, strophes, and cola. It is this study, rather than any examination of themes, vocabulary issues, or the more general organization of the Psalter, that animates Fokkelman's study and provides one of the few introductory books available for learning the techniques of reading poetry. Although the definition of poetry as both art and communication is important, it is reserved for the second chapter. The first provides an exercise for reading two poems, Isaiah 1:16-17 and David's lament of 2 Samuel 1. In this way the author signals that this is not a theoretical discussion alone, but one that will go forward only by means of reading as many many poems as possible and demonstrating the wide range of ways in which Hebrew identifies, explains, links, and distinguishes its poetic forms and ideas.
Fokkelman accepts the view that we can identify the beats or stresses of each line of a poem and, in this manner, identify cola and use them to construct strophes and the larger stanzas. To each of these divisions he devotes a chapter. He observes that there are two to four stresses per colon, two to three cola per verse, two to three verses per strophe, and two to three strophes per stanza (p. 37). In addition, he notes that in eighty-five psalms that he has examined, the average number of syllable per colon for each poem comes out to be either 7, 8, or 9, but always an integer. This suggests that the poets were aware of the number of syllables in each colon (p. 47). Thus Fokkelman provides a convincing case on which to build his argument for the consistent identification of cola. This provides the basis for the identification of the many ways in which lines may relate to one another, summarized under the general heading of parallelism. Parallelism may occur on the level of morphology, syntax, vocabulary, sound, and semantics. This study provides the means for further analysis of the numerous interconnections between elements common to a strophe and then for the analysis of the greater argument of the poem by looking at the relationship of strophes within a stanza, as well as the broader interconnections between stanzas in a poem.
Later chapters apply these techniques to a sample of wisdom literature as well as the love literature of the Song of Songs. An appendix provides strophe divisions for the poems of the Hebrew Bible. A glossary of terms, bibliographic notes, end notes, and an index of biblical passages conclude the volume.
The book fills a gap between surveys of the Psalms and other introductions to the poetry of the Bible, on the one hand, and commentaries on the relevant books, on the other hand. It provides a modern literary introduction to the means by which one may carry out a close reading of the Psalms. Because it is written for an English reading audience, it should provide important guidance for many pastors and teachers of the Bible who wish to enrich their ability to study and derive the maximum understanding and interpretation of these ancient poems. One does not need to agree with Fokkelman's optimism for metrical analysis as the sole means to understand a text in order to appreciate that he has provided a work with important and (often) previously unavailable insights into a neglected topic.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament