I subscribe to two poetry sites, Poem-a-Day, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, and Postcard Poems and Prose. Poem-a-Day is a curated compilation of poetry with a wide range of publication dates, while Postcard Poems and Prose publishes new work. Reading the poems that the people behind these sites consider important in the current moment, I’m struck by the number of poems that take as their subject the troubled times we live in.
This has gotten me thinking about the two primary roles poetry can play for people facing difficult times: providing solace and providing a means of expression. A third role that writing can play in times of trouble, a call to action, I’m seeing more in prose.
When I think about looking to poetry for solace, the 23rd Psalm in the Bible is the poem that immediately comes to mind–although I have never once turned to it for solace myself. In fact, I can remember actually reading it only once, when I took a Bible as literature course in college–and I think that’s the key. My experience of the 23rd Psalm has been through the spoken word, not the written word. I think I associate these verses with solace, not because of their meaning but because of their sound. The rhythm of the lines is soothing.
However, the verses I’m familiar with are a translation. The cadence of the original Hebrew would have been very different. Thinking about translation prompted me to, look up the King James Version of the psalm and compare it with the Good News Translation that came out when I was in high school in the 1970s. The difference in effect between the two translations is striking. The soothing cadence I remember from the King James is gone in the Good News version:
Psalm 23: King James Version (KJV)
23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.