The sort of poetry which doesn’t rhyme.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 August

When children are first exposed to books, they’re exposed to poetry. (What, you didn’t realize Green Eggs and Ham rhymed?) Starting with children’s books, all the way up to Shakespeare.

And what’s the one thing English-speakers are all agreed upon about poetry? I’m not gonna wait for your answer: It rhymes.

Except it doesn’t always.

We were introduced to Walt Whitman in high school. To his stuff other than “O Captain! My Captain!”, which does rhyme; usually “Song of Myself” or “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” And a bunch of us objected, as do high schoolers across America: “This isn’t poetry. It doesn’t rhyme!” ’Cause we knew from Green Eggs and Ham on up: Poetry rhymes. That’s what makes it poetry.

Well, no. Poetry’s about using wordplay to evoke emotion. It’s why it works so well with small children. But it doesn’t have to rhyme, or have a metrical rhythm, or any of the things we frequently find in traditional English-language poetry. True, lots of languages do rhythm and rhyme. Even Hebrew poetry can rhyme, as y’might notice in Israeli hip hop. (What, you haven’t listened to Israeli hip hop? Lemme fix that.)

But the ancient Hebrew stuff focuses on rhyming in a different way. English rhymes sounds. Done and won, red and head, still and will, butterfly and flutter by. Sometimes you’ll find rhymes in Hebrew writings too; they’ll use them to make puns. But for rhyming, ancient Hebrew focuses on rhyming ideas: Same concept, said again in different words.


Psalm 19.1 NRSV
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

Note what lines up with what.

“are telling”“proclaims”
“the glory of God”“his handiwork”

Same ideas. Different lines. (Or sentences, or clauses. Hebrew sentences typically start with וְ/ve- or וָ/va- or וּ/u-, all of which mean “and.” So translators have the option of making a new sentence, new clause, or a new line. In theory an entire Old Testament book is just one big run-on sentence. But anyway.) And yes, you don’t usually think of “God’s glory” and “God’s handiwork” as the same thing… but now you do, ’cause you’re meant to.

This, and passages which practice this very same sort of parallelism, is how we know we’re dealing with Hebrew poetry. And it’s all over the bible, Old Testament and New. It doesn’t matter that the NT was written in Greek, because its writers all knew their Old Testament, and how to write Hebrew-style poetry, so they did. The psalms are nothing but poetry. The prophets are almost entirely poetry. Even the historical books and Law are loaded with poetry. Jesus uses poetry all the time to make his teachings memorable. Seriously, it’s everywhere.

It’s so common, whenever someone starts repeating ideas we immediately recognize this as “bible language.” (Assuming people are familiar with bible. Not so many of us are anymore.) People pray in Hebrew poetry, teach in it, give speeches in it, write songs in it. It’s all over English-speaking culture too. ’Cause our literature has been so heavily influenced by the King James Version and those who read it.

Because English poetry is primarily about rhyme and rhythm, it’s often tricky to translate our poems into other languages. You can’t always keep the poetic structure. But when Hebrew poetry is rendered into every other language… the parallelism is still there.

Almost as if God planned it that way, huh?

Why Hebrew poetry matters.

Hebrew poetry helps us interpret the bible. The scriptures’ authors used it to reiterate their points, and hammer ’em home with repetition. (Hey, check that out; I just did a little Hebrew poetry there myself.)

Which is really useful when we’re not sure what the authors meant. If any verse is difficult to interpret—we aren’t sure what the words mean, or we are sure but aren’t sure what the author meant by them—frequently the authors were writing in a poetic style, so we can simply look for the parallel ideas. ’Cause most of the time, there they are. The context of the parallels can help us interpret the proper meaning.

In fact you’ll notice a lot of the bible’s misinterpretations are usually the result of someone not bothering to check the context. Sometimes they don’t realize parallelism is going on, and try to interpret the parallel idea as if it’s an entirely separate, different idea. One famous example is this’un:

Genesis 1.26 NRSV
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

Notice the parallels, and you’ll realize the author of Genesis is totally writing in poetry. Here, I’ll put it in lines, since the translators of the NRSV didn’t bother:

Genesis 1.26 NRSV
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image,
according to our likeness;
and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,
and over the birds of the air,
and over the cattle,
and over all the wild animals of the earth,
and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

“Fish of the sea” gets contrasted with “birds of the air.” Domestic animals get contrasted with wild animals, and with every creeping thing on the earth.

And of course “in our image” is a basic parallel of “according to our likeness.” But it seems St. Irenaeus of Lyons wasn’t up to speed on his Hebrew poetry. (He knew his Greek poetry; not so much the Hebrew stuff.) He took the two words he saw in his Septuagint as two individual ideas, and stretched ’em so he could talk about what he wanted to talk about: Free will. Irenaeus claimed having his image means we likewise have free will; having his likeness means we likewise can do good. Well, till Adam and Eve sinned. Humanity actually lost God’s likeness, Irenaeus claimed. But we still have “his image,” the free will… which we now use to pick which sin sounds more fun.

Meh. If I wanted to claim humans are depraved, it’s not hard to do. It says so in the New Testament. It’s so easy to put together a basic theology on it. I don’t have to twist Old Testament passages till they do as I want. But before I rant further about bad interpretation, I’ll just remind you: Hebrew poetry. These are parallel ideas, not separate ones. If you know this, you’re not gonna repeat Irenaeus’s mistake. Okay?

Types of parallels.

Yep, grammar nerds came up with a few categories for all the different kinds of parallels we find in Hebrew poetry. Don’t worry; I’m not giving a test later. Just realize there are lots of ways ancient Hebrew authors played with words.

SYNONYMOUS. The usual, most common type of poetry in the bible is basic synonymous parallelism. Ideas get repeated. Like yea.

Amos 2.14-15 NRSV
14 Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong shall not retain their strength,
nor shall the mighty save their lives;
15 those who handle the bow shall not stand,
and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves,
nor shall those who ride horses save their lives;

Yeah, that army was screwed. Every line just describes more defeat for its soldiers.

Sometimes poets liked to take the clauses in one line, and flip ’em over for the next line. Notice the first two lines of this Jeremiah verse.

Jeremiah 25.34 NRSV
Wail, you shepherds, and cry out;
roll in ashes, you lords of the flock,
for the days of your slaughter have come—and your dispersions,
and you shall fall like a choice vessel.

Notice “you shepherds” is in the first part of line 1, but “you lords of the flock” is in the second part of line 2. “Cry out” is in the second part of line 1, but “roll in ashes” is in the first part of line 2. Grammar nerds love to give names to this kind of behavior, so this one’s called a chiasm, ’cause the ideas in the clauses get flipped. You can draw a diagram connecting them… and it’ll look like an X, which is also the Greek letter chi, hence chi-asm. Nerds.

Thing is, y’might notice fewer chiasms in some bible translations, ’cause in order to make parallels more obvious, the translators unflipped the clauses:

Jeremiah 25.34 NLT
Weep and moan, you evil shepherds!
Roll in the dust, you leaders of the flock!
The time of your slaughter has arrived;
you will fall and shatter like a fragile vase.

It’s not a big deal, but it’s why I’m not using the NLT for my examples.

Another term grammar nerds like to fling around is emblematic parallelism. All that means is the poet’s using similes and metaphors. As poets do.

Hosea 4.16 NRSV
“Like a stubborn heifer,
Israel is stubborn;
can the LORD now feed them
like a lamb in a broad pasture?”

ANTITHETICAL. When we compare opposites, contrast ideas, or use antonyms, we got antithetical parallelism. The proverb-writers love kind of poetry. Love love love. Proverbs is riddled with this type of poetry.

Proverbs 1.7 NRSV
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Proverbs 10.1 NRSV
A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother’s grief.

The godly experience this; the wicked experience that. God gives this bunch good, that bunch evil. Wisdom does one thing, stupidity does the reverse. Truth produces blessing, lies produce evil. And so forth.

SYNTHETIC. One of the meanings of synthesize is “to build.” So in synthetic parallelism, the poet starts an idea in line 1, then builds ideas onto it in the lines which follow.

Psalm 147.7-11 NRSV
7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
prepares rain for the earth,
makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

There’s a whole logical chain to this psalm, which we see when we analyze the poetry:

  1. (a) Sing to God. (b) And make melody.
  2. (a) God sends clouds. (b) And rain. (c) And grass.
  3. (a) God feeds animals. (b) Specifically ravens.
  4. (a) God doesn’t care about horsepower. (b) Nor human power.
  5. (a) God is pleased with our respect. (b) And our patience.

The most common kind of synthetic parallelism is where line 1 starts an idea, and line 2 finishes it. We also see this all over Proverbs—either with comparisons, or explanations.

Proverbs 26.1 NRSV
Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honor is not fitting for a fool.
Proverbs 19.20 NRSV
Listen to advice and accept instruction,
that you may gain wisdom for the future.

CLIMACTIC. A climax is the end of something. In climactic parallelism you simply have loads of repetition… but all the endings are different.

Psalm 29.1-2 NRSV
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,[a]
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
Matthew 5.3-9 NRSV
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Notice Jesus’s poetry in Matthew 5: He has all the repetition of climactic poetry. And for those people who consider the stuff after “for they/theirs” to be separate lines, he’s using synthetic poetry—explaining why they’re blessed. (Kingdom is theirs, inheriting the land, getting filled and satisfied, etc.) Yeah, you can mix up all sorts of parallelism.

Bonus: Metrical psalms!

Because some English-speakers simply have to have all their poetry rhyme, various Christians have created metrical psalms—translations of Psalms which gave ’em English-style rhymes and rhythm. The Scottish Psalter is one example. I’ve dabbled in it myself.

Psalm 8 KWL
Arranged for lyre. A David psalm.
1 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame
which sets your splendor in the skies.
2 And in the kids’ and infants’ cries
you build your strength against your foes,
the vengeful; stop all who oppose.
3 I see the skies—your fingers’ act:
The moon, fixed stars—and I react:
4 So what are humans, to your mind?—
You care for Adam’s sons so kind.
5 A little less than gods, we’re made
with glory, honor, crowns you’ve laid.
6 The things your hands made, you ordain
beneath our feet; you have us reign.
7 All sheep and cows at our command,
rule over animals on land,
8 birds of the air, fish of the sea,
whatever swims there: All we see.
9 Our master LORD: What noble name!
You have, in all the earth, great fame.

If you notice the gray text, you’ll notice I had to pad the translation a bit so it’d rhyme. That’s the catch with metrical translations: The more you try to make it fit English poetry, the less precise and exact of a translation it becomes. You can do it, but you sacrifice accuracy for esthetics. And if you’re not careful, all the original poetry—all the Hebrew parallelism placed there by David and the other authors—gets hidden, or even gets deleted. It’s why metrical psalms are great for memorization, but not so great for bible study.

The Puritans made ’em metrical because in a lot of their churches, they wouldn’t allow you to sing anything which didn’t come from bible. (Lest you unintentionally wind up singing heresy.) So once the psalms were thus adjusted, and you could find some music to match, you could sing all 150 of ’em.

When I taught English, I had my students take a stab at adapting the psalms into poetry. One boy objected to “tampering with scripture,” but I pointed out he was only making something based on scripture. Nobody was gonna consider his poem a replacement for scripture. (Certainly hope not.) Still, y’might try your hand at it yourself. I find it to be a fun devotional practice.