Sunday, August 4, 2013

One Size Fits All Poetry

A  post from two years back, which pretty much word for word ended up in The Everyday Catholic's Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours.

Most of us are not huge fans of poetry. Even if you enjoyed studying it during high school and college, chances are you don't keep  Keats or Byron or Frost  on your nightstand along with the latest spy thrillers and those well-worn Jane Austens. Chalk it up to the decline in the culture, or the impatient modern personality that doesn't have time to ponder meter and metaphor. But unless poetry is in the kids'  homeschooling queue this year,   iambs and trochees are probably not  a huge portion of your literary diet.

On the other hand, we all like songs. Hymns, pop tunes, Broadway stuff. We turn up the radio and sing along when a favorite comes on. We post lines of song lyrics that strike us as funny, nostalgic, or in any way meaningful on our Facebook status. Showing that we do have some patience yet for verbal furbelows after all.

Those lyrics are poetry. I'm not here to argue the merits of Bono over Gerard Manley Hopkins. My point is that we do like poetry that has been taught to us painlessly through aural repetition and the addition of music which helps us feel the rhythm that is inherent in the words.

You know what I'm going to say next.

The psalms are poetry. A particular type of poetry that remains poetry no matter what language it is translated into, and even remains poetry despite he worst  modern translations. Here's why:

1. The Psalms speak to every condition of the human heart: joy , anger, despair, mourning, exaltation, confusion, hope, love. And all these in relation to God and to ourselves.
2. The Psalms rely on a poetic device that works no matter what the translation. It's called parallelism. That means (in extremely non-scholarly terms) that the poem says something, and then says it again in a different way for emphasis. Here's a few random examples from today's liturgy, with letters a.&b. added to make the parallelism clear.

Psalm 144
Blessed by the Lord my rock,
a. who trains my arms for battle,
b. who prepares my hands for war.

a.He is my love, my fortress;
b. He is my shield, my place of refuge.

Psalm 88
a. For my soul is filled with evils;my life is on the brink of the grave.
b. I am reckoned as one in the tomb:I have reached the end of my strength

a. Lord why do you reject me?
b. why do you hide your face?

Psalm 101
a. I will walk with blameless heart within my house;
b. I will not set before my eyes whatever is base.
a. I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me.
b. He who walks in the way of perfection shall be my friend.

Next time you read a psalm, look for the parallelism. I guarantee, it will heighten your enjoyment of the psalms. And help you to feel the poetry that is there.


  1. I can't tell you the times I have opened up God's Word to the Psalm's..finding comfort, hope, times just sitting in my chair (prayer corner) and weeping, and running my hands over my Bible as if I am touching our Lord's hem....I have memorized a few psalms and two in particular I pray each day. Psalm 3 and Psalm 23..of course Psalm 91 is one that is prayed quite often.I'm thanking the Lord for leading me to your blog today. Blessings dear sister of the faith!

  2. Angela,
    If opening up the psalms at random has done so much for you, you would really love praying the divine office. It's all psalms and scripture arranged in a repeating pattern to fit with the liturgical year. Try it out at I'll answer any questions.

  3. Daria, thank you so much. My girlfriend and our parish priest has told me about this and I hope one day to be able to purchase the book. I have just registered to Divine Office...will this come in my email each day? I've bookmarked the page so I can visit daily...I just finished praying today's readings and what a blessing it was. I had just written in my prayer journal so many similar cries from the heart that were from Psalm 67...oh how I praise God for hearing my cries.

  4. Angela, I don't actually use that website for myself--I just recommend it to anyone who has no breviary. So I don't know whether they send it to your email. I'm pretty sure you have to go the website each day. There is another site,, which will sent it to you but only if you pay a subscription for it.

  5. Hello, Daria. My name's Jay and I've been praying the LOH for over 10 years - it's the highlight of my day and know how much it keeps us connected to the Church and close to the Lord. I happily stumbled over your new book on my Kindle and then even more happily was led to this wonderful blog! :) So this is just a short note to introduce myself, to say Hi, and to thank you for all you're doing to draw God's people to the joy of joining in the official prayer of the Church! God bless and I'm looking forward to reading this blog! (I've got a lot of catching up to do - lots of past posts to read...but I'm not complaining!)

    1. Hi Jay!
      Glad to have you aboard. Thanks for all your kind words. Enjoy the archives, since I don't tend to post as much during the summer.

  6. I LOVE the Psalms and I love the way you explained parellelism and gave examples! I have been praying Morning Prayer for the last 6 months using the Laudate ap on my Droid phone. And you are right, there is an inherent rythm to the Psalms. I have also found that different translations can "speak to me" more or less and some translations seem more poetic than others.

    1. Yes, there's a huge difference among the various translations. I am told that the one that appears in our print breviaries was specifically done with chanting in mind, and cannot be truly appreciated when it is simply recited. I do chant them sometimes, but I'm not enough of an expert to perceive why this translation lends itself to chanting better than the others. All I have is the words of the experts. Since then, the Grail psalms have been revised again, and we should be seeing them in new breviaries about five years from now.