On the Syntax of BH Poetry

Saturday morning I presented a paper at the annual Canadian Society for Biblical Studies. In the paper, I addressed some issues of poetic syntax. Why am I studying poetry? I’m not really that poetic or creative or literarily sensitive. (I will confess that much of what passes for poetry mystifies me, but then I’d probably have rebuked E.E. Cummings and told him to take a course in punctuation.)

Why I’m studying poetry is simply that this is the road some recent linguistics research led me down. I wouldn’t be on this road otherwise. Regardless, I’m interested in getting feedback on my notions. To that end, my paper is posted below.

Holmstedt_Syntax of Hebrew Poetry_CSBS2017

In a small nutshell, I’m attempting to reduce the syntactic options that an ancient Hebrew poetic faced when concluding a poetic line. My argument is that it can be described as a binary choice, between apposition and non-apposition, rather than the six tropes that Michael O’Connor described in his magisterial Hebrew Verse Structure. I see all uses of language through a grammatical lens. My first question when I encounter some conventional use of language is always, “How does that work syntactically?” I take the position that no matter the convention (of prose, poetry, epistolary, etc.), they are always bound by grammar.

So, let me know if I’ve convinced you, even in part.

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13 Responses to “On the Syntax of BH Poetry”

  1. Matthew Anstey Says:

    I really like this paper Robert.

    I like your analysis of apposition and am looking forward to the fc paper with Jones. And I think Dobbs-Allsop’s book has set a new standard, so grafting from his work is wise.

    I’ve been reading a lot in recent months on poetry in general and what you describe syntactically coheres with those who see the dominant feature of poetry as “segmentivity” – that is, poetry cuts and dices language in a distinctive way, typically in a combination of syntactic, lexical, orthographic and other ways. This results in, or is driven by, a different construal of temporality, to which you refer. (I can send references if you’re interested).

    Poets will rightly (imo) claim, however, that reducing poetry to a purely syntactical phenomenon would be to miss the point, not to put too fine a point on it! I don’t think you’re saying this – or are you?

    Oh, btw, if I took out a few sentences here and there your paper could almost pass as a typical functionalist paper, given your description of what appears to be semantically-motivated syntactical distinctions. I’m turning the other cheek in anticipation …. ;-)

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Matthew,
      Thanks for the encouraging feedback. If you have sources on “segmentivity,” I’d happily read them. And no, I’m not reducing “poetry” to purely syntactic phenomena; I’m only suggesting that the syntactic options for linking verses was limited. I think that still leaves great variety in combining all the levels I mentioned in the beginning part.

      Oy vey! I’ll have to throw in more overtly generative statements to avoid even the appearance of functionalism. ;-)

  2. bobmacdonald Says:

    Looks fascinating. Love your opening phrases. My first thought is you could put a period after them
    Biblical Hebrew poetry is complicated. Or, more accurately, describing BH poetry is complicated.

    I will give this a good read and get back to you. I know we disagree on the role of the te’amim, but let me see if your words support what I have learned on my own as a solo reader of the books of truth. In this area there are significant differences in all three of them – and finding words to describe that is likely complex as well.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Thanks, Bob. I’ll appreciate the input.

      • bobmacdonald Says:

        I have learned much from this article. Especially something more about the way grammarians think. Thank you. Landy is referenced but not in your bibliography. Is this the Francis Landy I met last year at UVIC (Edmonton U of A)?

        I have invited a contrasting interpretation of Psalm 1 using the music as a guide.

        The first rest in verse 1 on the ole-veyored (f#) shows where to pause for the initial impact on the hearer. There is an additional pause on the atenach (1c) at the end of the first parallel. But the listener knows the story is not finished, since we are on the subdominant A, and will wait patiently for the denouement of the tri-colon which returns to the tonic after the caesura.

        Verse 2, the opening accent ties this verse to verse 1. There is no rest in verse 2. The learning of Torah is a continuous activity.

        Verse 3 also has two rests, making it a tri-colon: 1. The ole-veyored is on the streams of water, the image is of Torah, whereas the איש is the tree. 2. The consequence is fruit in due season and leaf not withering, (though the two phrases grammatically are sung as one to the atenach), and 3. the final conclusion, all that it does will thrive.

        Verse 4 is a second choice from verse 1 – either one does abstain from the associations of verse 1 or one does not. The כי עם is downplayed compared to the opening of verse 2, but it clearly defines the alternative. Verse 3 and 4 are linked equally by the image of עץ and מץ. Of course, every verse is linked and is the outworking of the thesis of verse 1.

        Verse 5 has a single upbeat to a high C contrasting the end of the wicked using the same reciting note as was used in verse 3 of the fruitfulness of the righteous. The matter of fact final verse stands out in its musical simplicity.

        This poem seems to me a single stanza. I say this for non-musical reasons, a three-word chiasm joins verses 1 to 5-6. If I were to break it up, it would be 5 cola, verses 1-2, 5 cola, verses 3-4, and 4 cola, each of these beginning with a tri-colon, then verses 5 and 6.

  3. bobmacdonald Says:

    Hi again: I have to slightly change my analysis of verse 2: There is a rest but not the major rest of the atenach. I missed an almost invisible ole-veyored.
    Verse 2, the opening accent ties this verse to verse 1. There is no caesura in verse 2. The learning of Torah is a continuous activity. (But there is a rest on the supertonic, an ole-veyored that is almost invisible.)

  4. robertholmstedt Says:

    Bob, I don’t have any disagreements on the accentual analysis. I tried to comment on your own post, but didn’t find the comment section. My paper is not, of course, a whole theory of BH poetry, which seems to be what you’re interested in. I make no claims about that; sorry to disappoint. Also, as you might guess, I am skeptical that the medieval Masoretic accents can be taken to be authoritative with regard to the performance feature I mention and that you hint about. The fact is that the biblical poetic conventions changed in later periods, as witnessed by Dead Sea Scrolls psalms that aren’t described accurately by O’Connor constraints. So I find it unlikely that the Masoretes would somehow preserve a 5 (or more) century old performance convention when it’s clear other conventions and even poetic structures have developed in the intervening periods.

    • bobmacdonald Says:

      Thanks Robert. I am not familiar with the O’Connor constraints. I agree that the source of the accents is unknown. I only know that they have explanatory power that is not in any literature that I have found. Thanks for telling me you can’t find a comment section. I am stumped by that at the moment.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        Bob, though I do consider your project to be firmly Masoretic and so of a later layer than I am typically trying to reconstruct, it’s not uninteresting. Keep it up.

  5. bobmacdonald Says:

    Robert, it is good to be encouraged with a word. Thank you. I have switched the commenting from Discus which seems to have disappeared to Google comments. Re the Masoretic accents. I agree they appear without precedent with the Aleppo codex. Though some claim to have seen them in DSS, I have never seen any such evidence. A year ago I was asked to modify a paper I had done to include information on manuscript traditions. I did not have time to begin (because of a medical emergency in the family), or even to know where to begin to find such information (apart from finding things online). The problem for me is that the accents appear suddenly fully formed in the 8th-9th century. Where are their precedents? I don’t know. I am just looking at an introduction to the Masorah and I see some familiar names (Dotan, Weil, Yeivin) reported as disagreeing on which appears first, the Masorah, the vowels, or the accents. They seem to guess on an appearance in scrolls for private use about 600 CE, based on texts from the Cairo Geniza.

    I have found John Hobbins paper from 2007 which at least touches on O’Connor’s constraints. I will see where it leads me.

    Again thanks.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Bob, that’s a great question, and one that students sometimes ask — when did the layers in the MT developed. I can’t say I have any good idea, beyond hiding behind Yeiven, etc.

    • Matthew Anstey Says:

      Have you read Khan’s book? It is excellent. Here is a review: http://www.jhsonline.org/reviews/reviews_new/review740.htm

      • bobmacdonald Says:

        Thanks for the pointer. I will look for his book. I think I may even have met him. The name is familiar. I am struck by the phrase in the review: “The accent signs remain, but precisely how those signs were translated into chant has been lost.”
        That is exactly what Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura’s father, a rabbi, said to his daughter in the 1940’s, and was the stimulus for her to undertake the musical reconstruction which I have used above for analysis. Whether she is completely right or completely wrong, her work reveals the text like nothing else I have seen.


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