Bible: New, Improved
A Literary Bible
By David Rosenberg
Counterpoint, 696 pages, $35.00
Even if you are unfamiliar with the poet David Rosenberg and his curiously slack biblical “translations,” the ideological premises of his new collection, “A Literary Bible,” will be immediately clear. His polemics, after all, are repeated in a preface, an epilogue, an afterword and chapter introductions that precede each of the 18 biblical books Rosenberg has rendered, in full or in part, from Genesis to Ezra. The manifestos in the volume are manifold, and they’re more memorable than the poetry, though neither is recommended.
Here is what Rosenberg believes:
• Behind each biblical text lies an inspired author, whose singular, “authentic” artistry has suffered neglect.
• Instead of helping us understand the Tanakh, religious institutions and tin-eared scholars have obscured these literary geniuses and their original Hebraic audiences from view.
• Only a poet can retrieve this lost artistry.
So, if you have read, for example, Rosenberg’s “Book of David,” or his “The Book of J,” co-authored with Harold Bloom, you have already encountered his conjuration of J, a “Solomonic princess, perhaps daughter of a court scholar,” who he alleges wrote one of the major strands of the Torah. In “A Literary Bible,” there’s S, J’s protégé, to whom “she delegated the role of writing the court history of David.” For J and S, the “authentic” authors of parts of Genesis and Second Samuel, Rosenberg creates pseudo-biographies, narratives he treats as equally authentic, on the grounds that “the closer we get to fleshing out the historical writers, the more we may experience a soulful Bible.” Biblical scholars are thrashed, en masse and by name, for their part in making the Bible soulless, and for their “ongoing carnival of academic theorizing and biblical studies sanctimony.”
In such a stuffy carnival, it takes a Rosenberg to imagine us back to “one of the great biblical poets,” by “enacting that poet imaginatively.”
The problem with these premises isn’t just that they’re wrong, although they are: all of them. Each biblical book is more a chorus, an anthology, than the work of a solo artist. (It’s easy enough to create the illusion of a single poetic consciousness if you grant yourself the liberty of discarding history and eliding passages that don’t quite fit.)
The Bible is an echo chamber of traditions, and, as such, thousands of years of readers make useful guides. There is something to be said for sailing out on one’s own, for riffing, for enjoying, as Emerson says, an original relationship with the universe. But there is also something to be said for the shoulders of giants.
And while the Emersonian poet can retrieve all manner of lost artistry, a poet is as likely as anyone else to approach the vast canvas of the Bible with images imported from elsewhere. It’s true enough that a poet can be, in Robert Browning’s phrase, “the maker-see.” But it’s also true that some poets hold their mirrors with the shiny side in.
No, the more troubling problem with Rosenberg’s premises is that they are also his conclusions, which eliminates the bother of evidence. They’re unfalsifiable claims, circular logic. J is an authentic poet because that is how Rosenberg remembers her. If a scholar disputes her authenticity, Rosenberg retreats to his assumptions.
Or he lashes out. Rosenberg tells us that in “How to Read the Bible,” Harvard scholar James Kugel “felt it necessary to write more about himself than the biblical authors.” Berkeley literary critic Robert Alter is “so consumed by his writing style that he ascribes lesser ambition to the biblical writers.” One of Alter’s translations is dismantled and chided for its “scholarly grandiosity.”
These attacks are frequent, petty and baseless, which makes it hard to sympathize with an author who purports to imagine his way into biblical artistry, hard even for a reader like me, who loves deeply the poets Rosenberg cites as models — William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell, Yehuda Amichai, Jorie Graham.
Though these are his stated influences, Rosenberg’s manifestos make biblical poets sound much more like Shelley or Wordsworth: Whereas the imaginative genius is inspired and life-avowing, clerics and scholars murder to dissect. (His estranged co-author Bloom is a Shelley scholar, which may partially explain Rosenberg’s own anxiety of influence.)
The poetry itself, however, is not contemporary, modernist or romantic. It’s closest to an imitation (an “epigone,” Bloom might say) of Ginsberg, without Beat gusto. At its best, it is quirky, with constant, almost willful tense shifts and questionable decisions about what to exclude — his David story leaves off the crucial ending of the succession narrative, in which Bathsheba manipulates a senile king into naming her son Solomon as heir. Shir ha-Shirim is robbed of some of its most haunting lines (“You are beautiful, my love,” “your eyes are doves”). Other passages suffer from a bewildering indulgence in frothy abstractions that seem alien to the concrete beauties of biblical poetry. Here’s how he renders Isaiah:
running away as they run out of time
from the father of their spirit
from the saving dimension of depth
and history reaching back memory
unfolding space and time
beyond them beyond change
It’s not bad, but it’s nothing like Isaiah.
Passages like this repeatedly sent me to the original Hebrew to be refreshed and invigorated. I put down “A Literary Bible” and picked up Isaiah and the Song of Songs. I re-read Alter’s translations and Jorie Graham’s “Sea Change.”
It’s not that there are no compelling moments in Rosenberg’s book. Job has nice lines: “Rip up the day I was born,” Job laments, “and the night that furnished a bed/ with people to make me.”
These are moments, though, that don’t endure. Rosenberg mentions that he studied with Robert Lowell. Lowell was a scrupulous reviser, with a reputation as a stern critic of his students’ work.
One of my teachers told me about a poem a student once brought to Lowell, a poem of 16 lines or so, about which Lowell said, “Cut 15 lines and go from there.” It’s good advice.
Mark Minster is assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. He is also a poet.