Pushcart XL: Edward Hirsch, “Variations on a Psalm” (poem) from Five Points #16.2

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and I would not be comforted. (Psalm 77:2)

And I would not be comforted
        When I was in distress
            I sought the Lord
I did not know why I did not believe
 
While I stretched out untiring hands
          And I would not be
            Comforted in my distress
I sought the Lord

~~ Poet’s reading (audio only) of complete poem available online

The 77th Psalm is about repentence. It’s one of the later psalms (the “Asaph” psalms, which may be by Asaph or just transcribed or collated by him) so it’s probably not about David’s major sin of murder and covetousness. But all of these get applied to a more general audience anyway, a nation of Israel that has forsaken the ways of their God.

A verse from the psalm is repeated in slightly different order, and every once in a while, a new phrase is introduced, generally about not believing or not praying. It’s kind of interesting to think of praying and not believing in the same phrase, to pray to find out why there is no belief, but I don’t think the belief is one of believing in the Lord, but of believing in the eventual deliverance from suffering: impatience with forgiveness. Who hasn’t felt that. “Hey, I’ve said I’m sorry, now where’s my forgiveness?” The variations become very personal, however. Tormented. Confused. Pushing away, pulling towards.

The sound of the poem when read aloud is hypnotic, like a chant. At one point the grammar is inverted “Comforted I would not be”) leading me to wonder if this can all be read in many different ways. There’s no punctuation; which phrase goes with which? Are the stanza breaks, the line breaks, guidelines or rules or just for visual regularity? Hirsch’s reading (link to audio provided above) becomes less regulated by visual cues as he goes on; it’s an intriguing effect, changing the sense at some points. If the poem were much longer, it would turn into word salad – but not quite.

Here’s where my lack of technical poetics training really hampers me: I have no idea what’s happening here. Hirsch is a literary giant; I regret I can’t follow where he leads. Perhaps I should read his “Poet’s Choice” column, or his 2000 book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. But instead, here I am with untiring hands, impatient for the deliverance in which I have no belief.

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3 responses to “Pushcart XL: Edward Hirsch, “Variations on a Psalm” (poem) from Five Points #16.2

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