From the narrow place, I called out to God;
He answered me from the wideness of God.
I OFFER THIS SOMEWHAT HOMELY, literal translation of Psalm 118, verse 5, because it seems to me—in its beautiful Hebrew, if not this clunky English version—to encapsulate what poetry is (or, at least, what it can be) more succinctly, powerfully, and incontrovertibly than any other line of poetry I know. The verse acknowledges the impossibility of its project while nonetheless embarking on it; the words insist on their ability to get from the particular—one’s own hopelessly narrow human place—out into vastness. Isn’t this always, to some degree, poetry’s project? Doesn’t the poet always, in one way or another, cry out from his or her narrow place, hoping for some broader, wider resonance, for the most ample imaginable response?
The King James is not inaccurate in rendering the verse: “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place.” Like so many Hebrew words, maytzar (distress, narrowness, narrow place, strait) goes in a number of different but related directions. In modern Hebrew, the word, in its verb form, means “to regret.” It’s also related to the name for Egypt—Mitzrayim, which can be understood to mean something like “double narrowness” or “double trouble.” That the King James, at least this time, renders anani as “He answered me” is a great thing. In all too many instances in the Book of Psalms—even in verse 21 of this same Psalm 118—the King James inexplicably translates the word “He heard me,” making God passive instead of active and removing what may well be my favorite feature of the psalms: God’s active collaboration in them. In Hebrew, the psalms give the impression—at least to me—of managing, by calling upon God so insistently and exquisitely from however narrow a starting point, to invoke God, in all his ampleness, into existence. Their “call” finally elicits God’s response until he seems to participate in their own making.offer this somewhat homely, literal translation of Psalm 118, verse 5, because it seems to me—in its beautiful Hebrew, if not this clunky English version—to encapsulate what poetry is (or, at least, what it can be) more succinctly, powerfully, and incontrovertibly than any other line of poetry I know. The verse acknowledges the impossibility of its project while nonetheless embarking on it; the words insist on their ability to get from the particular—one’s own hopelessly narrow human place—out into vastness. Isn’t this always, to some degree, poetry’s project? Doesn’t the poet always, in one way or another, cry out from his or her narrow place, hoping for some broader, wider resonance, for the most ample imaginable response?
Did I recognize any of this when I finally began to realize—probably as an adolescent—that I actually understood a number of these verses of psalms I had been singing on every major holiday (and new moon, when it happened to fall on a Saturday) in synagogue for so many years? I doubt it. I’m not sure I even knew the words came from psalms. Nor am I sure how it is that I understood them. By listening to announcements in Hebrew at summer camp? From Hebrew school, where, from the age of nine, we were given simplified biblical texts to read in Hebrew, each chapter with its own enormous glossary? All I know is how thrilling it was suddenly to recognize that I could derive literal meaning from Min hamaytzar karati Ya; anani ba merchav Ya (from the narrow place…). and I promptly fell in love with it. It is—like so many lines of psalms, beautifully direct and fairly simple in Hebrew. But I doubt that I understood its implications. Still, every time I read it, it gave me the most wonderful sense of possibility. And I quickly came to see that any line I sang from Hallel would reward me enormously, if only I paid attention. Ordinarily, this is a big if, given my still unchecked tendency to blab shamelessly in the back row during services. But I make an exception for Hallel.
Hallel, meaning praise—the short service added to the morning prayers on holidays and new moons—contains Psalms 113 through 118 and has always been my favorite service, even before I understood it. I loved its sounds and the many lovely melodies used to sing them. But little did I know how revelatory it was and would continue to be. Even after understanding the Hebrew words became second nature, a verse could always astonish me. Perhaps the most memorable occasion was on Shavuot, 1991. I was enormously sad, having just learned from a dear friend about his sister’s death—a week after she’d given birth to her first child—from an undetected congenital heart defect. When, during Hallel, I sang out, “This is the day which the Lord has made; we will be rejoice and be glad in it,” the familiar line seemed to explode. There was after all a new baby—who deserved someone’s joy—despite the terrible loss associated with his birth. And this demand that one live well, indeed joyfully, with what one could not change, struck me as something to cling to in those tragic circumstances. Since then, I’ve clung to it many times. It still seems like a most difficult imperative, this requirement to rejoice in days so profoundly imperfect, and so very much not of our own making. But it also strikes me as one we would all do well to fulfill.
And Hallel does seem to insist that its own enterprise, praising God, is among the most straightforward and dependable ways to fulfill it. Indeed, in Hallel, praising God is likened to life itself, even eternal life: “The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the Lord (Hallelujah).” Again, we have a tight collaboration: God keeps us alive so we can keep his praises alive and in so doing tap into God’s own eternity. This praise of God that can bring us from mortality to eternity is a sort of temporal analogue to the calling out to God that brings us from narrowness to amplitude. Here we not only insist and affirm God into existence, but ourselves “from this time forth and for evermore.” An exultant “Hallelujah” seals the deal. This word itself—literally a plural imperative to praise God—is the human route from limitation to boundlessness. And from the tragedy that is so often a result of that human limitation to rejoicing. For me—even now—it’s the most magical exemplar of that breathtaking concept: holy language, which, along with all the exquisite phrases that holy language can introduce but never quite contain, is surely what made me long, from my earliest days, to try my hand at writing poems.
Jacqueline Osherow, author of seven collections of poetry, has received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, NEA, and Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the Witter Bynner Prize. She’s Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah.
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.