Passover poetry: Re-telling the story of our own lives
National Poetry Month officially began yesterday. It is not altogether clear why the Academy of American Poets chose April as the month to celebrate poets and poetry. “April seemed the best time within the year to turn attention toward the art of poetry,” is all the Academy’s website has to say on the matter. Not much of an explanation. But then that leaves room for others to step in and offer their own explanations.
Mine is a Jewish explanation. This is, after all, the time of year when we celebrate Passover. The time of year when we recall the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, a saga which culminates in the poetic outbursts of Moses, and of his sister, the prophetess Miriam, upon their crossing of the Red Sea. “A poem,” writes Professor and Bible translator Everett Fox, “is necessary at this point in the story, to provide emotional exultation and a needed break before the next phase of Israel's journey in the book. The Song manages to focus the Israelites' intense feelings . . . Only poetry is capable of expressing the full range of the people's emotion about what has happened.”
Passover is also the time of the year with which Song of Songs is associated. Traditionally read in synagogue on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover, the poem (or collection of love poems) is a joyous and sensual celebration of eros and of spring: “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds has come, and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land."
One of my favorite translations of Song of Songs is by poet Marcia Falk. The late great poet Adrienne Rich called Falk’s work “one of the great classics of the art of translation,” one, she added, that “reminds us why the images and spirit of the Song have endured." You get a feel for the distinctive beauty of Falk’s translation from her rendering of the lines about spring that I quoted above:
Come with me,
For the long wet months are past, the rains have fed the earth and left it bright with blossoms
Birds wing in the low sky, dove and songbird singing in the open air above
Earth nourishing tree and vine, green fig and tender grape, green and tender fragrance
Come with me, my love, come away
The Song of Songs: A New Translation (Love Lyrics from the Bible)
In addition to ancient poetry and modern translations of ancient poetry, Passover Seders often accommodate all manner of poetry and song that contribute to the telling of the story of the Exodus, or to reflecting on the journey to, and meaning of, freedom – then and now. As the text of the Hagaddah reminds us, it is not just ancient history that we are re-telling; it is the story of our own lives: “In every generation, each individual should feel personally redeemed from Egypt. For the Eternal One redeemed not only our ancestors; we were redeemed with them.”
To honor the memory of Adrienne Rich who died last week, we begin a series of posts on Passover poetry by Jewish women poets with her short but powerful poem, “For Memory,” a gloss, as it were, on the obligation to regularly relive the redemption.
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
of light, the fields of dark—
freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
"For Memory," A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far