The Supreme Poem

The Ur-Poem

Truly great poets stun us with great and beautiful and surprising images and novel ways to see the world. They arrange words so they’re laden with the promise you will uncover further hidden depths and new meanings the more you study them. They play with multiple meanings among words, and use their sound and music and cadence to draw or hint at connections. Parts of a poem echo within and across its different parts. Many poems allude to other poems and literary works and use of any of a hundred rhetorical devices. In short, we often admire poetry for its density and complexity as a text and its greatness often comes from how much interpretation it invites and provokes. Great poems get included in anthologies meant for college courses and classroom discussion. Often when they are, they come with footnotes and annotations and commentaries which digest the many interpretations into convenient slogans. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, and supply  the sources of the allusions to other works the poet has embedded in the poem.

Take for instance this 1923 poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
                           It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West” from Collected Poems. Copyright 1923, 1951, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)

“Stevens followed Parts of a World with Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, which is usually considered his greatest poem on the nature of poetry. This long poem, more an exploration of a definition than it is an actual definition, exemplifies the tenets of supreme fiction even as it articulates them. The poem is comprised of a prologue, three substantial sections, and a coda. The first main section, entitled “It Must Be Abstract,” recalls Harmonium’s themes by hailing art as the new deity in a theologically deficient age. Abstraction is necessary, Stevens declares, because it fosters the sense of mystery necessary to provoke interest and worship from humanity. The second long portion, “It Must Change,” recalls “Sunday Morning” in citing change as that which ever renews and sustains life: “Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace / And for the particulars of rapture come.” And in “It Must Give Pleasure,” Stevens expresses his conviction that poetry must always be “a thing final in itself and, therefore, good: / One of the vast repetitions final in themselves and, therefore, good, the going round / And round and round, the merely going round, / Until merely going round is a final good, / The way wine comes at a table in a wood.” Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction concludes with verses describing the poet’s pursuit of supreme fiction as “a war that never ends.” Stevens, directing these verses to an imaginary warrior, wrote: “Soldier, there is a war between the mind / And sky, between thought and day and night. It is / For that the poet is always in the sun, / Patches the moon together in his room / to his Virgilian cadences, up down, / Up down. It is a war that never ends.” This is perhaps Stevens’s most impressive description of his own sense of self, and in it he provides his most succinct appraisal of the poet’s duty.

Although Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction elucidates Stevens’s notions of poetry and poet, it was not intended by him to serve as a definitive testament. Rather, he considered the poem as a collection of ideas about the idea of supreme fiction. Writing to Henry Church, to whom the poem is dedicated, Stevens warned that it was not a systematized philosophy but mere notes—”the nucleus of the matter is contained in the title.” He also reaffirmed his contention that poetry was the supreme fiction, explaining that poetry was supreme because “the essence of poetry is change and the essence of change is that it gives pleasure.”Now imagine an Ur-poem, an ultimate text that is so infinitely complex and inspiring that interpretations and readings never end.Even a single letter in a word may have powerful implications. A single word by itself would have several possible meanings, and in the context of a line or image or the poem as a whole, that word obtains even more resonance.”  – The Poetry Foundation


The Torah, Hebrew Scripture, was in its original form a self-reflexive text. It tells us about its own means of composition and its origin as the first document in the history of the world to be written in the alphabetic script. These two aspects of the Torah tell us it was really a kind of super-poem, and even more and deeper meanings are revealed if we read it as such. The Children of Israel have just escaped from slavery in Egypt and fled to Mount Sinai.  They are about to receive the great revelation God promised Moses He would reveal to His people once Moses liberated them and they congregated there. With terrible thunder and lightning, in an awesome incomprehensible voice, God utters his commandments like one long blast of the shofar.  The Israelites can’t bear or comprehend it and they beg Moses the Torah is Moses’ transcription of one long, uninterrupted awesome blast of sound by God from above Mount Sinai before an audience of the entire Children of Israel. Even if the original Hebrew was written by the Finger of God, by Moses, or by a committee of compiler, it would have had no punctuation, no vowels, nor spaces between words because they simply did not yet exist. The early Hebrew script was a primitive version of the phonetic alphabet that the Phoenicians improved, brought to Greece, and which spawned all future alphabets. But the singular ingenious breakthrough of using signs for atoms of sound occurred only once, somewhere around the 14th century BCE, probably among slaves working the mines for Pharaoh at Serabit El-Khadem in the Sinai. No matter if you favor a divine or archeological authority for its origin, Scripture’s original script, the one long sentence, was an Ur-poem, so densely packed with wordplay that millions of words each year are still devoted to admiring and interpeting it.

Masoretes
William Hole, “Compiling and editing Scripture” (1925) © Look and Learn

Aramaic and Greek rapidly begin to replace Hebrew as the lingua franca of the Jews in the centuries just before and after the common era. As a result, the oral tradition that kept the meaning of a highly ambiguous Hebrew without vowels stable started to slip. With the fall of the Temple and the scattering of the Jews, the loss of a vernacular Hebrew meant that the traditionally-understood meaning of the Torah was rapidly disappearing. IN response to this crisis, a family of linguistic experts and scholars supplied the missing vocal signs that would stabilize the meaning of the canon. Called Masoretes (from masora – those who hand down or pass along), they worked in Palestine, mostly Tiberias, along the Sea of Galilee, starting in the third century CE. But while they addressed one crisis, I believe they created another.  By reducing the play of possible interpretations of Scripture, they also reduced its intrinsic poetry. And if the Author of the text was an infinite Being of infinite talent and cleverness, He was also therefore an Ur-Poet, capable of playing with an unlimited range of possible simultaneous meanings, allusions, hidden cross-references and echoes, creating the furtive unity and depths that we admire in the best poetry.

The meaning of the texts different texts to arrive at a composite, definitive version called the Masoretic Torah. Working with variora editions, the Masoretes had to make thousands of decisions regarding the pronunciations of words in the Scriptures and choose one, collapsing the multiple potential meanings into one actuality, one sense. In some cases this meant choosing among slightly different shades of meanings or tenses, but in others it meant radically reducing the free play of associations and interacting alternatives that a set of consonants might signify. They also added diacritical marks indicating intonation and made decisions about where to cut words in order to further reduce ambiguity and preserve agreed-upon meanings. (See discussion in Musaph-Andriesse, R.C. From Torah to Kabbalah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

The Masoretes preserved the sense of difficulty in this task and some of the ambiguity by often annotating the text with distinctions between what was written (kettiv = Aramaic for “written”) from how it should be pronounced (qere – Aramic for ‘read’). They also extensively annotated the Tanach with marginalia indicating unresolved difficulties and discussing some of the bases for final decisions. Competing schools in Babylonia and Palestine between 200-1005 CE even completed conflicting versions. In the end, the school of Ben Asher offered the text that became the standard. Even though the Masoretes themselves registered difficulties and conflicts, as they eliminated the free play of interpretation by producing vowels and vocalizations, they were by definition reducing the number of possible interpretations. For example, in Isaiah 44:24, the prophet speaks in the voice of the Creator, comparing the work of human creativity with Divine Creation:

“The mere craftsman in iron works with his tools.

He works the iron over charcoal and fashions it by hammering…

The mere craftsman in wood measures with a line

and marks out a shape with a stylus

These craftsmen aren’t merely workers, they are idol-makers

They give their work “human form, The beauty of a man

To dwell in a shrine

…he makes a god of his own carving

he bows down and worships it.” (Is. 44:12-17).

But by comparison, God declares:

“It is I, the Lord, who made everything

Who alone stretched out the heavens

And unaided I spread out the earth”

The Hebrew for what often gets translated into English as “by Myself” here is  = ‘m’itti’. The Masoretes note that what is written (ketiv) in the text includes a yod between the “mi ” and the ‘itti‘, which would literally say “Who [mi] with me [eettee]?” – a rhetorical question. But, the Masoretes insist, the text should be vocalized (qere) as “m’itti” – as if the yod were missing – which means “from me (alone).” Slight differences in shades of meaning are produced by these two pronunciations. One is potentially heretical by even invoking the possibility that God had a partner. The Masoretes resolve the problem by dropping the first yod, when reciting the verse. At first glance the change seems inconsequential: mi itti = “Who was with me?” is a rhetorical question whose answer is “Of course no one”; m’itti = “From me [alone]” is emphatic, though a bit awkward.

What if we imagined ourselves in the position of a modern scholar posing the following question about this passage from Isaiah: Is God being ironic? Is this really a rhetorical question, or does it open up other possibilities, calling for expansion or amplification? If so, then our reader is faced with the heretical idea that God was assisted by others in His act of Creation, a Gnostic notion the Sages resisted especially in the early centuries of the common era for obvious reasons. It invites the sense of multiple gods that Isaiah, by comparing God’s solitary act of creation with the making of idols, is trying to negate. The Masoretic choice of inflection, spacing and vowelling here attempts to control this intrusion of the Gnostic idea of God’s angelic assistants, since the project of the Masoretes worked in the face of declining Hebrew literacy in Palestine and Babylonia, declining coherence in Jewish thinking, increasing dispersion of Jewish people, and increasing threats from Gnosticism and then Christianity, Islam, and Orientalism both physical and theological.

But the Masora editing pays a severe price.

If we return to the letters of the word/phrase we see another powerful interpretation is possible, using the Talmudic practice of expansion and divine, irresolute punning: “m’itti”  might also mean “From (mem – ) alphabet (aleph-taf) mine (yod)”! This renders the verse:

“It is I, the Lord, who made everything

Who alone stretched out the Heavens

And spread out the earth from my Aleph-Tav,.” Is: 44:24

Does this passage contain Isaiah’s enticing hint of the creative power implicit in the aleph-tav את the word which stands for the Hebrew alphabet itself and resonates with Genesis’ first chapter: God creates “et [ את ] ha’shamayim v’et [את ] ha’aretz” ? Other clues in the passage suggest that Isaiah, the consummate poet and master of metaphor and wordplay, is playing with a conceit of the alphabet, for in the next line, he continues with God’s self-declaration,

“It is I that frustrated the letters (oht’ot =  אתות ) of the boasters  (badim = בדימ).” [Is 44:25]

This is translated:

It is I HaShem Who made the signs of the boasters to fail,”

as in “the signs or portents of the false mages and necromancers,”  but it might as well be ‘the letters of the scribes,’ for it refers back to the chartume’im, Pharaoh’s hieroglyphic scribes, whom Moses and Aaron defeated in the war of writing systems in Pharaoh’s courts.

The image of God ‘flattening out’ or ‘spreading out’ echoes another image of spreading outthat Isaiah used just a few chapters earlier. King Hezekiah received a letter from Rabshakeh, the Assyrian general threatening to destroy Hezekiah’s kingdom. Hezekiah brings the letter to the temple “and spread it before the Lord and prayed” (Isaiah 37:14-15).[ויפרשהו The three-letter root of the word for “and he spread it is P-R-Sh]

However, if  the Masoretes had supplied a different vowel, ‘perush‘ could be vocalized “parash,” meaning “to amplify or interpret distinctly or differently or to clarify. Or they could have supplied yet a different vowel and the word is vocalized sky, since the same letters mean “the limiting plane” as in “a ceiling” or the vault of the sky. Since Isaiah here applies it in God’s voice to the earth just after forging his image of the sky, this version  would reveal the full measure of Isaiah’s poetic power, neatly forming a circle back yet again to the Hebrew letters את God uses in Creation of earth and sky. The Masoretic text loses these depths in favor of clarification.

By using the energized combination of letters, the punning repetition of the את and the image of G-d spreading out the heavens and earth in a system of multiplied allusions within the text and to the text of Genesis outside this poem, along with possible alternatives, we can see that maybe Isaiah pursues the power of Creation itself to trivialize idols. The prophet unfolds before us a literal image of God “spreading out the Heavens and flattening out the Earth by Himself.” It is even possible to see my favorite Kabbalistic interpretation: God uses the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (the את) to unroll (perush) the twinned scrolls of the sky and the earth, like the Torah itself, in order to frustrate the alternative scripts (ha-o’tot) of ‘those who make up false stories [badim]” about Creation.

But this wonderful, and perhaps tenuous alternative conceit is lost if Isaiah’s poetry is collapsed into a strict Masoretic choice to read one decisive version.

We celebrate poets who had the advantage of writing in more developed and efficient alphabets, alphabets that are able to signify clearly a single intention because unlike the more primitive Hebrew of the Bible, they have vowels and separation between words and eventually punctuation and defined sentences. We admire Greek, Latin and English poets as they cleverly multiply layers of meaning, punning, and allusions in their wordplay. By contrast, ancient written Hebrew unavoidably multiplies alternatives and the Hebrew of the Torah is inevitably more ambiguous. Yet, the evolution of the text of the Torah is always towards clarity and disambiguation.

of course, this is a good and necessary path to follow.  Keeping the Torah accessible, especially among a scattered people whose mother tongue was no longer Hebrew, preserved the Jewish people’s relation to their founding document, the core of their existence. The interpretive tradition of the Talmud and the ongoing torrent of commentary and commentary on commentary for the last two millenia, which has also bound the Jews together (and sometimes torn them apart) is enabled by having an agreed upon starting place to debate the remaining ambiguities of the Torah, which still seem almost engless, as anyone who has spent time studying Talmud, or simply looked at a single of its pages, will appreciate.

But here, I’d like to linger over what has been lost in this march to clarity.

In the poet’s hand, what we would consider a liability in day-to-day communication becomes a special power, since it invites multiple alternatives that may supplement each other rather than compete. The collapse of this enriching multiplication in unvowelled Hebrew into a single choice of vowelled Hebrew – Hebrew with dots by the Masoretes — was potentially catastrophic for the vital and sanctified project of reading the more primitive Hebrew.

The catastrophe is averted in Jewish tradition because of the religious significance attached to precise copying of every letter in the scrolls of the Torah. This religious tradition is founded on the belief that Moses received both the written and an oral Torah at Sinai. As a result, even in synagogues today, the text of the Torah is read aloud during services from parchment scrolls written in unvowelled Hebrew letters, while the congregation follows along in a book (including extensive commentary – the Chumash or Five Books of Moses) that includes the vowelled Hebrew text.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the vital and uncertain sea of language into which reading ancient Hebrew plunges us and the search for fixed meaning and certainty in later languages is stark. There is something poetic and prayerful intrinsic in Hebrew that we lose when we erect clarity – disambiguation – as a goal of all texts. The Torah reminds us that every letter is literary. Such letterature is a form of liturgy.

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