Wednesday, August 21, 2019

I’m a Poet and I Don’t Know It!

August 21 is annually celebrated as Poet’s Day (not to be confused with Poets Day, which is celebrated weekly, on Fridays in Great Britain, similar to TGIF). Poet’s Day was initiated on August 21, 2001 by Daniel Rhodes of Hoover, AL.

Poetry, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a composition in verse,” has been a form of bohemian expression for millennia, whether as a cute limerick, a juvenile acrostic, a romantic sonnet or a sublime haiku. Many have pointed to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, a story similar to that of Noah and the Ark, as one of history’s first poems. Centuries later, Aristotle wrote a book entitled Poetics, attempting to define it, and even more centuries hence, William Shakespeare transformed the discipline.

Interestingly, in Hebrew, the word for poem, shirah, is the very same word for a song. When the word shirah is used, the text is unclear whether it refers to a song or a poem.

In the Torah, the words shir or shirah refer to several different things. In Exodus (chapter 15) the term references a paean of gratitude led by Moses and his sister Miriam, after God split the Red Sea. In Numbers (21:17), the Children of Israel offer gratitude for a wellspring of water. In Deuteronomy (31:19) Moses asks the Children of Israel to “write this shirah for you, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this shirah may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” Three verses later, we read that “Moses wrote this shirah the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel.Maimonides and Sefer HaChinuch use this verse as the basis for the final, 613th mizvah in the Torah, namely to write for oneself a Sefer Torah (and according to Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel, to amass a Jewish library). According to the commentaries Rashi and Ramban, shirah in this verse refers specifically to the shirah of Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32). Ramban states (Deuteronomy 31:19) that Ha’azinu is called shirah because the Children of Israel will recite it with song and music, and it is written uniquely as a poem, because these shirahs are written with some level of punctuation and musical notation.

Those Biblical passages identified as “shirah” or “shir” simultaneously possess elements of song and poetry. Both poetry and music have been called the “language of the soul.” Alliteration and perfect meter inspire some, soaring rhetoric speaks to others, while a beautiful or catchy tune may yet uplift others. Some identify with the lyrics of a popular song; others connect with the music. Both uplift, and both are connoted by the same Hebrew word. That is the essence of shirah.

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