Talmud Torah
Under the Sea

Balancing liturgy with poetry

I am working on a series of poems based on the liturgy of morning blessings and prayers. The "Elohai Neshama" (blessing thanking God for placing a pure soul in me) poem came first, and sparked the idea for the series; the "Asher Yatzar" (blessing for embodiment, as blogged tangentially here) poem is in revision; the "Baruch She'amar" (blessing for God Who speaks the world into being) poem is brand-new and won't be "done" for a while.

(I put "done" in quotes because it's arguable that no poem is ever really finished. I had a grad school advisor once who said there are no old poems or new poems, just poems which are more-or-less complete. And noted poet Donald Hall is known for revising his poems years after publication, and presenting the revised versions to his audiences when reading his work aloud.)

Anyway. I find myself thinking, as I write these, that writing liturgical poems differs both from writing liturgy and from writing poems in general. It's not so much that the writing process differs: in both cases I rely on some combination of craft, revision, reading, and study. In both cases, the more I learn of what's come before me, the richer my writing has the capability to be. In both cases, I want to fulfill Stephen Dobyns's dictate of "best words, best order."

Where the two processes differ is in the nebulous region of aim. In designing and assembling liturgy, I must consider the community who will be using what I put together: are they all Jews? Do they have Hebrew? What words and prayers and songs will make them most able to connect with each other, with the tradition, and with God? At all times, I keep audience in mind; I want my liturgies to be new enough to spark new insights for people, but also familiar enough to resonate the way the familiar liturgy does at its best. When writing poems, in contrast, I have to forget the audience entirely: ultimately the poem has to be true to itself, not to me, and certainly not to some mythical reader.

In writing liturgical poetry, I'm trying to do both of these things at once. I want these to be usable as prayers, which means they need to be universal enough that other people will find them resonant enough to pray with. But at the same time, I want them to be my own poems, true to themselves. I have to simultaneously keep the reader in mind (because these are prayers) and keep the reader far from my mind (because there's no surer way to derail a poem than to worry too soon about whether it would "work" for anyone else).

It will take a long time to determine the success of this liturgical poetry experiment: maybe years, as I finish these enough to pray with them, and share them with other like-minded folks, and find out how they work in the field.  One way or another, this deepens my admiration of the authors of the liturgical poems and prayers we use every day. It isn't easy to write something with such staying power.