The Last of Deuteronomy
Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:30
I was thinking about the tableau described in this verse as I watched Amanda Gorman, the extraordinary young poet who recited her work at the inauguration of President Biden. Imagine Moses, standing before the assembled Israelites who were on the very edge of their newest adventure. In pretty short order (spoiler alert), Moses would be dead, but before he stepped aside so that they could proceed, he inspired them with a poem.
Not so for the poet laureate of the inauguration. Like the Israelites listening to Moses, even if mitigated by a screen, we heard and witnessed all the words of her poem to the very end. I know that I wondered who the young woman in the yellow coat and red hairband was as the cameras panned across the attendees. But once she stepped to the microphone, there was no doubt. Her recitation was more than the composition itself – it was her voice, her presence, the moment and, without question, the yellow coat and red hairband.
I am a big fan of poetry, though I am the first to admit I do not understand it well. I can’t explain iambic pentameter or distinguish a sonnet from a ballad. I have written haikus and limericks, but I can’t remember a one of them. And I must acknowledge that if asked to provide an example of a poem, I would likely think that I shall never see or, perhaps, suggest that you listen, my children, and you will hear. Please don’t roll your eyes.
For me, poetry is most effective when it is performed. Listening to it has not made me a literary scholar, but it has made me a lover of the literature. I have books of poems on my shelf, and one of the very few high school textbooks I have saved is the book of poems from ninth grade. (“A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne, which is over 500 years old, is the highlight, to my mind.) But as much as I like to read Rilke or Kunitz or Amichai or Pagis, I would much rather have them read to me, except maybe Cummings, whose playful typesetting is part of the experience.
The Hebrew word for poem is the same as the Hebrew word for song, shir. If there is a difference between the two in origin, it is lost to us, because we have only the lyrics and not the melody. Is reading the poem of Moses like reading the libretto of an opera? Is setting it to the music of our time (or some time between its origin and our experience) like imposing “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “ABCD” on Mozart – some kind of inappropriate appropriation?
A poem in print is a record of an incomplete memory, the way singing in the shower is accompanied by a band or orchestra only the singer can hear. But the fact of the matter is, unless we have the good and accidental fortune to witness Amanda Gorman, her printed words are all that are available to us.
Late in my career as a pulpit rabbi, there were messages in my sermons that felt urgent to me. They forced their way down my arms and onto the page and then out of my mouth. One of them was about the role of music in worship. I found it embodied in the 150th Psalm, last in the book, with its timbrels and lute and violin and trumpet. Each one uttered praise to God – captured in the word “hallelujah.” But the psalm and the book do not end with an orchestral crescendo, I noted. It ends with the praise of every living soul, the praise of every breath you take, expressing the sentiment “hallelujah.” Of course, Leonard Cohen’s plaintive anthem of that name played an essential part of that sermon, too.
And that’s what I think about when imagining Moses reciting the words of this poem to the very end in the hearing of the whole congregation. Poem-shir or song-shir or Poem-Song, whichever it is, requires the living soul of the poet to bring it to full fruition. I can imagine John Donne or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but in doing so I imagine myself as them. It takes the presence of Amanda Gorman to remind me of what the poet fully contributes to her poem.
Isn’t the same thing true of life?