What Sparks Poetry

The Poems of Others

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—a poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

Martha Collins on Psalm 19

One night when I was nine years old, when the stars and moon were shining brightly, my mother took me to the window and read the first verses of the 19th Psalm to me. That was a long time ago, so the version I heard was the King James, which is still, despite its inaccuracies (about which more in a minute), the translation I like to read. I was, as we would say now, blown away. I had heard and loved music all my short life, but I had never heard anything as beautiful as that Psalm. I didn’t know then that I was hearing poetry; I thought poetry had to rhyme.

It was some years before I learned that it’s not rhyme or even meter (though there are accentual patterns) that create music in Hebrew poetry; it’s parallelism, with grammatical units appearing in pairs, usually, but sometimes in threes—a kind of call and response, if you will, with a second sentence, clause, or phrase echoing a first, usually complementing or intensifying (as in most of this Psalm), sometimes contrasting, sometimes narratively expanding. That was the music I heard: “The heavens declare . . . the firmament sheweth”; “Day unto day . . . night unto night”; “Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

I wasn’t sure what firmament meant, or “line” in this context, but that was okay: I could imagine. Nor, of course, was I aware that a good deal had been lost or misconstrued in translation. But I was, even then, captivated not only by the music, but also by those words that were actually about words, the idea that what I could see but not hear was speaking: I didn’t know the “heavens” could do that, and I didn’t know you could say that they could. And I didn’t know that saying they could was poetry.

Although some scholars argue that it is made up of two or even three separate texts, Psalm 19 is, in its entirety, about language: the middle section references the literal words of scripture (law, testimony, statutes, commandment), and the poem ends with a prayer that beautifully varies the syntax and includes the poet’s wish for his own words: “Let the words of my mouth. . . .“ Although it’s the opening section that most holds my attention, I love the movement and cadences of the whole Psalm.

As a child, and in fact until quite recently, I read the third verse as referring to all the languages of the world. “The heavens declare the glory of God”—and then: “There is no speech nor language, / where their voice is not heard.” I didn’t know then that there were no Hebrew equivalents for words my Bible printed in italics. But when I discovered that “where” had been added, I was astonished. Exploring further, I discovered that it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that we began to get more accurate translations that say almost the opposite of what the King James and earlier translations appeared to say. And what they give us is a poetry that’s even more profound than what I heard as a child: “There is no speech nor language. Their voice is not heard”: no speech, no language, no voice. And then: “their words” go out “to the end of the world.” In this wonderfully vocal, gorgeously musical Psalm, the third verse speaks of silence—a silence that speaks.

C. S. Lewis declared this Psalm to be “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” I can, and have, traced my passion for poetry to this poem; it’s also given me titles for two books, Day Unto Day and Night Unto Night. And like all great poetry, the Psalm keeps speaking to me—in its words and in its silences.

Writing Prompt

Find or write a sentence, clause, or phrase—an end-stopped line—that pleases you but hasn’t developed into a poem. Now write a parallel line that echoes but shifts the words and (even if slightly) the meaning of the first. Or try a contrasting second line, with “but” connecting the lines. Or one that moves narratively but at least loosely follows the same syntactic structure. Keep doing this as long as you effectively can. And here’s a bonus, perhaps for another poem: Try thinking about and conveying the language of silence: speech that has no words.

— Martha Collins

Share This Post

Print This Post

Martha Collins

Martha Collins’s tenth book of poetry, Because What Else Could I Do, was published in fall 2019 by the University of Pittsburgh. Her previous collections include Admit One: An American Scrapbook, White Papers, and the book-length poem Blue Front, as well as the paired volumes Night Unto Night and Day Unto Day. Collins has also published four volumes of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Founder of the Creative Writing Program at U.Mass.-Boston and former Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College, she currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. www.marthacollinspoet.com