The Anti-Psalms of Alicia Ostriker

I’ve been reading a lot of poet/scholar Alicia Ostriker’s stuff lately – and find myself especially drawn to her creative observations on the Bible. (Highly recommended, her book “For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book.”)

Check out her take on the Psalms:

The Psalms are glorious. No, the Psalms are terrible. No, the Psalms are both glorious and terrible, both attractive and repulsive to me emotionally and theologically. I read as a poet and a woman, a literary critic and a left-wing Jew who happens to be obsessed with the Bible. And when I read these poems, I experience a split-screen effect: wildly contradictory responses.

As Catullus says: I love and hate. And it is excruciating.

The Psalms are overwhelmingly beautiful as poems. They represent the human spirit, my own spirit, in its intimate yearning for a connection with the divine Being who is the source of all being, the energy that creates and sustains the universe. Unlike the portions of the Bible that lay down rules and regulations (I skip these), and unlike the narratives that tell compelling tales of patriarchs and matriarchs, judges, warriors and kings, but don’t tell how they feel, what they think, what it all means to them–the Psalms are love poems to God. Since the course of true love never does run smooth, the Psalms are poems of emotional turbulence.

Wrestling with the what she calls “the need of God, the violence of god,” Ostriker herself has written what she calls “anti-Psalms” – consciously addressing a “God who deals cruelly with us and demands our praise.”

Here is one example (I just love what she does here):

I am not lyric any more
I will not play the harp
for your pleasure

I will not make a joyful
noise to you, neither
will I lament

for I know you drink
lamentation, too,
like wine

so I dully repeat
you hurt me
I hate you

I pull my eyes away from the hills
I will not kill for you
I will never love you again

unless you ask me

If you are digging this kind of thing as much as I do, read Ostriker’s essay “Psalm and Anti-Psalm: A Personal View” and this conversation on the Psalms between Ostriker and Christian poet Peter O’Leary.

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2 Comments on “The Anti-Psalms of Alicia Ostriker”

  1. Eric Selinger says:

    If you like that, Brant, you need to read the collection it comes from: “The Volcano Sequence.” One of the best books of poetry I’ve read in the past decade. We spent most a year on it at JRC, back when I ran the poetry circle. We should bring her out as a visiting scholar!

  2. Funny — Alicia and her work came up in conversation yesterday, and now today I see you’ve posted this. Perhaps the universe is telling me that I ought to reread her again. Thanks for lifting her work up here on your blog; it’s always good to be reminded.


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