The Poet of the Psalms

Read Time:
3m 6sec

By Robert Pinsky.
Schocken. 209 pp. $19.95

In Joseph Heller’s 1984 novel God Knows, a wry first-person retelling of the life of King David, the monarch and psalmist quips that although no book of the Bible is named after him, his story is the best one in there: “Moses has the Ten Commandments, it’s true, but I’ve got much better lines.”

These lines now find a deft interpreter in former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s own poetry, which can leap from one register of speech to another, experiments with the collisions, as he has put it, be­tween “the worldly and the spiritual, the petty and the noble.” An ear for such incongruities turns out to be just the sort of sensitivity needed to reimagine the life of David in this beautifully written book.

Pinsky observes that although we never get to see Achilles humbled by old age, for instance, or Lear in his youth, David’s life, told mostly in 1 and 2 Samuel, comes to us complete. We see him as both handsome upstart shepherd and anguished old man, as “underdog boy and calculating ruler,” and in an extraordinary range of roles between: “the skilled guerilla fighter, the great poet, the royal adulterer, the heartbroken father, the uniter of kingdoms.”

Pinsky brings to life David the musician, the “sweet singer of Israel” who composes many of the Psalms and achieves some of the Bible’s highest poetry, the irresistible lover whose very name means “beloved,” and the inventor of the idea of the Temple—the man who brings the Holy Ark to Jerusalem, where he sets about transforming his people “from a masked, uncataloged, exclusionary, taboo-ridden culture of tribes to a visible, enumerated, inclusive civilization.” But David is also the brutal warrior who kills Goliath, presents his predecessor King Saul with a dowry of foreskins from 200 massacred Philistines, sends Bathsheba’s husband to his death, and inspires the popular Israelite saying “Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.” He is, in sum, both a flawed hero and a poet who sings the praises of heroes, as his eloquent elegies for Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan attest.

Pinsky’s book is neither a work of translation and commentary, like Robert Alter’s The David Story (1999), nor a scholarly attempt to get at a historical leader who lived in the 10th century b.c.e., like Steven L. McKenzie’s King David (2000). Instead, in lending the David story an imaginative density the biblical text possesses only in latent form, thereby freeing the original’s sheer narrative power, Pinsky’s volume resembles a modern performance of the classical Jewish art of exegetical embroidery known as Midrash.

All the more evident, then, is the one flaw in this brilliant act of conjuring a life by artfully retelling it: Pinsky glosses over the ways in which the David story has been received into cultural memory through the ages. He deprecates, for instance, traditional rabbinic interpretations that depicted David as pious, attributing them to “the hungers and terrors of the Diaspora.” This attitude seems to derive from Pinsky’s innate suspicion of religious modes of understanding: “David is more enigmatic than any purely Christian or Jewish paradigm: more tangled at the roots, and more proliferating, larger.” (Whereas Christian theologians have attempted to read David as foreshadowing Jesus, Pinsky instead suggests that the first son of Bethlehem “can be understood as rendering Jesus a tremendous afterthought.”) The resistance to reductivist narrowings of meaning, admirable in itself, here prevents Pinsky from opening himself to the sometimes exquisite layers of reading that have accreted around this great story—one of which, thankfully, is now his own.

—Benjamin Balint

More From This Issue