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Centripetal and Centrifugal Structures in Biblical Poetry
Daniel Grossberg
Publication Date
January 1997


“The following chapters focus on the Songs of Ascents, Song of Songs and Lamentations respectively. In each chapter, I identify compositional elements within the particular corpus of biblical poetry studied in that chapter. I discuss the elements that account for the location of the poems on a structural continuum from dissolution to consolidation. The determination of that location is not merely a tally of pluses and minuses, of centripetal and centrifugal devices. I recognize the dynamism of the poem in the concerted action of opposing features and sometimes in the contrary actions of the same features. I stress that the elements comprising the structural form are in constant tension.

In chapter 1, I treat Pss 120–134.… After the analyses of individual psalms, I turn my attention to the small collection as a whole. It is in this section that I present the forces striving toward both wholeness and unity and individuality and separateness, above the level of the discrete psalms. I also present organizational schemas of the totality that knit the parts into a whole. Linguistic peculiarities, extratextuality and narrative development are three rubrics under which I examine the centripetal and centrifugal forces on the level of the totality of the Sons of Ascents.

Chapter 2 centers on the mystery of the structure of Song of Songs and keys to its unraveling. Peculiar and exotic elements; antiteleological structure; polyphony of voices; abrupt shifts; dazzling images including intersensory figures; poetic ambiguity; architectonic design; repetitions and associations; two sets of parallel pieces, the wasfs and the adjuration; and parallelism formulae are the categories according to which I investigate the interrelated poetic features that give some the impression that the book is an anthology of unconnected love lyrics and others the impression that it is an integrated unity. It becomes clear in this chapter on Song of Songs that many of the same forces for unity are paradoxically forces for disunity as well. The tension is remarkable in the Song and accounts for its puzzling nature.

Chapter 3 treats Lamentations. Five elegies on the single theme of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. comprise the book. Each elegy is, at once, an elaborate, self-contained poetic unit, a grouping of individual elements that strive for prominence in their own right, and an assemblage of poetic units seeking completeness in the totality of the five elegies, creating a unity on chapter 3 with attention to the interplay of their respective loosening and tightening forces: the common theme, the poetic meter characteristic of Lamentations but not unique to it, shifts in speaker and changes in perspective, verbal linking and echoing, the degree of historicity, the peculiar conventional imagery, closural devices, and the various ways of associating and dissociating stanzas. I show that the interaction of these features finds a point of equilibrium near the midpoint on the centripetal/centrifugal continuum.”
—from the introduction

“Grossberg displays a welcome sophistication that is rightly wary of qualification. He cogently remarks that when it comes to centripetal and centrifugal devices, ‘to tally is impossible—but to recognize is important’ (p. 27). Those who have learned about the single poetic line from M. O’Connor’s Hebrew Verse Structure and about the parallelistic couplet from Berlin’s The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism can expect to learn as well from Grossberg’s study with its primary focus on those unifying and diversifying tendencies that call significantly larger segments of poetic discourse—even entire poems—into being. This worthwhile pursuit will surely enjoy further momentum and refinement as other scholars adopt Grossberg’s agenda as their own.”
—J. Kenneth Kuntz, Journal of Biblical Literature

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