Poet-in-residence praises the Psalms


Jacqueline Osherow

Aaron Krumheuer | Staff Writer

Psalms is the book in the Bible containing 150 chapters of verse. Some sing to praise God and give thanks, while others lament misfortune and ask for guidance.

Jacqueline Osherow said she sees the Psalms as some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

“I’m Jewish; I care about it,” she said. “I love the Bible, and so the Bible seems to show up a lot in my poems.”

Osherow, the poet-in-residence for Week Four at the Writers’ Center, will present her Brown Bag lecture “The Psalms as a Collaboration between God and David” at 12:15 p.m. today at the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall. She also will speak as part of the Jewish Literary Festival at 4:30 p.m. today at  Everett Jewish Life Center at Chautauqua.

Osherow grew up in a Jewish family in Philadelphia and moved to Salt Lake City in 1989 to teach at the University of Utah. She now is a distinguished professor of English. Osherow has written six collections of poems, the most recent being Whitethorn.

In her fourth book, Dead Men’s Praise, she began a sequence of poems called “Scattered Psalms,” written in English but with allusions and similarities to Psalms. Some are addressed to King David and converse with the meaning of the texts. The writing style is partly an expression of identity, she said.

“I realize that by writing about Psalms, I could link two traditions that go into my poetry — the Jewish literary tradition and the English literary tradition,” she said. “They were combined in Psalms.”

Osherow said she remembers that when she was a little girl in synagogue, the Psalms stood out to her and she fell in love with the Hallel that was chanted on Jewish holidays. She lost track with many of these traditions in college but rekindled them when she found a Jewish community in Salt Lake City.

“The Bible is really an infinitely interesting text,” Osherow said. “I’m the one who always chants it, and when you chant it, you have to go over it again and again and again, and of course as a literary person, I start noticing all this interesting literary stuff.“

At the University of Utah, Osherow teaches a course called the Hebrew Bible as Literature. While she is not a Biblical scholar, she has come to know the book in her own way through chanting, she said.

Her lecture will outline her method of interpretation. The Psalms are not just poems written to God; they are an invocation for God to write through the poet, she said, and this two-fold meaning is how the Psalms derive their poetic energy.