De Psalmen

By Lloyd Haft

Poetry is notoriously difficult to write about — perhaps the only form of literature that is more difficult to write about than to write. Even more difficult is to write about this book, De Psalmen, which is the collection of Lloyd Haft’s reworkings of, well, the Psalms.

  • Author: Lloyd Haft
  • Title: De Psalmen
  • Pages: 174
  • Published: 2003
  • Publisher: Querido
  • ISBN: 90-213-6701-1

These reworkings are emphatically not translations. Lloyd Haft has taken all necessary freedom to take that out of every psalm which touched him or persuaded him to take as the kernel of his reworking. This has resulted in a collection of poems that can be read by themselves, but which becomes richer when read together with the source text.

It is difficult, of course, to decide which source text to take. I have taken Father Adrian’s translation published by the Convent of Saint John the Baptist as my primary source for comparison, since that is the translation I use in my own prayers and which is used in our own church. This
translation is based on the Septuaginta (the old Alexandrinian Greek translation of the Torah). Lloyd Haft has used other Dutch and English translations: the Dutch Statenvertaling, the NBG and Canisius and the King James and several others.

Neither of us is really conversant with the Septuaginta Greek, the Hebrew original or the Vulgate Latin translation. But then, there won’t be many who are. A parallel text English, Latin and Hebrew is given at: the Unbound Bible or Sacred Texts.

The very personal choice of which elements of a psalm are the ones to be included in a collection of personal poetry like this rather excludes issues of fidelity to a hypothetical original text. There are psalms that some theologians consider too rude, too primitive, to
violent to be presentable. As Lloyd Haft quotes the Dutch theologians Miskotte and Schulte Nordholt:

‘When minister Miskotte once protested that ‘one couldn’t let present-day Christians sing these texts of a Sunday morning’, Schulte Nordholt is said to have replied that as far as he was concerned, other days were out of the question, too.

As far as I’m concerned — I’m living in an entirely different tradition, a tradition that never throws something away because the times have changed. I’m fine with these psalms (58, 137 in the Dutch counting; not all collections psalms are numbered equally). Even these texts are part of my tradition, and I can value them.

Lloyd Haft is a poet whose work clearly bears the influence of the Chinese poetry he has studied for so long. In other collections this influence is even more clear than in this one, naturally, because of the source, but even here, the particular emphasis on the personal is strongly reminiscent of the personal in some modern Chinese poetry, as is the form — to me, at least.

As a possible example, and one of the psalms I found most strikingly reworked, I’d like to quote Psalm 10, where Lloyd Haft has made an interesting re-interpretation of the original text, moving the action to the ‘I’, and away from God. The first few lines:

Heb ik u verwijderd?
Gingen mijn gedachten u te ver?
Werd mijn hart u te warm
waar het brandde, woedde,
altijd u wilde?

This particular bit is counted as the second part of Psalm 9 in the translation I mostly use:

Heer, waarom houdt Gij U op een afstand,
en verzuimt Gij het ogenblik dat wij in nood zijn?

In the Greek and Latin, too, it is God who keeps himself distant, absent. In De Psalmen, it is the ‘I’ who wonders whether he has removed God from his presence. When I read this version, I felt, perhaps, enlightened — it’s difficult to find the right words. Illuminated, perhaps. Reading Lloyd Haft’s version of the Psalms is in the end illuminating ones relation with God; and perhaps even deepening it into a more personal relationship.

I prefer reading parallel with other version; others may prefer reading the poems on its own. Both are equally valid, only I prefer to surround myself with a stack of books.