Blackout Psalms

Some of my students’ Blackout Psalms.

This is the second year I’ve done an exercise known as ‘Blackout Psalms’ and my students really enjoy it. What are ‘Blackout Psalms’. Well, it’s a form of Blackout Poetry, which has been described this way:

the poet takes a found document, traditionally a print newspaper, and crosses out a majority of the existing text, leaving visible only the words that comprise his or her poem; thereby revealing an entirely new work of literature birthed from an existing one. The striking imagery of the redacted text — eliminated via liberal use of a black marker (hence: “blackout” poetry) — and the remaining readable text work together to form a new piece of visual poetry.

E. CE Miller, ‘What is Blackout Poetry?’

Why would I do this with the Psalter? Well, first of all, I ask them to read the Psalm they’ve chosen closely. They need to get familiar with the words. This give them the opportunity to really experience to Psalm first. Then, they read through it scanning the words to see what new poem or prose can emerge from the text. The point of this part of the exercise is that they get to see how language shapes language: poems can be broken down like food that nourishes us and psalms can too. The vocabulary of the psalms become our vocabulary and then we repurpose those words to say something with our own voice.

Sometimes the product is funny. For example, I chuckled when a student turned in the single line ‘I, God, drink alone’ from Robert Alter’s translation of Psalm 4. Silly? Maybe. Theologically insightful and poetic. I think it’s that too. I mean, the first thing I thought when I read it was that the Abrahamic religions often talk about God’s ‘Otherness’ and that Otherness might be perceived as sort of lonely. God, so different, is framed as a kind of loner sitting alone at a bar having a drink knowing that God’s self struggles to relate to the humans with which God is surrounded. Overthinking it? Sure, but I enjoyed the thought experiment. In fact, for those in the Christian tradition, it forces us to ponder the doctrine of the Trinity and what this might say about God’s aloneness before creation.

Sometimes the product is serious. Sometimes the painful words of the psalms become fresh expressions for my students. Alter translates Psalm 6.3b, ‘And my life is hard stricken.’ One of my students redacted the entire psalm down to the words ‘my life is hard’. This shows me what they see and hear in the psalm.


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