Martin Bidney rewrites the “Song of Songs”

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Martin Bidney (Photo by Dora Polachek)
For Martin Bidney, musical rhythm plays an important role in literature – whether he’s reading poetry or writing his own. Since his retirement, Bidney, professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at Binghamton University, has challenged himself to write poetry every day. His latest work, “A Lover’s Art: The Song of Songs in Musical English Meters, plus 280 Original Love Poems in Reply – A Dialogue with Scripture” (Dialogic Poetry Press, 2017), came about because of his difficulty reading the original biblical text, in Hebrew or in English.
“I began this book by re-singing the biblical ‘Song of Songs’ in musical English rhythms with rhyme patterns and all the other sound-craft I could muster – and I did that so I’d be able to sing it!” Bidney said in an e-mail interview. “I can’t grasp the rhythm of the Hebrew original. Nor does even the most treasured English rendering, which we find in the authorized version [of the] King James Bible (1611), offer any reliable time signature, a steady, dependable meter for the word music units.”
Perhaps the musical aspects of literature play such an important role for Bidney because he is also a musician. In addition, he sees meter and rhythm as essential to the poetic form. “Regular meter, or poetic rhythm, has traditionally been considered the structural basis of singing in words, and, from this standpoint, poems are word songs,” he noted. “Poems can also offer pictures, opinions, expressions of feeling and stories. But for me – a violinist, folk fiddler in several traditions, chorister and folk singer – music always feels like the heart and center of it all. Sometimes I even claim that lyrical writing is violin playing by other means. What does ‘lyrical’ mean, anyway? It means ‘playable on, or singable with, a lyre, or harp.’ And a violin is a bowed lyre. I can actually sing, quite easily, any poem I’ve written to a tune as a piece of music. Though I compose tunes continually every day, I have yet to decide if my tunes are good enough to record with any of my Solomon poems. Maybe the best thing that could happen to me is for a good composer to come along and write some settings.”
Although he has rewritten the text of the “Song of Songs,” Bidney sought to embrace the spirit of the original. “I felt King Solomon would appreciate my effort if I tried to make his glorious hymn to passion a melodious work with vigorous and nuanced poetic rhythm to enhance the canorous appeal,” he added. “I’m not enough of a Hebrew scholar to render the original directly. But in versifying the King James translation, I tried to keep intact as much of the vocabulary, meaning and even sentence structuring as I could. I deeply love the King James version (a masterpiece of the age of Shakespeare) and I wanted to show that. At the same time, every artistic versification is a new work of poetic art.”
In fact, while writing the poems, Bidney felt a literary connection to King Solomon. “I feel I was born to carry on a dialogue with King Solomon because all my poems are love songs,” he said. “That is because, as psychologist Julia Kristeva rightly claims, the effects produced by musical poetry are inherently erotic: color, tone, shape, rhythm, sound, all have a ‘libidinal force.’ I write melodically shaped phrases on a page and fall in love with whatever I’m talking (better: singing) about. So my poems are all love songs because of their techniques of shaping and voicing. But they are also love songs on account of their content, as interpreted in the light of Solomon’s master-melody as it has been interpreted for the last few hundred years.”
Bidney explained how Marvin Pope’s Yale commentary on the “Song of Songs” helped him better understand the biblical text. Pope noted that there were three historical stages of interpreting the “song,” something is reflected in Bidney’s poetry. “First, we have here one of the most devoted celebrations of passion between a man and a woman that the world has ever known,” he said. “It can change your life by giving you an unexpected, revelatory fullness of Being. On account of love, we are each a miracle. Second, in the 16th century, a tradition arose of considering the ‘Song’ in the light of Solomon’s other Bible book, namely ‘Proverbs,’ a book of wisdom. Don Isaac Abravanel suggested that the king was talking to Lady Wisdom. And if we take this idea seriously, what happens then? Stage three: since Wisdom is God’s own life-giving principle that vitalizes the universe, we can suppose that Solomon’s beloved is, on the deepest level, the Shekhinah Herself, the indwelling emanative female presence of God as we feel it in our hearts. This culmination of the interpretive tradition is operative in kabbalistic thinking today. In sum: my poems are erotic in form and love-based in content. And since, in my Solomon book, I love woman, wisdom and world, all the love poems are part of my first and never-failing love, that of being alive.”
The theme of love plays an important role in Bidney’s original poems. His general approach to love is “happy, if not downright ecstatic, since I have happy blood chemistry,” he said. “But I want to learn as much as I can about love, as well as pay tribute to its complexity. So I offer poems about love thwarted, rejected, misplaced or otherwise frustrated and stymied and despised.” The poems don’t always focus directly on human love, though. “There’s a great range of nature poems, to show love for plants and animals and elements, even a six-part lyric on the love of cats,” he added. “There are all kinds of oddities, including a Chasidic anecdote on the aphrodisiacal properties of garlic, and a study of the love for obsolete verb forms in English. The book concludes with a poem about me called ‘The Wild-Ox and the Twelve-Year-Old.’ There’s a poem about visiting a channeler of Mother Mary. Many poems reference Judaism or Christianity, but a large number also introduce a plenitude of loving thoughts about Islam.”
Bidney has already completed his next book. “My next – or rather current – project, a manuscript at press right now, is ‘A Hundred Villanelles / A Hundred Blogatelles,’ a wisdom book made of brief poems, each with two repeated refrains, and each accompanied by a blog-plus-bagatelle,” he said. One feels certain it won’t be his last.
For more information about Bidney and his other books, visit
“Solomonic Song of the Night”
Reprinted from “A Lover’s Art” with permission from Martin Bidney
Rise up, my dear, and give the moon her due: / It is enough that sunlight shines in you. / The calm I feel at midnight may you share, / The coolness of the prefaced autumn air, / The deepened breath in heightened silences, too.
The green grows darker of the trees that bear / A heritage of rain, her emblem wear. / Rest up, my dear, and give the moon her due: / The stars in blueness guard that heaven-hue / The while the crickets hymn, the life aware.
The heart is warmed in chill, that I to you / May send this token of lover true: / I see you turn to me your features fair, / I, Shula, stroke in dream you streaming hair. / Rest up, my dear, and give the moon her due.