[b-hebrew] O'Connor-Length of Poetic Lines

Ken Penner pennerkm at mcmaster.ca
Thu Jun 24 13:18:37 EDT 2004

> I was wondering if any listers had strong opinions one way or another
> about M. O'Connor's, "Hebrew Verse Structure." What do you 
> think of his
> line constraints? If you find them unacceptable, what system 
> do you use for determining line length?

For my MA, I compared prominent theories on Hebrew poetics, and tested their
applicability to a poem from the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QHa XI, 20-37). I did
not find O'Connor's conclusions to be helpful in this particular case study.
In general, I found Watson (Classical Hebrew Poetry : A Guide to its
Techniques [JSOTSup 26; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984]) to be the most
helpful. I wrote:

There is much to commend [O'Connor's] study: he attempted to be very
objective, he showed a good grasp of linguistics and of the relevance of
other languages, he used a sizeable sample of data, which he analyzed and
presented thoroughly. But for all these strengths, his method failed to
elucidate the poetic techniques in our test poem.
The failure of O'Connor's method stems from two sources: one, its assumption
that statistically rare syntax marks structural boundaries, and two, its
inability to accommodate changes in a language's syntax, changes like
increased sentence length and increased use of infinitives. These two
problems, in conjunction, yield structural analyses in which most lines come
to be marked as boundaries. The problem arises as follows. 
First, the longer length of sentences at Qumran generally carries over into
poetry. These longer poetic lines then stretch or even break the constraints
O'Connor determined by statistical analysis of early poetry. If they stretch
the constraints but do not break them, they are long and thus considered
statistically rare and therefore marked. If the lines break the constraints,
they are broken in two smaller halves, which often lack clause predicators,
and consequently are also statistically rare and therefore marked. At the
same time, these broken lines have a dependent relationship, which marks
them as troped. Finally, the frequent infinitive clauses are dependent as
well, and are therefore also marked.
O'Connor's method could possibly be salvaged by calculating a new set of
constraints for Qumran poetry. At the very least, the maximum allowable unit
count needs to be increased. But even with these adjustments, I am doubtful
of the value of O'Connor's proposal because he does not use it consistently
himself. In his worked examples, too often he uses historical background or
context as the basis for determining structural boundaries. At least in the
form given in Hebrew Verse Structure, O'Connor's method is of no value in
explaining the poetic devices of our poem.

Ken Penner, M.C.S. (Biblical Languages, Greek Focus), M.A. (Hebrew Poetry)
Ph.D. (cand.), McMaster University
pennerkm at mcmaster.ca
Hebrew vocabulary software: http://s91279732.onlinehome.us/flash or

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