What Can We Steal From Nick McRae’s “Psalm 137”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Psalm 137,” poem
Author: Nick McRae
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Psalm 137” was originally published in Issue 50 of the Hayden’s Ferry Review.  Mr. McRae has been kind enough to make the poem available on Ink Node; why not read that poem and several others of his?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Titling

Discussion:
“Psalm 137” asks six questions, each of which seems to lament the changing nature of “manhood” in contemporary society.  Mr. McRae dedicates the poem to his “grandfathers” and mentions old men who laugh with each other and spit tobacco juice and young men who,

elbow deep in grease,

leaned, blackened, into the shells of Internationals,

knuckles bloodied, and tooled the cast-iron carcasses to life?

Mr. McRae demonstrates a sense of economy in the way he uses his title.  Instead of simply plucking out one of the poem’s particularly memorable lines, he makes reference to the Old Testament.  Thanks to public domain, I can simply paste the King James Version of Psalm 137 below:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

What does Mr. McRae gain with his choice of title?  The whole poem is colored by our understanding of the psalm.  What does it mean to me?  Well, it seems as though the narrator is lamenting the loss of a homeland and a way of life.  What a coincidence!  Mr. McRae’s poem seems to lament the conventions of the “old days,” in which we all had a closer connection to nature and more people (women included, of course) fixed things themselves.  When Mr. McRae invokes the psalm, he is creating a literary dialogue between the two…all with the simple choice of a two-word title.

Phew!  Look at the length of some of those sentences.  I know, I know.  Your middle school English teacher told you not to write long sentences.  Mrs. Amaya’s advice was very shrewd at the time, as most sixth-graders don’t have the skills necessary to put together a solid 100-word sentence.  Now that you’re a writer, however, it’s your solemn duty to experiment with language and to play with syllables.  Feel free to let your poetic sensibility loose.  What do you have to lose?  You can always revise your work.

“Psalm 137” teaches an unexpected lesson.  Look at the version of the poem I’ve linked above.  Now order a copy of Issue 50 of the Hayden’s Ferry Review.  Have a seat.  Wait for your mail carrier to deliver it.  Good?  Okay, open the package and turn to page 61.  Notice any differences between the two?  That’s right, there’s an additional stanza in the version of the poem that Mr. McRae posted online.  The sixth stanza (missing in the Review) is slightly different from the others, explicitly mentioning Psalm 137.  What happened here?

A little birdie told me what happened.  The kind editors of the Hayden’s Ferry Review suggested to Mr. McRae that the poem be published without the final stanza and Mr. McRae graciously assented.  It’s safe to say that all of us love the work we produce.  Our poems and short stories and screenplays are like our children, aren’t they?  No matter how hard it is, we must take criticism and sometimes change our work based upon it.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make the title of your work do work.  There’s nothing wrong with having a title that is simply pretty or simply refers to the main characters of your story.  It is possible, however, for your title to do some structural work.  Mr. McRae doesn’t need to mention Psalm 137 in the poem itself because the reader already has it in the back of his or her mind.
  • Employ long sentences in the interest of making literary music.  Long, beautiful sentences can enhance the music of your work.  Lush sentences like the ones in “Psalm 137” engross the reader in the same way that a listener can be captivated by a symphony.
  • Accept criticism gratefully, especially when it comes from really smart people.  At some point, an editor (or even a friend) will make suggestions with which you may disagree.  Instead of being defensive, try to see your work through different eyes and understand that you can always reinstate the final stanza in a future collection of your poetry, so to speak.

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