Those of you who’ve read my Quad Talk columns in The Oxford Times over the last two or three years will know how obsessed I have become about the Book of Psalms, writes Edward Clarke.

Last Sunday you may have heard Clarke’s Psalter on BBC Radio 4 – a documentary produced by my former New Hinksey neighbour, Anna Scott-Brown, about me writing my own Psalter.

I have just published Eighteen Psalms, a selection of these poems, and I’ve now finished the first full draft of a future book, engaging with all 150 Psalms.

It’s been delightfully exhausting, getting up between two and four most mornings, to write for a few hours before my family awakes, and now I face a huge amount of rewriting and revising.

I love engaging with the Psalms because they are so old and strange and mysterious. But they are also so familiar to us today as if already internalised: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”, declares the sheep-speaker of Psalm 23.

I love Psalm 42: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.”

Although I have worked my way through the Hebrew text, consulting old concordances and lexicons, in making these poems, my Bible is very much the King James Version and its foundational 16th-century translations.

Unfortunately I am the first generation not to have grown up with the old Book of Common Prayer in church and so Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms is less familiar to me than our revised versions of it. Donald Davie has rightly emphasized that any late modern engagement with the Bible must remember the “suffering and dying” involved in the early modern translations.

My poems are not translations or versifications. They are conversations with, and hesitations about, these ancient texts: sometimes “imitations as unruly as | My sons”, as I complain in my unruly imitation of Psalm 80. In the spirit of Psalm 1, they are always transplantations.

Oxford has been a great city to write this book.

I passed Biblical Hebrew 1 at the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford University. I’ve also been a fairly committed member of the Oxford Psalms Network, attending a range of revelatory talks at Pusey House, and even giving a reading myself one evening.

I am happy to say that Susan Gillingham, who plays a key role in the network, will be quoting from, and commenting on, a few of my poems in her forthcoming book on the reception of the Psalms through the generations.

As I write this book I ask myself, how will our future have been changed if the divine is awakened in man through poetry?

Without the soil of our tradition how can we grow and cultivate for ourselves imaginatively the tree of life?

These poems are my attempt to conjure the spirit of David as a guide to moving up and down or across that tree.

  • Edward Clarke teaches English literature and creative writing at various Oxford colleges and the Department for Continuing Education, Oxford University.
  • His work is available at Clarke’s Psalter is available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer Radio