Poetry as Prayer

In the January 2010 issue of Poetry, the Canadian poet Carmine Starnino stated: writing poetry is not, in itself, a prayerful activity. In a response to a reader comment in Poetry’s April issue he said: prayer is silently broadcast, an act of inward surrender. Poetry…is meant to be shared.

These felt like fighting words to me since I lead at least one poetry-as-prayer retreat a year (see over on the right for a list of them). So I was encouraged when the American poet Chris Dombrowski brought up Starnino’s comments quite unexpectedly at a panel discussion during the 2010 Skagit Poetry Festival in La Conner, Washington this past May. Many thanks to Chris for sending me a copy of what he said. Here is an excerpt:

Frankly none of us knows what prayer is (though Starnino insists he knows what it isn’t), but many writers have hinted at a connection between the acts. Auden’s “To pray is to pay attention to something other than oneself”; Walter Benjiman’s “Alertness is the natural prayer of the soul”; and Merwin’s “Prayer is usually construed as making a connection. I don’t think that connection has to be made; it’s already there. Poetry usually has to do with recognizing that connection;” widen the playing field a bit.

I recently wrote an article entitled Poetry as Prayer in the June 2017 Issue of Dialog: The Texas Episcopalian published by the Episcopalian Diocese of Texas, and you can read the full text here.

This is a video from the Logos Project in which I talk about poetry as prayer in our daily lives:

 

Here is a poem by Gary Snyder that—well, if it isn’t simultaneously a prayer of gratitude, an evocation of the moment that inspired prayerfulness, and a simple but vivid description of the act, I don’t know what it is

24: IV: 40075, 3:30 PM, N. OF COALDALE, NEVADA, A GLIMPSE THROGH A BREAK IN THE STORM OF THE SUMMIT OF THE WHITE MOUNTAINS

O Mother Gaia
sky   cloud   gate   milk   snow
wind-void-word
I bow in roadside gravel

Rather than jump into a debate with Starnino I would suggest that there is a shared mystery at the heart of both poetry and prayer; that out of the silence of prayer and poetry images and words can appear that seem to have no connection to our conscious mind. Whether or not we attribute those images and words to the divine, the unconscious or a deeper self we can’t access easily, is not as important as finding ways for them to appear in the mind or the page. Poetry and prayer accomplish this.

Patrick Lane ( 1939 – ) in his 2004 memoir, There is a Season, defines prayer as speaking to what knows you. This speaking to a silence within us that is also beyond us. Lane, who has just published Witness – Selected Poems 1962 – 2010, is one of Canada’s celebrated poets. When I think about his definition of prayer I think about what poetry and prayer share in common; how easy it is to replace prayer with poetry, and speaking with writing to come up with a definition of poetry as writing to what knows you.

There is another connection between poetry and prayer that strengthens their kinship. William Blake (1757 – 1827) is often quoted as saying unmixed attention is prayer. That is equally true of poetry. Especially the kind of attention that Simone Weil (1909 – 1943) describes: Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.

Edward Hirsch (1950 – ) the American poet and essayist on poetry says this about Walt Whitman, the great 19th Century American poet: [He] reminds us that at its dramatic and spiritual peak the poem itself becomes a breakthrough into the divine. It is at this mysterious threshold that the idea of poetry as prayer takes hold.

Somehow the act or art of poetry is as much an art of receiving as it is an act of doing. David Richo (1940 – ) in his recent book Being True to Life captures this otherness of a poem when he says: A poem has a mind of its own. This is how a poem synchronously talks back to a poet and opens his work to a wider world.

Many poets acknowledge poetry’s kinship to prayer. Here are some lines by Wendell Berry (1934 – ) the American novelist, essayist and poet from his poem How To Be A Poet: Of the little words that come/out of the silence, like prayers/ prayed back to one who prays,/make a poem that does not disturb/ the silence from which it came.

Pattiann Rogers (1940 – ) is an American poet who also links poetry and prayer.In a very real sense – real to me anyway – my poems are prayers. They’re prayers that say, under their words, ‘Here, I make this praise, in confusion. I make this while knowing nothing.’

In an essay in the quarterly journal, Image, Robert Cording, the American poet says: a poem is a form of prayer, an act in which the poet attends to both God and to what is before him. The Canadian poet, David Waltner-Toews goes even further:“Poetry is my prayer, a giving form to inchoate, personal spirituality, and my hymn, a statement of a communal spirituality already formed.

In praying through the reading of another poet’s work you are already overhearing a conversation between the poet and the unspeakable . And in the listening we can often find ourselves at the door of silence and look! our own words, our own poem walks out shyly to nuzzle us.

For Canadian poet George Whipple the conversation begins with meditation. Perhaps like the silence Berry refers to. And through that meditation comes a voice that falls more softly than footsteps on the water. This is poetry. This is prayer.

By turning down the noise/ in your head, you may find/ yourself in conversation/ with the novice master’s voice.

In meditation there is peace./ The outer world is stilled./ You become an ear./ You learn to listen./ At first, with luck, you hear/ the sound of distant deer bells: / and then, from even farther,/a voice that falls more softly/ than footsteps on the water.

Listen to the words of Anna Kamienska (1920 -1986) a Polish poet whose hardships led her to a devout faith. Poland is noted for its fine poets including two Nobel Prize Laureates , Wislawa Szymborska and Czeslaw Milosz. Kamienska is not so well known but is a poet whose works stands with the best of theirs.

Kamienska has not only left us her poems but also her aphorisms collected in her notebooks. Here is one published in the June 2010 issue of Poetry:

I pray in words. I pray in poems. I want to learn to pray through breathing, through dreams and sleeplessness, through love and renunciation.

I pray through snow that falls outside the window.

I pray with the tears that do not end.

As I prepared for a poetry-as-prayer retreat last year I discovered a poem by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, former poet laureate of Toronto, priest, poet and urban planner! I couldn’t have asked for a better example of a poem that illustrates poetry as prayer. Especially the poem’s last two lines. I will let Di Cicco have the last words.

 

Dedication

I sing for you.

I am made for song.

It is my purpose, to invent new music, as a kind of prayer

that everything is, a cane tapping, a child running, the way

a leaf falls in its arpeggio. Everything states “consort”,

“orchestration”, and even music is to Him what is unrecognizable

to us:

the poor conversation, the bad day; it is our forcing

of a called tune that makes us deaf. For his musics weave

like wind, taking a sudden turn, holding up leaves, blowing the

snow.

We tap into his musics and call it a page, a song.

When our will is congruent to what we hear,

we are poets,

and people of prayer.

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (1949 – ) from Names of Blessing, Novalis 2009, p.33.

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