An Alphabet of Poets – J is for Jarman

An Alphabet of Poets – J is for Jarman


With this prayer I am making up a God
On a gray day, prophesying snow.
I pray that God be immanent as snow
When it has fallen thickly, a deep God.
With this prayer I am making up a God
Who answers prayer, responding like the snow
To footprints and the wind, to a child in snow
Making an angel who will speak for God.
God, I am thinking of you now as snow,
Descending like the answer to a prayer,
This prayer that you will be made visible,
Drifting and deepening, a dazzling, slow
Acknowledgement, out of the freezing air,
As dangerous as it is beautiful.

Mark Jarman (1952 – ) from Unholy Sonnets, Story Line Press 2000

A master of the poetic craft, the American poet Mark Jarman has a flair for metaphor. which the poem above demonstrates so well. I especially appreciate how he stretches and expands the metaphor of God as snow. Ah, the exquisite image of God as snow responding to a child in snow/ Making an angel who will speak for God. And how wonderful the longing in this prayer/poem that God be made visible which is exactly what the poem has done.

I first came across the poems of Jarman years ago in Image, the quarterly journal published out of Seattle, with the descriptors – Art Faith Mystery. Jarman, who teaches at Vanderbilt has become oft quoted out of his book Unholy Sonnets published twelve years ago. The poems in this book are exquisite – not just because they are all in sonnet form but because of their range and Jarman’s wry sense of humour and lack of earnestness! A good quality for a writer of religious poetry. Here is a good example of his sense of play:

Prologue to Unholy Sonnets

Please be the driver bearing down behind,
Or swerve in front and slow down to a crawl,
Or leave a space to lure me in, then pull
Ahead, cutting me off, and blast your horn.
Please climb the mountain with me, tailgating
And trying to overtake on staightaways.
Let nightfall make us both pick up the pace,
Trading positions with our high beams glaring.
And when we have exhausted sanity
And fuel, and smoked our engines, then, please stop,
Lurching onto the shoulder of the road,
And get out, raging, and walk up to me,
Giving me time to feel my stomach drop,
And see you face to face, and say, “My Lord!”

In an interview with Image in 2001, Jarman  says how his poems in Unholy Sonnets were influenced conceptually by John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnets. He also says how the use of the sonnet form helped him:

I also discovered that the form itself was remarkably flexible.… Finally… I didn’t want to make any sentimental assumptions about religious belief. Though it might seem paradoxical, I thought the strict requirements of verse and of the sonnet… would keep me working against the grain of piety and devotion. That is another reason why I called the sonnets ‘unholy.’… I knew I was writing religious poetry, devotional poetry, but I didn’t want to exclude readers who might not believe as I did, and I didn’t want to rely on the traditional language of religious belief. My aim… was to surprise a reader in the midst of a religious poem.

Two more to savour:

from Unholy Sonnets # 34

Although  I know God’s immensities can speak
In sunlight’s parallels and intersections;
although I know the spiritual technique
For finding God in all things, when I pray
It is to nothing manifest at all.
And although I know it’s merely technical,
I do not pray to nothing. Yesterday,
one of those offhand, razor-share rejections
The world flips like a Frisbee grazed my cheek.
It drew blood. No consoling recollections
Of having shaken off that sort of play
Helped me forget it. I could not recall
My strength, and brooded, lost and tragical,
Till, marking this blank page, I found a way.

Psalm: First Forgive the Silence

First forgive the silence
That answers prayer,
Then forgive the prayer
That stains the silence
Excuse the absence
That feels like presence,
Then excuse the feeling
That insists on presence
Pardon the delay
Of revelation,
Then ask pardon for revealing
Your impatience
Forgive God
For being only a word
Then ask God to forgive
The betrayal of language.

from Image, Issue #9, 1995


  1. Posted April 15, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Again… thank you Richard. Especially moved by his description of why ‘Unholy Sonnets’… and drawn again toward Seattle Pacific… hmmmm…

  2. Richard
    Posted April 15, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Didn’t know you were aware of Seattle Pacific’s MFA program run by Greg Wolfe, editor of Image Journal. I know many of its graduates and have met many of its teachers over the years. A great program. Image and its programs, especially the Gen Workshops, have so influenced my poet’s journey. I took my first poetry workshop with American poet, Julia Kasdorf, at the Glen West in 2004!

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