An Alphabet of Poets – M is for Miller

Without Ceremony


Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;

Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.

We do not have to name them; we are here.

And You who can make eyes can see no less.

We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,

A posture humbler far and more downcast;

While Father Pain instructs us in the arts

Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.

We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war

On silence (farther, mystics never flew)

But on the common wings of what we are,

Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,

Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,

When we have not a prayer except ourselves.

Vassar Miller ( 1924 – 1998) from If I Had Wheels or Love ,Southern Methodist University, 1991

Vassar Miller
(1924 – 1998) was a Texan who, in spite of life-long cerebral palsy, wrote ten books of poetry, was twice Poet Laureate of Texas and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In spite of these honours she is not well known today. Perhaps that is because so many of her poems reflect her abiding Christian faith. If so, it’s a pity. This poet deserves a wide following.

Like R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), the Welsh priest and poet whose work so reminds me of Miller’s, her poems echo the cries of all humans who ask the big questions no matter their religious faith or lack of it.

As someone who has struggled with prayer, with my deep sense of loneliness, which Thomas says defines us as humans; as someone so aware of how absent God can seem to be, I cherish these two poems of Miller’s: in a world too often without evidence of God. And I do not cherish these just because of the content. I cherish them also for their craft, in particular the first poem, a sonnet. Peggy Rosenthal, in her 2002 volume, Praying the Gospels Through Poetry, so beautifully teases open the craft and meaning of this poem.


from Love’s Bitten Tongue

Lord, hush this ego as one stops a bell

Clanging, cupping it softly in the palm.

Should it make music, silence it as well,

For there’s no difference when one wants calm

Of silence from the ego’s loud tinnitus

Buzzing in spirit’s ear with no relief,

With every reverence a false hiatus

Which brings these moments I name prayer to grief,

Tempts me to think I better honour them

By turning away from prayer as I did once.

So my thoughts, snared by their own stratagem,

Like balls that children toss aside, all bounce

In my head back and forth until despair

Of praying may, in mercy, become prayer.


from If I had Wheels or Love


Cologne Cathedral I came upon it stretched against the starlight, a black lace of stone. What need to enter and kneel down? It said my prayers for me, lifted in a sculptured moment of imploring God in granite, rock knees rooted in depths where all men ferment their dreams in secret. Teach marble prayers to us who know no longer what to pray, like this dumb worship’s lovely gesture carven from midnight’s sweated dews.


from If I had Wheels or Love

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