Poetry As A Spiritual Practice – Aching For The Roof

I am
a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through
listen to this

Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz (1320-1389)

from Love Poems from God, trans. Daniel
Ladinsky, Penguin 2002

The Sufi poet Hafiz, in his poem above  reminds me I am more than just a physical creature; the breath of the divine moves through me. This reminder becomes prayer; and I change how I see the world and myself. Even something as everyday as breathing can become a sacred act. This is how poems, whether or not they address God directly, can bring me to prayer and reignite my longing for the transcendent.

How do we grasp the ungraspable? Poetry is a way; it attempts to say the unsayable. When I pray to God, the great “unseeable”, I often feel at a loss for words. My longing for what seems inexpressible can overwhelm me. That is when certain poems bridge the gap; poems that  somehow manage to capture a glimpse of what is inexpressible. One poem that has become such a bridge for me is The Roof Nail from Robert Bly’s latest book Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.

A hundred boats are still  looking for the shore.
There is more in my hopes than  I imagined.
The tiny roof nail lies on the  ground, aching for the roof.
Some little bone in our foot is  longing for heaven.

Oh,  how I relate to these metaphors! I often sit, lonely, aching for the roof. Poems like this tell me I am not alone in this longing! I can feel the ache and my
desire for God! And then the roof seems much closer, the ache abates. Almost
without knowing,  I am pulled into prayer and God. More than anything this
prayer/poem reminds me to pay attention to God who suddenly seems to show up everywhere I look. Ah, the paradox – we find the evidence for God not by looking up but by paying attention to the so-called ordinary life going on right beside or in front of us. And that is what so many poets do for me. They point out the ordinary and presto there, right there, the extraordinary appears. I think I am reading a poem when already I am praying a poem!

What I so enjoy in almost all of the poems provided in this on-line course is I become an eavesdropper – I am directly or indirectly overhearing a conversation between the poet and the unspeakable . And in the listening I find myself at the door of silence and look! my own words, my own poem walks out shyly to nuzzle me. This image comes, not from poems provided in the course, but from the Canadian poet, George Whipple. He was a favorite of the poet Margaret Avison who was famously befriended by Denise Levertov. Whipple, now in his 80’s is not well known even in Canada.

Here is his poem /prayer: The Voice of Silence.

For those ashamed of being  human
The simple rituals of nature
(the rustle of the rain,
a salmon-leap of wind
that wrinkles clouds on water)
are like a charm to summon
from the mind’s thesaurus
the distant deer bells of a  poem
stepping shyly through the  darkness
to find its only writer.

To silence or to speech
The ear must pay attention:
The deaf relate by signs
They seem to finger-sing:
Sharp hail’s a language
Understood by blind men.
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.

You learn to listen, Whipple  says. Hafiz says listen to this music.  What is poetry if not a listening, a meditation, a prayer where,  if I get out of the way,  the “other voice” will come. What Tomas  Transtromer, this year’s Nobel Laureate in iterature, says in his poem Morning Birds about a poem can apply to  hearing God talk back in prayer: Fantastic to feel how my poem grows/ while I myself shrink./ It is growing, it takes my  place./ It pushes me out of the way./ It throws me out of the nest.

And  when I became quiet, got out of my own way and listened, here is what walked  out to nuzzle me into words. Listen:  

Fall  Prayer


Prayers come to the lake to  drink,
step warily, every motion a  query. So much
water everywhere!

Last blazes! Trees on fire don’t  have time
to think. Each leaf, a prayer
to the invisible God. So much
wind everywhere!

Red lights at the end of  narrow branches, blackness
honks. No traffic, just his  eyes look
at the Shiraz maple his woman planted; the last red  leaves
spider into prayer. So much
to praise everywhere.

I went quiet, words came – a poem, a prayer. It was just a few days ago. I looked
up from my writing desk and saw the alders and broad-leaf maples turned,
momentarily, to gold and in the field, saw a deer walk with a care I might
imagine a child gives to each step on new ice. Without warning my first word appeared  – Prayers – and even though my  intention was to pay attention and just  be conscious of what was so obvious in front of me the poem became a
prayer of praise. Not because I began with Prayers  come to the lake to drink but because I was made aware, by my looking and  words, of the huge riches all around me.

Thy Kingdom Come

Heaven bent, huddled by the road,
tatters for clothes – torn cumulus,
no instructions for finding home.

After his wife died, the man crawled
everywhere for strands of her hair.
His lauds, vespers – daily prayer.

The new musics berry into red fruit;
taste a lot like the old musics.
You ripen into what you didn’t know

Here is another poem that became a prayer. This one started in my head with the  phrase heaven sent. Then I changed  it.. The poem became prayerful right away but not as I expected. Suddenly I  found myself seeing this world around me as a bent heaven, one lost yet still carrying echoes of what I might  imagine as infinite beauty. Then  a joy  of the many musics of harvest, something of heaven, surely – that ripening –  bent back to a world where what ripens, falls; bends back to Jack Gilbert in  his excruciating poem, Married, searching on his knees for  strands of his dead wife’s hair.  


I came back from the funeral  and crawled
around the apartment, crying  hard,
searching for my wife’s hair.
For two months got them from  the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under  the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the  closet.
But after other Japanese women  came,
there was no way to be sure  which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko’s avocado, I  find
a long black hair tangled in  the dirt.

Because  of the reference to Gilbert’s poem,  my  poem becomes bitter sweet, a prayer for what we can’t keep and what we can.  Michiko is taken but Gilbert is given strands of her hair. Shocking – a prayer.  A prayer of acceptance. Gratitude for even the smallest of mercies.

My  poem and Gilbert’s echo back to Adam Zagajewski’s poem Try To Praise The Mutilated  World. At its end we are given remnants, not the thing itself and it is  enough.

Praise  the mutilated world
And the  gray feather a thrush lost
And the  gentle light that strays and vanishes
And  returns. 

We are not given the thing itself  – the bird –  but just the gray feather; we
are not given full light but just gentle  light and even that, before it returns, strays  and vanishes. Yet, it is enough. The gifts a poem can give us. And another  echo echoes back to me. Bly’s roof nail aching  for the roof.

Here  is a another  recent poem:


This morning crafts columns,
shafts  of sunlight through the trees.
Monks  fade back inside shadow.
They  chant their minims – the breeze
tangled  in branches and leaves. The altar
has  waited all these days for me.
Its  candles thunder – a train moving
through  mysteries into light again.
I drop  to my knees for forgiveness,
a  pilgrim
fingering rosaries left behind by the mist.

Obviously, not all poems become direct calls to, or  recognition of, the divine but sometimes they do. Like this one. And suddenly I  am praying before I know it. Poetry as prayer.