Poetry as Prayer – Dialog June 2017

This article first appeared in the June 2017 Issue of Dialog: The Texas Episcopalian published by the Episcopalian Diocese of Texas.

I have been privileged during the past eight years to lead poetry-as-prayer retreats for participants from Episcopalian parishes in Lake Jackson and Houston. In those retreats I have witnessed many people, almost all of whom are not practiced creative writers, write poems that are also deeply personal prayers. And when the retreatants share those poems they become part of a larger communal poem or prayer that feels like unexpected grace. Poetry-as-prayer.

In the AA recovery community there is a wonderful question: Who’s in charge?  And that question, for me, is at the heart of my understanding of poetry as prayer: that when I pray or write poetry at my truest, I am not in charge.  Some mysterious other inside me creates the words.

This idea that a poem can hold wisdom or knowledge the writer isn’t aware of may seem strange to some but as a poet I am constantly amazed how my poems write me, not the other way around! This is the remarkable nature of poetry! We don’t write because we know. We know because we write.

As Canadian poet Susan Musgrave says: Sometimes it seems to me my poems know more than I do and are wiser than I am. It is this quality of poetry that for me connects it to prayer especially in the sense described by W.S. Auden, a Christian and celebrated 20th century English poet:

The serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen to what I would call the voice of the holy spirit. He goes on to say: the voice I am talking about always says something new and unpredictable – an unexpected demand, obedience to which involves a change of self, however painful.

American Poet Li-Young Lee is clear that this same process is true for poetry: You surrender to the will of the poem, you surrender to the divine will which a poem is. Not all poets are this direct in attributing the presence of the divine in their poems but many see the critical importance of paying attention as a link between poetry and prayer. Irish/American poet Eamon Grennan says:

You try to register in the poem as much of the life you’ve lived as you can. And while that can be a moment of just looking at ants, an enormous amount may funnel through that particular moment of perceptive awareness or attention.…..It’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it, “to pay attention.” Because what do you get in return? You get a return of knowledge in the broadest sense. Somebody said that God only wants our attention. Another way of putting it is that attention is a form of prayer.

I think many people understand that reading poetry can be prayer. The Psalms in our Episcopalian tradition are the most obvious example. But I wonder how many of us would consider our own poetry as a way of praying as Grennan does? As a way, as Lee and Auden say, of giving up control. The way American poet Mary Oliver describes in her poem Praying:

just pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

I invite you to try this. To write poems as prayers so that you experience what Canadian poet Pier Giorgio Di Cicco expresses with such force:

We tap into his musics and call it page, a song.
When our will is congruent to what we hear,
we are poets
and people of prayer.