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Good Letters

20080415-is-poetry-prayer-by-peggy-rosenthalAt a recent retreat that I was leading on meditating with poetry, a participant came up to me at break and said “but you’re going to distinguish poetry from prayer, aren’t you?—talk about how poetry is not the same as prayer?”

I thought about this during the break, and flipped through the notebook I carry around containing quotes by poets on how they see their craft.

There was Edward Hirsch, interviewed way back in Image #28, saying “There are ways in which poetry is similar to prayer. Serious poetry seeks the transformation both of the speaker of the poem and the reader waiting somewhere down the line. ‘To understand poetry,’ Garcia Lorca once said, ‘we need four white walls and a silence where the poet’s voice can weep and sing.’ One enters that space with the hope that, through the making of language, the making of poems—poesis, after all, means making—one will be taken away, one will go where one hasn’t been before. We hope to be possessed.”

And in the very next issue of Image, Pattiann Rogers was interviewed taking up the theme. “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 in praise, in confusion. I make this while knowing nothing. Accept this, accept me.’ I believe that when human beings perform creative acts of imagination and do so with reverence and joy, they are praying. They are bestowing honor.”

More recently, writing in Image #49, Robert Cording sounds a similar note. “Both poetry and prayer acknowledge the limits of the ego. In this sense, their origins are rooted in invocation—a calling out to that which cannot be seen or logically understood and which ultimately cannot be put into language. As Wilbur writes in his poem ‘For Dudley,’ ‘All that we do / Is touched with ocean, yet we remain / On the shore of what we know.’ For me, prayer and the kind of poetry I admire…reside at this shoreline of the inarticulate. Both embody a longing and a reaching toward the inconceivable. Both refuse to be silent when they face that mystery, though they both admit that all words reach toward and end up in silence.”

So here are three eminent poets identifying their creative process with prayer. But what about readers of poetry. Is their experience like prayer? I know that mine can be. With Robert Cording, I find that reading a good poem draws me toward the mystery that is beyond our language but at the root of our being. How about you other readers of poetry out there? And you poets? Is your personal experience of poetry akin to prayer? I’d love to hear your take on this. And maybe it will find its way into my traveling retreat notebook.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

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