Skip to content

Good Letters

20110713-inspector-clouseau-and-poetic-playPart of the delight of preparing my new course on Poetry as a Spiritual Practice for the Glen Online has been returning to some favorite interviews with poets in past issues of Image. I enjoy reading what contemporary poets have to say about their art almost as much as I enjoy reading their poems.

I love, for instance, that Pattiann Rogers confesses to using a comical doll as part of her spiritual practice of writing poetry. Interviewed in Image #29 (Winter 2000), she says: “I’ve kept a small jester doll for years sitting on my desk where I write. It reminds me not to take myself too seriously.” (Good advice for us all.)

Rogers goes on to make a point that for me touches poetry’s core: “Poetry always has an element of playfulness about it. Good poetry moves language around in strange ways, invents new words, creates unusual juxtapositions, places words in spaces where they have never been before, and sometimes surprises itself at the results of its own whimsy.”

My Glen Online course is not on writing poetry, but on reading it as a spiritual practice; but Rogers’ point about the playfulness of poetry holds true for the reading of it, too. Sometimes readers think that when they begin to read a poem they must get their minds into super-serious mode.

Not at all! The language play that creates poetry can issue in serious thoughts, yes; but still it is play.

To write good poems, a poet must love the play of words: their various qualities of sound and rhythm, their punning, their marvelous ability to resonate with and echo one another, their potential to surprise, to show us the most ordinary things afresh.

Mark Jarman concurs when, interviewed in Image #33 (Winter 2001-2) about his collection Unholy Sonnets, he says “My aim…was to surprise a reader in the midst of a religious poem.” And surprise he does. Take the book’s prologue sonnet, which begs God to join in a road race.

Poetry’s play, I’d even say, keeps at bay the sentimental. Not as in that trivially internal-rhyming line I just inadvertently wrote. But in the sense that Australian poet Les Murray describes in his interview in Image #64 (Winter 2009-2010). Asked to distinguish between what’s sentimental in poetry and what isn’t, Murray responds: “I think it’s probably in not telling lies. There’s always something false about the sentimental. When it’s feeling without lies, it’s terribly scary, but it’s not sentimental.”

So the kind of truth that poetry tells can be “terribly scary.” Is that consistent with poetry’s “play”?

I’d argue yes. Think, for example, of Scott Cairns’ pensive “Evening Prayer,” in his collection Compass of Affection. With startling candor, Cairns’ poem draws us into the evening of human suffering and doubt. The poem begins: “And what would you pray in the troubled midst / of this our circular confusion save / that the cup be taken away?”

Yet as the poem goes on to multiply images for “our circular confusion,” the play of sound and rhythm draws us into the poem’s depths. Listen to the alliteration of “gr,” the sound-echo of “late” and “leaden,” and the deliberately plodding rhythm of these lines:

the road has taken
on, of late, the mute appearance of a grief
whose leaden gravity both insists on speed
and slows the pilgrim’s progress to a crawl.

Play is not inconsistent, either, with what Cairns calls “sacramental poetics.” Interviewed in Image #44 (Winter 2004-5), Cairns elaborates on how the poetic can be sacramental. “Like the holy mysteries, the poetic is utterly involved with presence, not merely its history, but also its currency and its continuing, life-giving current, its influence.”

Presence itself, I’d add, is the grace-filled play of our God who astoundingly makes a home in our very flesh. One of my favorite poems dramatizing the play of the Incarnation is Kathleen Norris’s “; Luke 14: A Commentary,” in which Jesus appears as the film comedian Clouseau, the bumbling detective who in the poem falls “spectacularly” into a fish pond and comes out announcing “I fail / where others succeed.” (Read the whole poem at

The sheer fun of the poem pulls us into the astonishing joy of an incarnational world. Whereas in G.K. Chesterton’s famous line, “Satan fell by force of gravity, by taking himself too gravely,” Norris’s Jesus falls delightedly into the stuff of this world.

As does poetry—the play of which, at its best, is full of grace.

Which cycles us back to that Image interview with Pattiann Rogers, where she says: “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.”

And then she quotes Kierkegaard: “Laughter is a form of prayer.”

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

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

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

If you like Image, you’ll love ImageUpdate.

Subscribe to our free newsletter here: