Poetry as Prelude to Prayer

Article by Dana Greene (June 2017 eNews)

Poetry like prayer is a form of primary speech, an expression of the intensity of life breaking forth in language. Both can tap into latent energy, expand it, and in the process create a communion, which overcomes separation and loneliness. Both evoke a powerful attachment to life, engaging and linking one to a reality beyond oneself. Poetry and prayer collude with human experience to bring one to some place which is fresh and unexpected.

In what ways does poetry wedge open the “door of the heart?” The first discipline of both the poet and the pray-er is paying attention. …A lack of focus bedevils all reflective activity, including prayer. In her poem, “Flickering Mind,” Denise Levertov describes this common experience. She writes:   “Lord, not you,/it is I who am absent….I stop/ to think about you, and my mind /at once/like a minnow darts away,/darts into the shadows…./you the unchanging presence, in whom all/moves and changes./How can I focus my flickering, perceive/at the fountain’s heart/the sapphire I know is there?”

The human capacity to “flicker” is well developed. To countermand it one needs to slow down and be still, to take on a deliberate posture of waiting and openness, an intense alertness, which is not passivity but a grounding in being. Poetry and prayer share this same intentional stance.

Both poetry and prayer proceed with respect for what is not there—the absences, the empty spaces, the silences. Think of the poem on the page. It is sparse, austere. Unlike prose, the poem takes up little room. It is surrounded by white space. And prayer too is full of white space and empty clearings.

In poetry as in prayer, imagination is central. In both it is a tool for engagement. Levertov, in her New and Selected Essays, says that to believe in imagination is “to live with a door of one’s life open to the transcendent, the numinous.” For her, imagination is that “which synergizes intellect, emotion and instinct, is the perceptive organ through which it is possible, though not inevitable, to experience God.” Paying attention allows one to bring alive through imagination the reality perceived, to give a kind of life to that with which one engages. Levertov describes this process: “The deepest communication, the lasting communion of which poetry is capable, always flows from that inner center outward to meet the other inward depth that receives it.” The engagement is such that a response is elicited from that which is focused on. Keats, for example, maintained that if one looks at a tree long enough, the tree looks back. It may be that in this process of focusing, of paying attention to God, one creates the opportunity for God to come alive, that is to be born in oneself. In this sense the process of poetry and prayer is parallel: pay attention, imagine, engage.

The objects of engagement in poetry and in prayer are ineffable, therefore both forms of primary speech are analogical or metaphorical, not literal. Both poetry and prayer point to that which cannot be named. Both evoke and call on that which is beyond the self.

Both poetry and prayer make memory come alive; both remember and relive powerful human experiences in all their particularity. In “Primary Wonder,” Levertov elicits the universal power of recollection and its consequence.

Days pass when I forget the mystery….

And then

Once more the quiet mystery

Is present to me, the throng’s clamor

Recedes:  the mystery

That there is anything, anything at all,

Let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,

Rather than void:  and that, O Lord,

Creator, Hallowed One, You still,

Hour by hour sustain it.

Poetry is the ally of prayer. …It may well be that prayer is ally to poetry as well, nurturing creative life. What is obvious is that both demand a constellation of qualities—attentiveness, receptivity, humility, patience and even courage—which are paramount qualities of Christian life. To practice poetry may lead to practicing prayer, which may lead to practicing the life within—which is to be near to God.

This article is an excerpt of one previously published in the National Catholic Reporter. Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111 * NCRonline.org.

June 06, 2017 by Dana Greene 4 Comments
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Susan Etherton
Susan Etherton
6 years ago

Dana, what a lovely and powerful offering! It speaks to my own truth so eloquently. Thank you!

Kim Langley
6 years ago

Love this! I have had the privilege of facilitating poetry circles at a retreat center for about 10 years, and those mornings of silence and sharing with great poets as our guides have been some of the most prayer-full moments of my life.

Shelley Ritchie
Shelley Ritchie
6 years ago

Thank you so much for this. I help for both prayer and poetry. I help for both prayer and poetry. Prayer and poetry.b thank you so much for this.6

d. ellis phelps
6 years ago

Both poetry and prayer proceed with respect for what is not there—the absences, the empty spaces, the silences. Think of the poem on the page. It is sparse, austere. Unlike prose, the poem takes up little room. It is surrounded by white space. And prayer too is full of white space and empty clearings.

Dana: Thank you for this reflection. During a recent writing-residency I was privileged to experience, another female poet and I spoke at length about the use of space by women poets and why it might be that sometimes, some of us need so much of it on the page around our words. We talked about all the places we do not have the space to speak our truths, or maybe we do not take the space we need. We spoke of the unspeakable; how the spaces might represent those unspeakable things, giving them room to heal.

Here, I simply love the way you have compared the white space in poems to the need for white space in prayer, as umbilical juice for birth of prayer.

I agree. I so very much agree.


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