On prayers and poems

Paul Gauguin, "Young Christian Girl" (1894)

Executive Editor of The New Criterion, David Yezzi, on “the uncanny family resemblance” between prayers and poems:

In A Political Philosophy (2007), the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues that, as humans, “we instinctively connect the sacred with the transcendental, seeing holy places, times and rituals as windows onto another realm . . . which we try to explain through theological doctrine, but which always in the end deludes our attempt to describe it.” This is where poetry comes in.

Mystics are bound by words, just like everyone else. Expressions of mystery typically raid poetry’s standard tool kit, largely for its ability to think metaphorically, to push language beyond hackneyed formulations, and to transmit an emotional charge through music and rhythm. Not infrequently, mystics are themselves poets. Of St. John of the Cross, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain wrote that “very often saintly souls who have had the experience of spiritual things have also received the graceful gift of speaking of it in a beautiful, persuasive and luminous way.”

Poetry’s linguistic precision, memorability, and transportive power are the stuff of the Psalms, haiku, and the Bhagavad Gita. As Scruton writes elsewhere, through ritual the worshiper is “freed for a moment from the world of objects, flowing freely into a ‘mystic communion’ with the other subjects who worship at his side.” Prayer is the believer’s primary avenue to such mystic communion, and many poems—by Hopkins, Herbert, Donne, Eliot, and others—either take the form of prayers or have this prayer-like effect.

The poet and monk Thomas Merton called prayer “a raid on the unspeakable,” and poetry drinks from the same well, adding to our store of what is sayable. Poetry’s ability to urge language, though music and metaphor, beyond the bounds of conventional, ratiocinative connections, has always been one of its elemental features. As someone once said, “The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling/ Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,” and so on. Poetry has the ability to give to the ineffable “a local habitation and a name”; prayer employs the same strategies. As C. S. Lewis wrote regarding the poetic aspect of prayer: “Trust the purport of the images every time. For our own abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modeling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms.”

* * *

Perhaps the most well-known description of prayer in Renaissance poetry is George Herbert’s “Prayer (I),” with its associative series of jeweled metaphors:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth . . .

Herbert’s poems do not hesitate to enter into the “familiar conference with God” described by Andrewes. In such poems, the distinction between poetry and prayer becomes very blurred indeed. Herbert’s “Love (III),” for example, begins “Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,” and moves to this striking conclusion: “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’/ So I did sit and eat.” The poem recounts an exchange between the poet and Love (God) that achieves the “face to face” condition of prayer, and it was as a prayer that the philosopher Simone Weil came to see the poem. Weil had “Love (III)” committed to memory and recited it to herself during her debilitating migraines. The poem, she wrote, “played a big role in my life, for I was busy reciting it to myself at the moment when, for the first time, Christ came to take me. I believed I was merely resaying a beautiful poem, and unbeknownst to myself, it was a prayer.”

This raises an interesting question: Are poems and prayers the same? Weil distinguishes between the two, then suggests the possibility of one becoming the other. This seems right to me. As close as these identical twins appear, it is usually possible to tell them apart. For one thing, poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions. The two become almost indistinguishable, however, when the experience conveyed by the poem is the poet’s experience of God.

What, if anything, differentiates Robert Louis Stevenson’s splendid poem “Prayer” from a prayer outright?

I ask good things that I detest,
With speeches fair;
Heed not, I pray Thee, Lord, my breast,
But hear my prayer.

I say ill things I would not say—
Things unaware:
Regard my breast, Lord, in Thy day,
And not my prayer.

My heart is evil in Thy sight:
My good thoughts flee:
O Lord, I cannot wish aright—
Wish Thou for me. 

The sentiment, the address, even the theology of the poem are unassailable as a prayer of supplication and petition. If there is one aspect that seems more poem-like than prayer-like, it is the witty rhetorical movement of the poem, which revises each attribute—breast, prayer, thought, wish—until, at poem’s end, all these “abide in Thee.” The brilliance and ingenuity of the expression competes for our attention with the experience of spiritual communion. This is slightly at odds, perhaps, with the Maritains’ definition of prayer: “an attraction of the soul towards Him, for the sake of Him.” Not, in other words, for the sake of art. Still, as Weil’s experience suggests, with the correct intention the function of the object may shift and a “mere” poem become the best of prayers.

“Power of some sort or other”: on poems and prayers (The New Criterion, April 2012)


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