Poetry as Prayer

We all claim to love it. At the mention of Poetry, the favourite poems we learned at school come rushing back: The Snare, White Fields and Danny , by James Stephens, Trees by Joyce Kilmer, The Presence of God, by Joseph Mary Plunkett, Sycamore Tree, by John D. Sheridan, A Cradle Song, by Padraic Colum, When You are Old by William Butler Yeats, My Land, by Thomas Davis and so many more. We have lined-up and sought out our favourite Poets – Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, Heaney, Oliver, Kavanagh – all for a purpose, all for different reasons. The gift they have appeals. Their poems carry depth of meaning. They leave us pondering and we want more. But what is Poetry and what makes it so attractive to so many.

According to Wordsworth (1770-1850) “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It takes its origins from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” Poetry is about staying with reality, observing, pondering reality and working to find language to give expression to that reality, expression that will convey meaning. It says different things to different people. It speaks in many tongues.

The source of poetry is our deepest inner selves. It is ‘soul-work’. It is about sharing what is of depth within us with others. It is an art form and like all art forms it requires skill, conviction, determination and an element of risk. Poetry invites us to enter into the silence and solitude of its hermitage where the total attention it calls forth enables us to turn from our usual self-centredness and come to a moment of selflessness that is the space of ‘epiphany’- to use James Joyce’s expression- an epiphany that can illumine our darkness, touch on the Divine and give us a whole new understanding of ourselves.

Poetry is beautiful. We read it because as Samuel Tylor Coleridge observed, “it is the best words in the best order”. We read it because it is pleasurable, a pleasure derived from rhythm, repetition, rhyme, from imagery, thought and emotion. It awakens us to the beauty of the natural world around us – God’s gift to us.

Poets are explorers. They are those who venture in a state of inspiration into regions of consciousness which in most of us remain dark and unexplored. They help us to appreciate that everything that is, is holy. They encourage us to look into our inner and outer world and to enjoy these more abundantly.

In the silence and solitude of the poem, as we read and reflect on the words within the hermitage, the mystic Simone Weil says, “we become God’s prey.” God captures us by God’s beauty, for God is the source of all beauty. Like the mystical prayer of the saints, poetry plunges us into the spiritual depths where there can be real encounter with the Divine.

In his book, An Astonishing Secret, Daniel O’Leary claims that, “beautiful words transform the soul; they warm the heart; they set the imagination on fire” and that, “we live and move and have our being when we carry beautiful words inside us.” He goes on to point out that poets of nature such as William Wordsworth and Gerard Manley Hopkins know that the hidden beauty they sense must first be experienced in their own hearts before they attempt to shape and open it up for others. Nor is the revelation of God always in things bright and beautiful. T.S. Eliot finds in an urban wilderness the Presence of ‘an infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing’, while Mary Oliver finds heaven in ‘a few weeds in a vacant lot’ and Patrick Kavanagh sees ‘that beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God taking fleshy shape and breathing his love by a cutaway bog’.

I believe all Poetry is powerful. It has the power to inspire, impact and impress. It is a prayer.

Daniel O’Leary reminds us that “Revelation is about how to see everything in a delightfully new way, using the most divine gift of God’s imagination now incarnate in all of us”. And, according to Victorian Poet Christina Rosetti, it is grace that teaches our hearts to see and to recognise. She says:

Lord, purge our eyes to see

Within the seed a tree,

Within the glowing egg a bird,

Within the shroud a butterfly.

Till taught by such, we see

Beyond all creatures Thee.

Indeed, God comes to us disguised as ordinary, as pain, as ‘what happens’. In his Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that “when we see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them”. Poetry can be a powerful tool through which to achieve such a goal.

Through poetry T.S. Eliot turned from agnosticism to belief in God, Francis Thompson from the degradation of alcohol and opium to re-embracing his faith. Gerard Manley Hopkins was converted to Catholicism; Jessica Powers entered the cloistered life; Seigfried Sassoon converted to Catholicism at the end of his life and the mystic, Simone Weil, felt she was possessed by Christ. So, why not allow poetry help us reflect on our lives and draw us closer to God?

How does poetry speak to you?

Margaret Bradley