My thoughts these days have revolved around prayer rather than poetry. For me these two aren’t so far apart. Many of the poems I have written are more prayer than poem, as far as I’m concerned anyway, especially if the aim of a prayer is to say, at last, Thy will be done. (Essentially, this is what it means to say, Yes.) But I think it is more than that. As I have mentioned in another post, what strikes me about prayers, like the psalms, say, is the stance the psalmist takes toward the divine. In the case of the psalms, the stance can shift from verse to verse, and sometimes from line to line. A good prayer, a good poem – at whatever divine object it is aimed – will, must do the same. It is the mapping of these shifting attitudes, which reveals, at last, who we are, what our trouble is exactly, and from where we have come and are going still.
Therapy works this way, too, and so does confession. Sponsorship, for those in 12 step programs, works this way. And the best confessors, therapist and sponsors offer us a chance to see the patterns which emerge in our lives and in our prayers. The primary difference between prayer or poetry and these three activities is that what was aimed before at God is now aimed toward another person and what may be divine in him. And yet poetry, even when published in a book, hardly asks its reader to be responsible for the mapping of the poet’s life or pointing to possible patterns there. A poem doesn’t ask for forgiveness or strength or guidance. It asks for a reader’s attention. It asks for the reader to assume, as if entering into a church, an attitude of reverence. It is this attitude, if done correctly, lovingly, playfully, which opens up in us the possibility to see not the poet more clearly but ourselves.
I guess all relationships offer us the possibility of seeing ourselves more clearly. And it is in service to others – at least, this is what I am coming to understand – that we see what is best in us, what is most divine. It isn’t enough, then, merely to write poetry or, for the religious, to pray. One must also do something, because if we are to see the divine every day we must see it in other people. We must find it living in our community, in our homes, and in our lives. And it is there. One can find a record of it even in the darkest poems and the most contentious prayers. The aim, then, if one is to read a poem, would be to align oneself with the divine. The aim of reading a poem is to say, Yes.
And haven’t we all had that experience? The last line of the poem leaps or dribbles or rises from a poet’s lips, and we sigh and say, Yes. It is the sigh itself, which anticipates the affirmation. It is the spirit’s response, which I say the intellect hears and must answer. It is easy, however, to hear this sigh and affirm it, but it is far more difficult to keep that yes on one’s lips all day or through the night. It is this that makes poetry or prayer essential. We must struggle to find that which we ought to do. Or, better still, to find the strength to continue, when we have grown weary or confused. And yet how many poems celebrate, too, and say only, “Yes, this is a beautiful world, and I am grateful”?
It is a beautiful world, however horrifying it seems. I might have said “from time to time” here, but that wouldn’t do justice to the horror. There is always an element of the horrible. The stooping of the hawk, for instance, which arrests me every time I see it, means the snake will soon be seized. And yet what a sight it is to see these two, as if one, rise from the field. I can imagine even the snake must say, Yes. After all, what good would his No do him? Even his struggling seems more affirmation than denial, to me, as if he were saying, Yes, take me up but I will make the ascension difficult. I will make it cost you dearly. The hawk’s Yes perches, finally, in the highest limb, satisfied. The best we can do is take note, and say: It is true.