As a child, I never learned how to pray. My parents aren’t religious, and I can’t remember a single instance, when my mother or father uttered the word God. And yet despite this fact, I have cultivated, through the art of poetry mostly, a reverence for the divine. When I read poems I look for a similar reverence and find, more often than not, that there is a correlation between a good poem and what might superficially be called piety. Not the insincere pretending, which anyone might do to seem good, but a kind of goodness, which is good for, well, goodness sake. This goodness is beyond mere talk of right and wrong, and it certainly isn’t concerned much with social justice. Poets who labor under the assumption that goodness comes from a desire to do good in the world miss the goodness I mean here. Their fight is always with the material world, and while it may be true that one’s material circumstances matter, it is more true that this is but another case of treating the symptom rather than curing the disease. For poetry to be earnest in the best sense of that word – and this is equally or doubly true of prayer – one must start from an urgency.
Last night, I was reading A.R. Ammons’ poems from the book A Coast of Trees, and was struck once again at how much like prayer those poems seem. When Ammons repeats that “this is just a place,” or asks, “Who will mourn the dead the dead mourned?”, I am reminded of the Pascal Pensee on Diversion. I bring this up now because Pascal mentions the need for diversion as a means to keep men from thinking about mortality. If poetry is to penetrate the surface of things and come close to touching the divine, it must reach beyond diversion. All good poetry does. And what is prayer but an attempt to reach beyond diversion? Contemplation, meditation, all acts of true scholarship–these activities of the mind draw attention to causes, perhaps even the cause. It is in the elegy “Easter Morning” that Ammons most breaks through to touch the answer. Like with many poets, it is far away from institutions and governments and libraries and schools that he hears it. In other poems it is the mountain that talks. But here it is the image of two raptors, one circling and the other doubling back and, finally, both fly on. All losses, the poem would indicate, are temporary. The image and Ammons’ vision suggest that those who we lose catch up to us, or we to them. The finding may be, not so much the doubling back of the dead to this place, but is perhaps – this seems to jive more with reason – that to die is different from what we expected. It is not loss, but doubling back.
This is Whitman’s point, too, when he contemplates the grass brought to him by the child. One might argue that Ammons has been influenced by Whitman, but that would miss the truth which every poet knows and, if you have ever prayed in earnest, you have come to understand, too, and that is this. The answers we need come from the questions we ask and the attitudes we take. If one needs consoling, one will be consoled. This is why Christ blesses those who mourn. It is the desire for consolation, which invokes. What honest prayer or honest poem has ever come from anything less than this need? This isn’t prayer or poetry which can be taught. This isn’t the sort of consolation which might come as the result of a particular policy or ceremony, but indeed, it is all there is of faith.
For me, faith has always been the measure of what I do. It is an action. But poetry and, therefore, prayer – because for me, there is no difference between the two – are the ends of faith. Or, perhaps it is better to say, that faith is the end of prayer and poetry. It doesn’t matter if the poem asks for strength or praises that which is wonderful. It doesn’t matter if the poem comes from a profound loss or even more profound despair. What matters is that one summons the courage to meet the answer where it lies. True humility is knowing where one thing begins and another ends. A poet’s job is to know where his poetry ends and his life begins. And the few and lucky and, perhaps, blessed, for whom these lines are blurred, become the saints in whose utterances we catch a glimpse of that which his ends aimed to find.
They say that one ought never pray for oneself. Emerson says it is malicious to do so. But I don’t know how one could do otherwise. In order to understand my meaning, it would be necessary to understand that for a prayer to be a prayer and a poem to be a poem, the need has to be so absolute and the answer so far beyond the reach of he who asks, that it can’t be fulfilled any other way. Who would take the long and difficult pass, if the shorter distance would suffice? The poetry I mean, and the prayer I mean, can’t be learned by rote, but must be forced upon us. If I have placed my faith in poetry to make me a happier, better man, that faith has not been misplaced. How could it have been placed elsewhere? A poem or a prayer is the last resort. It soothes when nothing else can or will.