Poetry magazine might seem an unlikely spot for reflections on prayer, but there was a rigorous discussion in its back pages recently. It began with poet Carmine Starnino recalling how the prayers he heard growing up in the church first alerted him to the power of words. Prayer has something do with writing poetry, he acknowledged.
But he went on to emphasize the differences. Writing poetry is a self-conscious craft, done with an audience in mind, whereas prayer is meant to lift us out of ourselves:
Writing poetry is not, in itself, a prayerful activity. That’s because prayer is not a craft; it is the opposite of a craft. It is a focused devotional feelingfulness. . .a mind tuned to the frequency of the unsayable. (Simone Weil described it as “paying attention to God.”)Michael Pope wrote in to Poetry to disagree with this distinction and offer the example of a Mary Oliver poem that begins as follows:
O feed me this day, Holy Spirit, withThis poem really is a prayer, argued Pope.
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
But Starnino didn't buy it:
[The lines from Oliver] aren’t poetry or prayer but an example of the faux poetic: lofty, ego-pleasing, opportunistic, pretentious. It’s exactly the sort of sloganism (“Oh feed me this day, Holy Spirit”) that Christ criticizes in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.I think Starnino is a bit harsh on Oliver, but it is refreshing to see a poet like Starnino grasp the distinction between the aesthetic and the religious modes of feeling and acting.