What Do Poetry and Prayer Have in Common

Diane Roth, who is an associate pastor of one of the Lutheran churches in the Twin Cities (Woodlake Lutheran), wrote a blog post recently that began with the confession that although she loves both poetry and prayer, she doesn’t feel that she is particularly good at either one. Nonetheless, emulating some of her favorite poets, many of whose poems really are prayers (Mary Oliver and Denise Levertov are the examples she gave), she said she had been writing occasional “haiku prayers” over the last year or so. This activity prompted her to reflect on what poetry and prayer might have in common.

She suggested three ways the two are similar. The first is that both “have a necessary honesty.” A good poem, Roth suggested, “is, above all, honest. It doesn’t pull punches. It tells the truth. In fact, poetry is one way of getting deeper into truth, an expression of joy or lament or love that strips off artifice and reveals the depths of pain and hope.”

Prayer, of course, is the same. When I read her post, I was reminded of something John Powell, S.J., wrote:

Speaking to God honestly is the beginning of prayer; it locates a person before God… In speaking to God we must reveal our true and naked selves. We must tell him the truth of ourselves. We must tell him the truth of our thoughts, desires and feelings, whatever they may be. They may not be what I would like them to be, but they are not right or wrong, true or false. They are me.

Second, Roth suggested that prayer and poetry are both elliptical, by which she means that both “leave some things unsaid.” She elaborates,

Poems make you read between the lines. They do not say everything. Prayers do too, but in a different way, and perhaps for other reasons. Prayers a elliptical, because it is impossible to say all that is on our hearts. The apostle Paul has it right, “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” and so prayers will always leave some things unsaid. And yet, not saying everything, a poem or a prayer somehow becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Each of her first two points is true and important in its own right. But perhaps the most important commonality she reminds us of is that “you don’t have to be good at it.”

I recalled when I read her post a conversation I had with my then spiritual director many years ago. I was having trouble expressing a deep feeling and I bemoaned, that if I were a poet I could express the depth of what I was a feeling in a poem. “What stops you from doing it?” Of course it was my feeling that it wouldn’t be good enough. Good enough for what, he chided me. Just do it, he encouraged me. And so I did. It wasn’t a great work of art. No one other than me and God ever read it. But that was just fine; the poem served its purpose.

Likewise with prayer. Directees or retreatants or others I counsel sometimes worry about whether they are praying “right.” There is no right; there is just you and God in honest encounter.

I was reminded when I read Roth’s post of Mary Oliver’s poem Praying, which I leave you with:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.