Book Review: When Poets Pray

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Published:
July 1, 2019

"Poets slow us down. They teach us to stop and go in before we go on. They play at the edges of mystery, holding a tension between line and sentence, between sense and reason, between the transcendent and the deeply, comfortingly familiar." —Marilyn McEntyre

Ever since I read Marilyn McEntyre’s Word by Word (2016), she has become a favorite author of mine, and I look forward to each new book with great anticipation. All are slim volumes whose brevity does not diminish their depth of thought and purpose, and each has given me a new-found appreciation of God and faith through their explorations of language, the known and the unknown, the finite and the infinite.

Her latest, When Poets Pray (2019), is no exception. In it, McEntyre contemplates the relationship between poetry and prayer. "We often look to poets to give language to our deepest hopes, fears, losses — and prayers," she writes. By sharing the poems that have held special significance for her over the years, McEntyre offers us the gift of journeying with her on the path of prayer, that often lonely road. "Poets have enriched my prayer life by giving me lines that lift up my heart, or words for lament, or images that widen my awareness..." she writes, then continues:

Poetry and prayer are closely related. Even poems that make no pretense of broaching the sacred invite us to look closely and listen to words, to notice how they trigger associations and invite the mind to play with meaning, how they summon feelings that take us by surprise....Not every poem is a prayer, but I have come to believe that poetry, even for the angry and the disenchanted, takes its inspiration and energy from the Spirit who teaches us to pray (1-2).

Twenty four poems by the same number of poets are included, some familiar and others less so:

Hildegard of Bingen, from Meditations

Lucille Clifton, "spring song"

Walter Chalmers Smith, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"

Robert Frost, "A Prayer in Spring"

Wendell Berry, "Prayer after Eating"

Joy Harjo, "Eagle Poem"

John Donne, "Holy Sonnet XIV"

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord"

SAID, Psalm (from 99 Psalms)

Marilyn McEntyre, "Assurance"

George Herbert, "The Call"

Thomas Merton, "The Candlemas Procession"

Denise Levertov, "The Avowal"

Galway Kinnell, "Prayer"

Scott Cairns, "Possible Answers to Prayer"

Mary Oliver, "Praying"

Marin Sorescu, "Prayer"

T.S. Eliot, from "The Dry Salvages"

Richard Wilbur, from "The Eye"

Francisco X. Alarcón, "L.A. Prayer"

Anna Kamienska, "Those Who Carry"

Michael Chitwood, "On Being Asked to Pray for a Van"

Anonymous, Truck Driver's Prayer by a Young Ghanaian Christian

David, Psalm 139:1-12

The book is divided into sections titled "Nature's God," "Wrestling," "Praying," "Witnessing," and "Known and Knowing." Each poem is followed by a brief discussion by McEntyre, who in addition to being a prolific author is also a professor of English, and as with all great teachers, her voice here is inquisitive, expansive, and inviting. She shares the context surrounding each poem and poet, offers up her own thoughts and insights, and encourages the reader to draw their own conclusions and takeaways as well.

Some of the poems McEntyre has chosen are arresting in their beauty, such as "Eagle Poem" by Joy Harjo, a contemporary poet from the Muskogee (Creek) nation. McEntyre writes, "'Eagle Poem' reminds us that prayer is something heard, received, and lived before it is distilled into words" (31). Some of the poems are humorous, others uplifting. Still others hit like punches to the gut, like "L.A. Prayer" by Francisco X. Alarcón, a Mexican-American poet and educator who penned this poem in the wake of the Rodney King riots. "Prayers erupt in moments of raw terror or fury — first comes the visceral reaction to danger or horror, and then, often before much thought intervenes, a prayer rises deep in the belly to drown the waking best of fear," says McEntyre of this poem. She continues,

The more I read this poem, the more I recognize how powerfully it reminds me what it costs to be a 'peacemaker'....To pray for peace is to pray for the courage to show up and bring peace to where there is no peace....It's not an invitation to take lightly. It is...a calling (108).

I appreciated the diverse selection of poets included in When Poets Pray, each a distinct voice uplifted, bearing out our human emotions, vices, and virtues — of devotion, suffering, selfishness, love, greed, praise, and joy. Each poem is a raw appeal to God, all pretense stripped away, to hear us, to know us, to bear with us in our humanity. Put simply, each is a prayer.

 

Further Reading:

Book Review: Occasions by Marilyn McEntyre

A Review of Word by Word: A Daily Spiritual Practice

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies — Spectrum 2014 Book Club Pick

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Book cover image courtesy of Eerdman’s Publishing.

 

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