“I’m still amazed. And I still say, after writing poetry for all this time, and now music, that ultimately humans have a small hand in it. We serve it. We have to put ourselves in the way of it, and get out of the way of ourselves.” Joy Harjo
When Poets Pray is a collection of meditations written by the writer and professor of medical humanities, Marilyn McEntyre (b. 1949). The fusion of poetry and prayer rests on the recognition that these two practices are closely related.
This work centers on a single yearning: teach us to pray. What exactly is prayer? Communication? Attention? Devotion? Marilyn McEntyre thinks of prayer as different ways that poets and their readers enter into divine presence. So then who will teach us to pray?
"Those who teach us are not always parents or priests or pastors. Sometimes we learn from strangers on street corners whose words stay with us. Sometimes we learn from children, who know how to ask in trust that what they need will be given. Sometimes we learn from poets. 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—of the grandeur of God flaming out “like shining from shook foil,” or of a “beauteous evening, calm and free” when “the holy time is quiet as a nun / breathless with adoration.” Marilyn McEntyre, When Poets Pray
When I first read her work, I learned one of the most profound lessons of my life: don’t go on, go in. These five words flavor every relationship in my life, including my reading and writing practices.
I read these words as a call to sit with a friend in her pain.
I read these words as a call to sit with a child in his delight.
I read these words as a call to sit with a text in its ambiguity.
I read these words as a call to pay attention, after all, attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity. This is how I think of prayer – as attention, as devotion, as surrender.
Marilyn McEntyre weaves together profound meditations on poets like Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Denise Levertov. Each reflection is written as poetically as the classic or contemporary poet who inspired it.
"Poetry, as we see, can open pathways into prayer. Sometimes we will find in a poem the prayer we need for the moment, and that poem can simply be received and recited gratefully, traveling from the poet’s heart to ours to God’s. Sometimes the words or phrases we encounter in a poem trigger associations that open new avenues of reflection or awareness: we wouldn’t have thought to put it just that way. We may also find in poems echoes or amplifications or correctives or provocations to look further, to ask new questions, to stay through the dry times, to enter our places of darkness unafraid." Marilyn McEntyre, When Poets Pray
Mary Olivier describes attention as the beginning of devotion. If we teach our children to attend to the natural world around them, their consciousness will expand. More than that, their love of life will increase.
If we show them how to turn the building blocks of language over in their hands by meditating on poetry, these associations echo through time and space and allow them to enter into what Rudolf Otto describes as creature consciousness – a recognition of one’s smallness in the created order.
This is what poetry makes possible: new associations that open up a rich relationship with others – a shared sense of aliveness.