In his twelve-part poem, “Station Island,” Seamus Heaney acknowledges the ghosts of his and his country’s past, letting old regrets and resentments die in order to live more fully. Station Island, also known as “St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” is an ancient place of pilgrimage and penitence on Lough Derg, County Donegal. Part XI of Heaney’s poem opens with a childhood memory of sinking a kaleidoscope into muddy water, filling it with sludge that mars the beauty it formerly revealed. Heaney wonders if that lost vision can be “replenished.” Years later, during confession with a monk recently returned from Spain, Heaney is advised to “read poems as prayers.” For his penance, he’s told to translate an excerpt from the poetry of the Spanish Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross. The remainder of the poem is Heaney’s powerful rendering of John’s “The Song of the Soul which Delights to Know God by Faith.”
“Station Island” richly rewards the attentive reader. Like any text worthy of close inspection, there’s something new, something more on each return visit, with the reader bringing recent experiences, evolving struggles, and fresh insights to the page. As one of Howard Nemerov’s students said to him during a semester of shared close reading, “I see what reading is! It’s putting together what you’ve got with what it says.”
What caught my eye in revisiting “Station Island XI” earlier this year was the monk’s injunction to “read poems as prayers,” a way of reading that had lately been on my mind. I don’t pretend to speak for Heaney or the unnamed monk, but when I think of poetry as prayer, I don’t mean that all poems are prayers. Many – perhaps most – aren’t. Yet some poems are, having been made so either by intent or through the reader’s interpretative effort. Furthermore, worthwhile poems and heartfelt prayers share family resemblances. Both, for instance, run up against the very limits of what language can do, halting there as they must, but pointing (we hope) beyond themselves toward those deepest longings, fears, and sorrows we’re unable to articulate. I know prayer does this. Paul says as much in Romans 8:26-27:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Scripture itself fails to capture the fullness of that mystery we call God. Even those who believe Jesus is the Word made flesh know God can’t be contained in a book. Furthermore, Scripture abounds with puzzling or troubling moments, opacities that resist ready interpretation, those irritant nodes in the record of God’s word that Jewish scholars approached with a mixture of trepidation and daring in the writing of midrash. By imaginatively entering the story, they struggled with passages that perplex us to this day: the sacrifice of Isaac, the fate of Lot’s wife, Jacob’s wrestling match, Jephthah’s daughter.
Poems, too, gesture beyond where words alone can go, and in so doing, leave us with verbal opacities that demand our interpretive effort. A poem you fully comprehend after one reading is just so much mind candy. Good poems, like Scripture, invite and reward further reading. A great poem becomes a house whose interior space expands each time we reenter. The word “stanza,” meaning a unit of verse lines, comes from the Italian word for “a room.” Any poem worth returning to ushers the attentive reader into the next room of the poem, that space where you ponder what has happened to you in the reading.
Worthwhile poems and heartfelt prayers make something happen. Yes, W. H. Auden famously claimed “poetry makes nothing happen,” though I read that, perhaps subversively, as claiming that these flimsy nothings we call words actually can make things happen, if not necessarily in the visible world. I’m not at all sure what petitionary prayer changes in the world or the life of God. It seems rather presumptuous to tell the Maker of the Universe that I have some really great ideas for improvement that may not have crossed the Divine Mind. I do know, however, that prayer changes me, and for that I’m grateful. Certain poems do the same.
Prayers and poems are riddled with mystery and more than the sum of their constituent words. At heart, all forms of prayer – discursive or contemplative, petitionary or laudatory, private or liturgical – are practices of an active awareness that one stands in the presence of primal mystery. For the believer, of course, we are always and everywhere in God’s presence, even when surrounded by things we fear or hate or struggle to understand. Humans seem uncommonly prone to forget this. Prayer returns the wayward attention to the One who, in the words of St. Augustine, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Prayer is not a letter mailed to a distant correspondent, but a kiss bestowed on a constant lover. Prayer weakens and destroys those forces within and without conspiring to make the beloved’s presence unavailable.
Likewise, any poem worth reading makes some experience – emotional, physical, intellectual, or spiritual – available to the reader. A poem does more than merely describe or denote an experience. It grants it real presence. A poem doesn’t tell you what happened. It makes it happen to you. If it fails to do this to at least someone, somewhere, it fails as a poem.
Perhaps that’s why poems and prayers are best spoken aloud or, at the very least, silently mouthed. We are fleshly creatures, not minds imprisoned in bodies. Words must ring in the ear, swirl across the palate, or be tasted on the tongue before they can move the heart. In Scott Cairns’s “Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous,” he invites the reader:
…Even as you tend these lines, attend for a moment to your breath as you draw it in: regard the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth to throat to the furnace of the heart. Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath and blood, and do your thinking there.
An awakened heart attends to the near particulars of the world. Like pilgrims returned from Station Island, it’s prepared to see the world anew. Walter Burghardt, borrowing a phrase from a twentieth century Carmelite monk, described contemplative prayer as “a long, loving look at the real.” The same can be said of poetry. Reality isn’t always beautiful. If nature has long been “red in tooth and claw,” human greed and Anthropocene technology now condemn it to “wear man’s smudge and share man’s smell.” Dishonest verse, like the hypocrite’s prayer, pretties things up or revels in ugliness. Honest poetry and heartfelt prayer gaze lovingly on the mutilated world and find things still worthy of praise: “…the gray feather a thrush lost / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns” (Adam Zagajewski). In the end, poetry and prayer are practices of attention, affection, and awe; fresh opportunities to praise a world we have marred but not made.
Brian Volck is a pediatrician and writer living in Baltimore. He is the author of a poetry collection, Flesh Becomes Word, and a memoir, Attending Others: A Doctor’s Education in Bodies and Words. His website is Brianvolck.com