Prayer and Poetry

Despite being a lifelong Episcopalian, when I am most in need of spiritual solace I am more likely to reach for poetry than the Bible or Book of Common Prayer. In its revelatory nature, the greatest poetry can give voice to deeply held feelings and beliefs we may not know we possess until the poem names them for us. Many of the ancient religious texts are of course poetry, full of their own rhythms and beauty, yet their language and stories come to us across a distance of time and culture. Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost wrestled with faith in terms that feel more familiar.

I sometimes wonder how the poets I turn to see their work. Do they make a connection between spiritual experience and poetry? Seeking insight into this question, I embarked on a project with the poet Ilya Kaminsky to interview prominent poets writing in America today. We traveled from the East Coast to the West, with stops in between, conducting conversations with 19 poets who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Native American and agnostic (no one wanted to own up to being a full-blown atheist). The transcripts of these interviews formed the foundation for a collection of conversational essays titled "A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith."

Most American writers and intellectuals are not known for their interest in talking about religious belief, but we found many of the poets we interviewed eager to claim some right to this territory and to move the conversation beyond the divisive politics that have come to define the topic of religion in this country.

Gregory Orr calls himself a secular person and poet, though much of his recent work relies on religious language. He reflected, "Paul Eluard said, 'There is another world, but it is in this one.' I understand this to mean that the spiritual is here in the palpable, physical world around us, the world of people and things. And that it's the task of language and imagination to unveil the spiritual."

Like others we spoke with, Orr made a case for religious experience beyond the walls of church or synagogue or mosque. Alicia Ostriker, author of 12 volumes of poetry and a number of critical works on the Bible and feminism, put it this way: "Although it is going on below the radar of the critical establishment, isn't it clear that our culture is in a post-secular age? Poets, and novelists and playwrights, everywhere in our country are struggling with matters of spiritual experience. Struggling outside of churches and synagogues, outside of doctrines and dogmas."

We also interviewed poets who placed themselves within a defined religious practice and tradition. Kazim Ali described observing the fast during Ramadan, and Joy Harjo talked about the importance of Native American ritual in her daily life. Annie Finch introduced us to the term "Quagan" for someone who brings together Quaker and Pagan traditions. Fanny Howe spoke of her marriage to the Catholic Church.

Not surprisingly, we found the converts to be among the most passionate in describing their faith. Jane Hirshfield, a practicing Buddhist who spent three years in a Zen monastery, was one of these. So was G.C. Waldrep, a member of the Old Order River Brethren, an Anabaptist Amish group. He had this to say about poetry and prayer: "Sometimes I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: when you're in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds -- sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp -- coming from the other side of the connecting wall. I feel that way about prayer when I am reading or writing poetry and about poetry when I am praying."

Jean Valentine, author of 11 books of poetry and a recipient of the National Book Award, made a more explicit connection: "There's a likeness between poetry and prayer that is not so much thanks or supplication, but the more unconscious activity of meditation or dreaming. The likeness lies in poetry and meditative prayer and dreaming all being (potentially anyhow) healing, and all being out of our hands."

We found that poets were particularly well suited to a dialogue about faith, dealing as they do in searching out words for the inexpressible. Many of them invoked the mystery at the heart of both the creative process and faith. They suggested a strong correlation between the openness to unconscious experience required of the writer, and the willingness to entertain the unknown required of the believer.

Carolyn Forché, who grew up Catholic and still attends Mass, though she describes herself as a syncretist drawing on many traditions, explored this connection: "The little threads and weavings that come into the poem -- one is not consciously aware of these things, because something larger is working in you. This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language."

Christian Wiman, who has published two books of poetry and is the editor of "Poetry" magazine, added: "We don't know where inspiration comes from -- and I don't simply mean the kind of inspiration wherein you come across the word you've long been searching for or when a poem finally falls into place; no, I mean the self-obliterating, soul-creating kind of experience when a poem is purely given, when you know in your bones you had nothing to do with it, and -- this is the real test -- can take no pride in it. This seems to me a mystical experience, the most powerful one I'm aware of... The dormant life of language, when stirred by poetry, awakens and releases the dormant life in us, and that current can carry us, if not to God, at least to the possibility of God."

Together the essays present a composite portrait of faith and doubt. Ilya Kaminsky and I found our own beliefs challenged -- and strengthened -- by these conversations. Doubt, the poets told us, can be as fruitful as faith. The search for understanding, not the arrival at an end point, is what enriches our lives. Poetry is one path on that journey.

Katherine Towler is co-editor with Ilya Kaminsky of 'A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith.' She is author of the novels 'Snow Island,' 'Evening Ferry' and 'Island Light.' She teaches in the M.F.A. Program in Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.