Poetry as a way to prayer - Catholic Courier

Poetry as a way to prayer

PRAYING THROUGH POETRY: HOPE FOR VIOLENT TIMES, by Peggy Rosenthal. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2003). 83 pp., $7.95.

THE EARTH MOVES AT MIDNIGHT AND OTHER POEMS, by Franciscan Father Murray Bodo. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2003). 95 pp., $10.95.

Contemporary poetry is a form of prayer in these two recent books from St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Poetry offers “a way to hope in violent times,” writes Peggy Rosenthal in “Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times.” Rosenthal, a resident of Rochester, N.Y., and periodic contributor to the Catholic Courier, is a Catholic convert who holds a doctorate in English literature. She now leads poetry retreats, offers a method of poetry-based prayer developed in response to the violent terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her four-step method is modeled on “lectio divina,” an ancient method for reading and meditating on Scripture.

Rosenthal’s prayer method consists of four movements. Upon first reading the poem she asks, “How does the poem lead me to hope?” Next, she enters into a more reflective mode by suggesting “And so I might pray –.” Third, she moves to the invitation: “And, finally, I might ponder –.” The fourth step brings Rosenthal back to the original poem as she looks for images or phrases that grab her attention and offer themselves up for contemplative reflection.

By way of 10 example poems, Rosenthal demonstrates her prayer method. Rosenthal provides the full text of poems by Daniel Berrigan, Scott Cairns, Denise Levertov, Jane Hirshfield, Yehuda Amichai and others. She gives an account of her own interior, spiritual reactions to each poem, followed by explanations of where these poems “took” her spiritually and literarily.

Rosenthal’s method for meditation on poetry could be very useful for individuals or groups who seek new and interesting ways of praying. While I know that response to poetry is highly subjective, I felt that her examples were not as helpful as they could have been. Instead of breaking open the poems for the reader, Rosenthal explained how she reacted to each poem. Her literary background could have been put to fuller use by giving the reader the tools to unlock some of the mysteries of contemporary poetry.

Her choice of poems is also disappointing. Rather than selecting poetry for quality, she opted to let content and subject take precedence. For example, Maren Tirabassi’s “St. Francis” is a treacly, overwrought piece that cannot stand up to Galway Kinnell’s classic “St. Francis and the Sow.” Compare the first lines of the two poems, Tirabassi’s: “Lord,/ make me a means/ of your/ open hands;” Kinnell’s: “The bud/ stands for all things,/ even for those things that don’t flower,/ for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;/ though sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness, to put a hand on its brow/ of the flower/ and retell it in words and in touch/ it is lovely.” Tirabassi’s poem, already stated in the form of a prayer, fails to provide a transformative vision, unlike Kinnell’s recasting of the bud.

Meanwhile, Franciscan Father Murray Bodo’s collection, “The Earth Moves at Midnight and Other Poems,” provides a generous sampling of accomplished poetry in the tradition of some of America’s best confessional poets. The poems, written over the past 20 years, are dedicated to Denise Levertov and show her influence in both style and subject.

The poems are chiefly about loss — specifically Father Bodo’s loss of his mother and father — and the experiences of faith, change and growth. Father Bodo primarily uses free verse as he directly engages nature and his childhood home of New Mexico. The strongest poems in the collection are those speaking of loss — deeply interior, lyrical elegies.

Combined with Rosenthal’s prayer method, Father Bodo’s poems would serve well those who grieve loss and are looking for a way to develop their prayer. Father Bodo’s treatment of his deeply personal experiences of faith and loss, although at times a bit wordy, are never sugarcoated.

There are plenty of good poems out there, although not written in the code of sentimental piety, which would work well with Rosenthal’s method. Poems and poets that ably offer transformative visions stand ready to clear or, better yet, till the interior ground, leaving it open for prayer. Begin with Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets,” whose opening line best explains how poetry can lead to prayer: “Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.”

Johnson is a Jesuit scholastic and a graduate student in English at Fordham University in New York.

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