Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Poetry and prayer

Here's an except about poetry and prayer from a talk by Steven Shakespeare .....


[...] I don't claim to write poetry. That would be far too pretentious. But I try to learn something from what poets do. Poetry dies if it is dissected, or boiled down to some trite meaning or moral. But there are ways of thinking about what poetry does which are perhaps more true to its power.

The philosopher Derrida writes of a paradox at the heart of the poem. On the one had it is something very particular. It is the product of an individual voice, which sounds from a very specific date and context. The very nature of poetry defies translation, because part of its essence is to draw our attention to the music and rhythm of language. The poem is a material process, something we feel beneath our tongue, not just a gateway to an abstract or spiritual truth. The poem is never pure.

However, there is another side to the poem, because it is also an act of communication. Although it is marked in its very being with its time and place of origin, if it is to speak to others, it must have an openness about it, it must reach out beyond itself. It works not only through the harmony of words, but through the spaces and silences between them, through the tensions and ruptures that create a new space in which to read the poem and the world differently, in ever new contexts.

Derrida compares the poem to the wound of circumcision. Circumcision happens at a particular date, a mark left on the body of a single individual. But its meaning escapes the possession of any one person, even the one to whom it happened. The mark is also a wound, an opening of the body to what is other.

I suggest that prayer shares this dynamic with poetry. I am not a fan of prayers made up by committees, or by any process that makes them, flat, abstract and disconnected from life. If prayers are a product of a collective process, then I think it is best if they come from a group that is self-aware, self-critical, committed to a vision. Otherwise, I think that prayer needs an individual voice. Why? Because it is about a relationship and a faith which can never become just another item of public knowledge. There is always something scandalous and particular at the heart of prayer: that I at this moment, in all my limitation, should address and be called by the infinite and the unconditional. Prayer is the moment when I am awoken, called - but the call only ever comes to particular flesh and blood people, with lives and loves and stories of their own. The otherness of God speaks to the otherness of each and every one of us.

The written prayer has to preserve something of that otherness. But in the process it must also reach out beyond the particular to engage with the lives and stories of others. It needs to offer a kind of space, in which others can find a lodging, in which they can hear the echo of a call addressed to them. Prayer by its very nature escapes the rules laid down by any church. Of course it is part of a tradition, and it will borrow its language and imagery. But if the prayer is also to be a little like a poem, it must express something unique, a truth that cannot be reduced to a dogma, an idea, a moral. A truth in relationship.



Blogger Poetry of the Day said...

steven shakespear eh.. i love when writers do that to there name.

- <3 Famous

Poetry about life

8:22 AM  

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