Within some religious traditions, November is set aside as a month to honor our dear departed (All Souls). How perfect then, that Martin Dickinson (@dickinsonpoet) should choose this poem for our consideration and contemplation. Note, too, his wonderful explanation about the origin of poetry.
We’re already at Poem and Prayer # 4 and haven’t really talked about the connection between poetry and prayer, although I’ve shared a poems that resemble prayer or even invite readers to pray.
So many things can be poetry, it’s hard to say exactly what a poem is. One definition (my favorite!) is the one Emily Dickinson gave in 1870 to her literary mentor, the abolitionist Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
Passion, the ability to move us greatly and to surprise—that’s Dickinson, alright, who surely has written her share of prayerful poems (1538 “The Savior must have been/ A docile Gentleman,” just to mention one).
I think we associate poem and prayer so closely because they both start from the the heart. Poetry begins with talking to oneself. Doesn’t each one of us have an inner voice we use to carry on a private inner conversation? The poet shapes that inner voice of the heart and brings it out into the world. In prayer, the voice is directed to (or in praise of) the divine.
If you listen carefully to poetry, you’ll often hear a voice that’s close to the voice you hear in Psalms: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (23:5).”
We hear the echo of that voice, for example, in the poetry of Stanley Moss. Listen to Moss’s “You and I,” which imitates a 13th Century Hebrew poem and appears in A History of Color and New & Selected Poems (2006).
You and I
You are Jehovah, and I am a wanderer.
Who should have mercy on a wanderer
if not Jehovah? You create and I decay.
Who should have mercy on the decayed
if not the creator? You are the Judge
and I the guilty. Who should have mercy
on the guilty if not the Judge? You are All
and I am a particle. Who should have mercy
on a particle if not the All?
You are the Living One and I am dead.
Who should have mercy on the dead if not
the Living One? You are the Painter and Potter
and I am clay. Who should have mercy on clay
if not the Painter and Potter? You are the Fire
and I am straw Who should have mercy on straw
if not the Fire? You are the Listener
and I am the reader. Who should have mercy
on the reader if not the Listener? You
are the Beginning and I am what follows.
Who should have mercy on what follows
if not the Beginning? You are the End and I am
what follows. Who should have mercy
on what follows if not the End?
– Stanley Moss, after an anonymous 13th c. Hebrew poem