"Power of Some Sort or Other": On Poems & Prayers

By Yezzi, David | New Criterion, April 2012 | Go to article overview

"Power of Some Sort or Other": On Poems & Prayers


Yezzi, David, New Criterion


Power of some sort or other will go on
      In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
     But superstition, like belief, must die,
     And what remains when disbelief is gone?
--Philip Larkin, "Church Going"
Most of what now passes with us for religion and
     philosophy will be replaced by poetry.
--Matthew Arnold, "The Study of Poetry" 

Prayers and poems share an uncanny family resemblance. In fact, they look so much alike at times they could be thought of as identical twins separated in childhood. Like Shakespeare's Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, they began life together, were rent apart by circumstance, are frequently taken for each other, and, upon re-acquaintance, immediately apprehend in each other a profound genetic identity.

The common origins of poetry and prayer date back at least to the second millennium B.C., when the two functioned seamlessly as one expression. The oldest extant scripture, the Rig-veda--a collection of metrical Sanskrit hymns--was composed around 1500 B.C. The custodians of the Vedas were Brahman poet-priests, who performed the sacred texts and their related rituals (which, for participants, often included draughts of Soma, a concoction of hallucinogens that was "like butter and milk milked from the living clouds"). At least no one was driving back then.

As Philip and Carol Zaleski write in Prayer: A History (2005), the sacred rites of these ancient believers were on a far-out, Coleridgean order of visionary ecstasy, complete with flashing eyes, floating hair, and generous portions of Paradisiacal milk. "Under the influence of Soma," the Zaleskis explain, "the words of prayer become perfected speech, the language of paradise."

One question the Rigveda poses is "What was the meter, what was the invocation, and the chant when all the gods sacrificed the god [in the fire sacrifice of creation]?" In other words, What was the poem? Or, as the Zaleskis put it, "How shall we pray?" The key lay in the "shining speech" of the Brahman poet-priests, without whose "unique power to utter the holiest mantras, the sacrifices could not be performed properly and the world would fall back into chaos and darkness." Prayer, they suggest, was the "libretto of sacrifice."

In A Political Philosophy (2007), the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues that, as humans, "we instinctively connect the sacred with the transcendental," seeing holy places, times and rituals as windows onto another realm ... which we try to explain through theological doctrine, but which always in the end deludes our attempt to describe it." This is where poetry comes in.

Mystics are bound by words, just like everyone else. Expressions of mystery typically raid poetry's standard tool kit, largely for its ability to think metaphorically, to push language beyond hackneyed formulations, and to transmit an emotional charge through music and rhythm. Not infrequently, mystics are themselves poets. Of St. John of the Cross, Jacques and Raissa Maritain wrote that "very often saintly souls who have had the experience of spiritual things have also received the graceful gift of speaking of it in a beautiful, persuasive and luminous way."

Poetry's linguistic precision, memorability, and transportive power are the stuff of the Psalms, haiku, and the Bhagavad Gita. As Scruton writes elsewhere, through ritual the worshiper is "freed for a moment from the world of objects, flowing freely into a 'mystic communion' with the other subjects who worship at his side." Prayer is the believer's primary avenue to such mystic communion, and many poems--by Hopkins, Herbert, Donne, Eliot, and others--either take the form of prayers or have this prayer-like effect.

The poet and monk Thomas Merton called prayer "a raid on the unspeakable," and poetry drinks from the same well, adding to our store of what is sayable. Poetry's ability to urge language, though music and metaphor, beyond the bounds of conventional, ratiocinative connections, has always been one of its elemental features. …

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