Prose from Poetry Magazine

Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer

by Mary Karr
To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry—a journal founded in part on and for the godless, twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals—feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s “Real Sex Extra.” I can’t even blame it on my being a cradle Catholic, some brainwashed escapee of the pleated skirt and communion veil who—after a misspent youth and facing an Eleanor Rigby-like dotage—plodded back into the confession booth some rainy Saturday.

Not victim but volunteer, I converted in 1996 after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism. Hearing about my baptism, a pal sent me a postcard that read, “Not you on the Pope’s team. Say it ain’t so!” Well, while probably not the late Pope’s favorite Catholic (nor he my favorite pope), I took the blessing and ate the broken bread. And just as I continue to live in America and vote despite my revulsion for many US policies, I continue to enjoy the sacraments despite my fervent aversion to certain doctrines. Call me a cafeteria Catholic if you like, but to that I’d say, Who isn’t?

Perversely enough, the request for this confession showed up last winter during one of my lowest spiritual gullies. A blizzard’s dive-bombing winds had kept all the bodegas locked for the second day running (thus depriving New Yorkers of newspapers and orange juice), and I found—in my otherwise bare mailbox—a letter asking me to write about my allegedly deep and abiding faith. That very morning, I’d confessed to my spiritual advisor that while I still believed in God, he had come to seem like Miles Davis, some nasty genius scowling out from under his hat, scornful of my mere being and on the verge of waving me off the stage for the crap job I was doing. The late William Matthews has a great line about Mingus, who “flurried” a musician from the stand by saying, “We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel...” I felt doomed to be that diminuendo, an erasure mark that matched the erasure mark I saw in the grayed-out heavens.

Any attempt at prayer in this state is a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry is still healing balm, partly because it’s always helped me feel less alone, even in earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar. It was a lot of other firsts too, of course: first classroom/chat room/confessional. But it was most crucially the first source of awe for me, because it eased a nagging isolation: it was a line thrown to my drear-minded self from seemingly glorious Others.

From a very early age, when I read a poem, it was as if the poet’s burning taper touched some charred filament in my rib cage to set me alight. Somehow—long before I’d published—that connection even extended from me outward. Lifting my face from the page, I often faced my fellow creatures with less dread. Maybe secreted in one of them was an ache or tenderness similar to the one I’d just eaten of. As that conduit into a community, poetry never failed me, even if the poet reaching me was some poor wretch even more abject than myself. Poetry never left me stranded, and as an atheist most of my life, I presumed its mojo was a highbrow, intellectual version of what religion did for those more gullible believers in my midst—dumb bunnies to a one, the faithful seemed to me, till I became one.

In the Texas oil town where I grew up, fierceness won fights, but I was thin-skinned—an unfashionably bookish kid whose brain wattage was sapped by a consuming inner life others didn’t seem to bear the burden of. I just seemed to have more frames per second than other kids. Plus, early on, I twigged to the fact that my clan differed from our neighbors. Partly because of my family’s entrenched atheism, kids weren’t allowed to enter my yard—also since my artist mother was known to paint “nekked” women and guzzle vodka straight out of the bottle. She was seductive and mercurial and given to deep doldrums and mysterious vanishings, and I sought nothing so much as her favor. Poetry was my first lure. Even as a preschooler, I could sometimes draw her out of a sulk by reciting the works of e.e. cummings and A.A. Milne.

In my godless household, poems were the only prayers that got said—the closest thing to sacred speech at all. I remember mother bringing me Eliot’s poems from the library, and she not only swooned over them, she swooned over my swooning over them, which felt as close as she came to swooning over me. Even my large-breasted and socially adroit older sister got Eliot—though Lecia warned me off telling kids at school that I read that kind of stuff. At about age twelve, I remember sitting on our flowered bedspread reading him to Lecia while she primped for a date. Read it again, the whole thing. She was a fourteen-year-old leaning into the mirror with a Maybelline wand, saying, Goddamn that’s great...Poetry was the family’s religion. Beauty bonded us.

Church language works that way among believers, I would wager—whether prayer or hymn. Uttering the same noises in unison is part of what consolidates a congregation (along with shared rituals like baptisms and weddings, which are mostly words). Like poetry, prayer often begins in torment, until the intensity of language forges a shape worthy of both labels: “true” and “beautiful.” (Only in my deepest prayers does language evaporate, and a wide and wordless silence takes over.) But if you’re in a frame of mind dark enough to refuse prayer, nothing can ease the ache like a dark poem. Wrestling with gnarled or engrossing language may not bring peace per se, but it can occupy a brain pumping out bad news like ticker tape and thus bring you back to the alleged rationality associated with the human phylum.

So it was for me last winter—my most recent dark night of the soul—when my faith got sandblasted away for some weeks. Part of this was due to circumstances. Right after a move to New York, fortune delivered a triple whammy: my kid off to college, a live-in love ending volcanically, then medical maladies that kept me laid up for weeks alone. In a state of scalding hurt—sleepless and unable to conjure hope at some future prospects—suddenly (it felt sudden, as if a pall descended over me one day) God seemed vaporous as any perfume.

To kneel and pray in this state is almost physically painful. At best, it’s like talking into a bucket. At worst, you feel like a chump, some heartsick fool still sending valentines to a cad. With my friends away for the holidays, poetry seemed my only solace for more than a month. Maybe a few times I dipped into the Psalms or the book of Job. But more often I bent over the “terrible sonnets” of Gerard Manley Hopkins to find shape for my desolation:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Self yeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.

I was also reading that bleak scribbler Bill Knott, to find a bitter companion to sip my own gall with. He’d aptly captured my spiritual state in “Brighton Rock by Graham Greene,” where he imagines a sequel for Greene’s book: the offspring that criminal sociopath Pinky Brown conceived in the body of pitiful Rose Wilson before he died becomes a teenager in a skiffle band called Brighton Rockers. This kid’s inborn anguish resounds in the grotesque Mass his mom sits through:

Every Sunday now in church Rose slices

her ring-finger off, onto the collection-plate;
once the sextons have gathered enough
bodily parts from the congregation, enough

to add up to an entire being, the priest sub-
stitutes that entire being for the one
on the cross: they bring Him down in the name

of brown and rose and pink, sadness
and shame. His body, remade, is yelled at
and made to get a haircut, go to school,

study, to do each day like the rest
of us crawling through this igloo of hell
and laugh it up, show pain a good time,

and read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

This winter, I felt yelled at by the world at large and God in particular. The rhythm of Knott’s final sentence says it all—“to DO each DAY like the REST/of us”—the first phrase is a stair plod, with an extra stumble step to line’s end, where it becomes a cliff you fall off (no REST here)—“CRAWling through this IGloo of HELL.”

People usually (always?) come to church as they do to prayer and poetry—through suffering and terror. Need and fear. In some Edenic past, our ancestors began to evolve hard-wiring that actually requires us (so I believe) to make a noise beautiful enough to lay on the altar of the Creator/Rain God/Fertility Queen. With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble. We suffer with prayer and poetry alike. Boy, do we suffer.

The faithless contenders for prayer’s relief who sometimes ask me for help praying (still a comic notion) often say it seems hypocritical to turn to God only now during whatever crisis is forcing them toward it—kid with leukemia, say, husband lost in the World Trade Center. But no one I know has ever turned to God any other way. As the adage says, there are no atheists in foxholes (poet Stanley Moss says he was the exception). Maybe saints turn to God to exalt him. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup. Put the penny of your prayer in this slot and pull the handle—that’s how I thought of it at first, and I think that’s typical. The Catholic church I attended in Syracuse, New York (St. Lucy’s) said it best on the banner stretched across its front: SINNERS WELCOME.

That’s how I came to prayer nearly fifteen years back, through what James Laughlin (via Pilgrim’s Progress) used to call the “Slough of Despond,” and over the years prayer led me to God, and God led me to church—a journey fueled by gradually accruing comforts and some massively freakish coincidences.

Okay, I couldn’t stop drinking. I’d tried everything but prayer. And somebody suggested to me that I kneel every morning and ask God for help not picking up a cocktail, then kneel at night to say thanks. “But I don’t believe in God,” I said. Again Bill Knott came to mind:

People who get down
on their knees to me
are the answers to my prayers.

The very idea of prostrating myself brought up the old Marxist saw about religion being the opiate for the masses and congregations dumb as cows. God as Nazi? I wouldn’t have it. My spiritual advisor at the time was an ex-heroin addict who radiated vigor. Janice had enough street cred for me to say to her, “Fuck that god. Any god who’d want people kneeling and sniveling—”

Janice cut me off. “You don’t do it for God, you asshole,” she said. She told me to try it like an experiment: pray for thirty days, and see if I stayed sober and my life got better.

Franz Wright states my position vis- -vis my earliest prayers in “Request,” here in its entirety:

Please love me
and I will play for you
this poem
upon the guitar
I myself made
out of cardboard and black threads
when I was ten years old.
Love me or else.

I started kneeling to pray morning and night—spitefully at first, in a bitter pout. The truth is, I still fancied the idea that glugging down Jack Daniels would stay my turmoil, but doing so had resulted in my car hurtling into stuff. I had a baby to whom I had made many vows, and—whatever whiskey’s virtues—it had gotten hard to maintain my initial argument that it made me a calmer mom to a colicky infant.

So I prayed—not with the misty-eyed glee I’d seen in The Song of Bernadette, nor with the butch conviction of Charlton Heston playing Moses in The Ten Commandments. I prayed with belligerence, at least once with a middle finger aimed at the light fixture—my own small unloaded bazooka pointed at the Almighty. I said, Keep me sober, in the morning. I said, Thanks, at night.

And I didn’t get drunk (though before I started praying, I’d been bouncing on and off the wagon for a few years, with and without the help of others). This new sobriety seemed—to one who’d studied positivism and philosophy of science in college—a psychological payoff for the dumb process of getting on my knees twice a day to talk to myself. One MIT-trained scientist told me she prayed to her “sober self”—a palatable concept for this agnostic.

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

For what? I wanted to know. Robert Hass’s Praise was a cult favorite at that time, but despite its title the poems mostly dealt with failures in devotion to beauty or the disappointments endemic to both pleasure and marriage. Its epigraph had a man facing down a huge and ominous monster and saying—from futility and blind fear—“I think I shall praise it.” Hass had been my teacher when he was writing those poems, and though he instilled in me reverence for poetry, his own pantheistic ardor for trees and birds mystified me. My once alcohol-soaked life had convinced me that everything was too much, and nothing was enough (it’s a depressant drug, after all). In my twisted cosmology (not yet articulated to myself), the ominous monster Hass “praised” was God.

Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something. There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to—the small, good things that came in abundance. A religious friend once told me of his own faith, “I’ve memorized the bad news.” Suddenly, the world view to which I’d clung so desperately as realistic—we die, worms eat us, there is no God—was not so much realistic as the focal expression of my own grief-sodden inwardness. Like Hawthorne’s reverend in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” I could only interpret the world through some form of grief or self-absorbed fear.

Not too long after this talk with Lux (in a time of crisis—the end of my marriage), someone gave me the prayer from St. Francis of Assisi. It’s one of those rote prayers that cradle-Catholics can resent having drilled into them, but I started saying it with my five-year-old son every night:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is conflict, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is sadness, joy;
where there is darkness, light.

O Divine Master, ask that I not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are reborn
to eternal life.

Even for the blithely godless, these wishes are pretty easy to choke down. I mean, it’s not hard to believe that, if you can become an instrument for love and pardon rather than wallowing in self-pity, then your life will improve. The only parts of the prayer I initially bridled against were the phrase “O Divine Master” and the last two lines about eternal life, which I thought were horseshit. Something of it bored into my thick head, though, for reciting it began to enact some powerful calm in me.

Within a year of starting the prayer, my son told me he wanted to go to church “to see if God’s there”—perhaps the only reason that could have roused my lazy ass from the Sunday Times. Thus we embarked on what I called God-a-rama—a search entirely for my son’s benefit; despite my consistent prayer life, I still had small use for organized religion. I ferried Dev to various temples and mosques and zendos (any place a friend would bring us) with no more curiosity than I brought to soccer (a sport I loathe) when he took that up. If anything, the Catholic Church one pal took us to was repugnant, ideologically speaking. It set my feminist spikes prickling.

But the Church’s carnality, which seemed crude at the outset—people lighting candles and talking to dolls—worked its voodoo on me. The very word incarnation derives from the Latin in carne: in meat. There is a body on the cross in my church. (Which made me think at first that the people worshipped the suffering, till my teenage son told me one day at Mass: “What else would get everybody’s attention but something really grisly? It’s like Pulp Fiction.” In other words, we wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Through the simple physical motions I followed during Mass (me, following something!), our bodies standing and sitting and kneeling in concert, I often felt my mind grow quiet, and my surface differences from others began to be obliterated. The poet William Matthews once noted that when his sons drew everyone as a stick figure, they evoked Shakespeare’s “poor, bare, forked animal,” which was—spiritually speaking—accurate:

they were powerless enough to know

the radical equality of human
souls, but too coddled to know they knew it.
They could only draw it, and they blamed
their limited techniques for the great truth
that they showed, that we’re made in the image
of each other and don’t know it.
The Generations

So the bovine exercises during Mass made me feel like part of a tribe, in a way, and the effect carried over in me even after church.

Poetry had worked the same way. I’ve written elsewhere of its Eucharistic qualities—something else Hass taught me. In memorizing the poems I loved, I “ate” them in a way. I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you, partly by joining you to others in a saving circle.

Prayer had been the first cornerstone. How could it not be? In language (poetry) I’d found a way out of myself—to my mother, then to a wider community (the poets I imagined for years), then to a poetry audience for which I wrote, then to the Lord, who (paradoxically) speaks most powerfully to me through quiet. People will think I’m nuts when I say I prayed about whether to take a job and end my marriage and switch my son’s day care. I prayed about what to write and wrote a bestseller that dug me out of my single mom’s financial hole. Of course, I also pray to write like Wallace Stevens and don’t. I pray to be five-ten and remain five inches short. Doubt still plagues me. As Zola once noted vis- -vis his trip back from Lourdes, he saw crutches and wheelchairs thrown out, but not artificial legs. Milosz is more articulate about it in “Veni Creator”:

I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.

Prayer has yielded comfort and direction—all well and good. But imagine my horror when I began to have experiences of joy. For me, joy arrives in the body (where else would it find us?), yet doesn’t originate there. Nature never drew me into joy as it does others, but my fellow creatures as the crown of creation often spark joy in me: kids on a Little League diamond in full summer—even idly tossing their mitts into the air; the visual burst of a painted Basquiat angel in Everlast boxing shorts at the Brooklyn Museum last week (can’t stop thinking about it); my teenage son at night in the dead of winter burying our kitten in a shoebox so I wouldn’t have to see her ruined by the car that hit her—his flushed face later breaking the news to me—a grief countered by my radical joy at his sudden maturity. In the right mind-set, the faces that come at me on the New York street are like Pound’s apparitions, “petals on a wet, black bough.” Inherent in joy is always a sense of joining with others (and/or God). The spirit I breathe in at such times (inspiration) always moves through others.

But nothing can maim a poet’s practice like joy. As Henri de Montherlant says, “Happiness writes white.” What poet—in this century or any other—has founded her work on happiness? We can all drum up a few happy poems here and there, but from Symbolism and the High Moderns forward, poetry has often spread the virus of morbidity. It’s been shared comfort for the dispossessed. Yes, we have Whitman opening his arms to “the blab of the pave.” We have James Wright breaking into blossom, but he has to step out of his body to do so. We have the revelatory moments of Tranströmer and the guilty pleasure and religious striving of Milosz. W.H. Auden captured the ethos when he wrote, “The purpose of poetry is disenchantment.” Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.

My own efforts to lighten my otherwise dour opus seem watered down. I thought of calling my latest collection of poems Coathanger Bent Into Halo (too clunky, I decided, but I was thinking how the wire hanger used for an illegal abortion could also be twisted into an angel’s crown for a child’s pageant). Still, the poems about Christ salted through the book spend way more time on crucifixion than resurrection. I’ve written elegies galore, love poems bitter as those of Catullus. I’ve written from scorched-earth terror and longing out the wazoo. My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch.

But doesn’t dark poetry gather us together in a way that would meet the Holy Spirit’s approval?

Rewind to last winter: my spiritual wasteland, when I received a request from Poetry to write about my faith. It was the third such request I’d gotten in a little more than a week, and it came from an editor I “owed” in some ways. How many times did Peter deny knowing Christ? I know, I know, my skeptical reader. It’s only my naive, magical thinking that makes such a simple request (times three) seem like a tap on the shoulder from the Almighty, but for one whose experience of joy has come in middle age on the rent and tattered wings of disbelief, it suffices. Having devoted the first half of my life to the dark, I feel obliged to revere any pinpoint of light now. And writing this essay did fling open windows in me so the sun shone down again. I hit my knees, and felt God’s sturdy presence, and knew it wasn’t God who’d vanished in the first place.

Milosz, who dubbed himself the “least normal person in Father Chomski’s class,” describes the sense of alert presence from prayer or the wisdom of age in “Late Ripeness”—a lit-up poem of the type I aspire to write:

Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.

One after another my former lives were departing,

like ships, together with their sorrow.

And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.

I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us.
We forget—I kept saying—that we are all children of the King.

That’s why I pray and poetize: to be able to see my brothers and sisters despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every Judas’s birthright.
Originally Published: November 1, 2005


On April 23, 2008 at 12:18pm Barbara Groark wrote:
I hope you don't mind my linking this article to our 1968 catholic high school reunion blog. It says a lot to a lot of people. God bless us every one.

Thank you.

On July 8, 2009 at 12:01pm Laura Riddle wrote:
Dear Mary,

I was drawn to read your book again. It
seemed to fit with my self appointed
task of reading writers whom I would
like to write like--you, Margaret
Atwood...a few others...

I had to buy a new copy since I had
misplaced the old and read in your new
introduction about your faith, and that
has lead me here.

In recent years, my soul has been
sucked up into my mind and gotten lost
among my to-do lists. I have measured
my life by efficiency. And sadly, as long
as I was very efficient I didn't really
miss my soul. But I am not as good at
things I as thought, and I realize that I
need to find a deeper meaning and
come back home spiritually.

You have not only inspired me as a
writer (want-to-be), but as a Christian.

Thank you,
Laura Riddle

On April 30, 2010 at 11:40am Mark O'Brien wrote:
Lovely! As I read "Lit," I imagined a professor's final exam prompt: "Discuss the title."

On August 10, 2010 at 3:31am elza marie wrote:
wonderful and touching words, describing exactly how i feel. we all need the kind of comfort prayers bring

On September 19, 2010 at 5:15pm Marjorie Rhem wrote:
I'm Catholic, born and reared. It's not stylish anymore to go to church or to pray. But I can't help saying "Thanks;" for instance, when I get out of the car at Wal-Mart and feel the warm, warm breeze on my face.

Mary, your essay reminded me of why I pray in thanksgiving, mostly. When I can't pray for fear or grief, I can always say thanks. Thanks.

On January 23, 2015 at 5:01pm M wrote:
I wonder if Hopkins ever made the final connection, the
leap, that you do.

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2005


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 Mary  Karr


Poet and memoirist Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. The author of several critically acclaimed books of poetry, including Abacus (1987; reprinted 2007), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (2001), and Sinners Welcome (2006) she is also the author of a trilogy of memoirs: The Liar’s Club (1995), Cherry (2001), and Lit (2009). Karr’s poetry and prose frequently include autobiographical elements, including her . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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