Carmine Starnino admits to enjoying the rhythms and sounds of the poetry in catechistic prayers, but he rejects the notion that a poem can be a prayer [“Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook,” January 2010]. He defines prayer as “focused devotional feelingfulness, a self-aware, non-naming amplification of faith, a mind tuned to the frequency of the unsayable.” Poetry, by contrast, is a “secular art” and even a “menace to religious belief,” since crafting a poem “requires” a kind of selfishness.
Amid all of this, I couldn’t help thinking of the poems of Mary Oliver, some of which could be summoned to exemplify the fact that the essence of prayer need not be contrary to the essence of poetry:
Oh, feed me this day, Holy Spirit, with
the fragrance of the fields and the
freshness of the oceans which you have
Oliver is not merely writing a poem that, to use Starnino’s words, speaks “about God” or speaks “to God.” No: her poem is a prayer, and its linguistic beauty does not diminish its devotion or remind the reader of the “selfishness” of the poet.
“A poem is a confession of faith,” Oliver writes in her prose, “and whatever skill or beauty [the poem] has, it contains something beyond language devices and has a purpose other than itself.”
Starnino believes poetry is secular, but clearly, for Oliver, it is not. It is anchored in the soul, where the human communes with the divine, and where the language of the heart springs up to form a prayer, a poem, or—if one is truly blessed—both.
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