Letter from Poetry Magazine

Carmine Starnino Responds

by Carmine Starnino

I agree with Michael Pope that poetry and prayer can draw on the same spiritual desire (or “language of the heart,” as he calls it). I just think that desire is embodied in very different kinds of speaking. A poem, after all, appears on a page. Many prayers do as well, of course. But I’m not talking about the intercessions we read out or recite as members of a congregation. I mean the sort delivered up privately and in-the-moment (in its brush with the unknown, catechistic prayer is to true prayer as high-school algebra is to quantum physics). Prayer is silently broadcast, an act of inward surrender. Poetry, even the most rebarbatively experimental, is meant to be shared. It is a public art form, and its message resides in an artificial structure—“flawed words and stubborn sounds,” says Stevens—that exists outside of the poet. To put it another way: The medium of prayer is the mind, while the medium of poetry is language. They may end up doing the same intercessionary work, but they achieve it in incommensurable ways. Poems are deeds assessed and celebrated for their aesthetic success, prayers are not. We can see the result when the two are confused in Mary Oliver’s claims on behalf of her own prayerfulness. Those four lines Pope quotes in his letter aren’t poetry or prayer but an example of the faux poetic: lofty, ego-pleasing, opportunistic, pretentious. It’s exactly the sort of sloganism (“Oh feed me this day, Holy Spirit”) that Christ criticizes in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Like the Pharisee, Oliver “exalts” herself. But it is faith in God’s mercy, rather than in our own goodness, that saves us. That’s why Christ praises the tax collector’s humbler appeal. Oliver’s lines, therefore, don’t only fail as poetry. Worse: they fail as prayer.

Originally Published: April 1, 2010

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 Carmine  Starnino


Carmine Starnino’s books of poetry include The New World (1997), Credo (2000), With English Subtitles (2004), and This Way Out (2009). He is also the author of A Lover's Quarrel (2004), a book of essays on Canadian poetry, and is the editor of Signal Editions. He lives in Montreal.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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