Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer
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-
Poet and memoirist Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. She is the author of several critically acclaimed books of poetry, including Abacus (1987; reprinted 2007), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (2001), Sinners Welcome (2006), and Tropic of Squalor (2018), a trilogy of memoirs including The...