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Poetry as prayer
Transcript of Poetry as prayer
rings I had crossed the bridge just 20 minutes before it fell. a lecture for the University of Minnesota
September, 2012 TO EXPRESS:
Just about anything Why do we pray?
Service How are they different? Medium: Words
Style: Elevated/compressed Flannery O'Connor: "I write to find out what I know." I write poetry when something nags at me and I need to put it into words. The words themselves teach me, by giving me my own thoughts back in word form. The trouble is, in word form, my thoughts are changed. And then I have to add more words to change my thoughts back again to what I thought I meant. It's kind of like talking to myself, except that I'm learning as I listen. Lucille Clifton
the mississippi river empties into the gulf
and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
none of them emptying anything,
all of them carrying yesterday
forever on their white tipped backs,
all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
it is the great circulation
of the earth's body, like the blood
of the gods, this river in which the past
is always flowing. every water
is the same water coming round.
everyday someone is standing on the edge
of this river, staring into time,
only here. only now. I think poetry is like prayer.
Writing a poem is an act of faith.
How else are poetry and prayer alike? Poetry isn't always addressed to a Higher Power.
Poetry is often secular.
Poetry is not intended to facilitate worship. We write poetry for these same reasons. The
now… Scripture and hymns are often in verse.
We memorize and recite them.
We seek them out for comfort, companionship, or community.
We recognize something "holy" in them.
They address the mysterious.
They aim for a better world. Their uses are similar. Q: Why are prayers "elevated"? Do we seek to please God with pretty words? Q: Why are prayers brief? Are we conscious of wasting God's time? Often the need to write a poem
resembles the need to pray:
It comes on inexplicably.
It seems to follow an inner voice.
It comes of crisis.
It comes of wonder.
It has a question in its heart. On August 1, 2007, the Interstate Highway 35W Bridge (Minnesota's fifth busiest) fell into the Mississippi River during the evening commute. 13 were killed. 145 were injured. ...unless you consider "art" a Higher Power... ...unless you consider Art-making divine... ...unless you consider reading, which is a private act of contemplation, a kind of worship. I turned to poetry for comfort that day, and eventually discovered a poem by Lucille Clifton. Two years later, I hadn't written a single poem about the collapse, but it was nagging at me. You could almost say I felt "called" to write about it. I hesitated. The collapse seemed like too big a subject, and I had too many strong feelings about it.
Embarrassment Besides, who was I to write a poem about such a thing? I would allow myself just 35 words. So I set myself a limitation. 35 words. I began by re-writing Clifton's poem, which now felt somehow holy to me. I
carefully. 35 words.
I could manage that.
So I did it again. I loved this. "Whispering mistakenly."
As if trying to capture time were a misguided prayer. My
- Home. I thought about those 13
who were killed. I started researching their stories
in the STAR TRIBUNE Which reminds me of another reason we pray:
to remember, or bless. On that fateful day when the bridge fell, it was during the 7 o'clock hour that rescue efforts began to slow and the dead were counted...
I wanted this poem to toll the bell. Each
late? One more poem,
and then I'll tell you about
the rescue rings. Maybe I wanted to call my readers to prayer. By
Amen. Recognize this from
It's the last verse
of Amazing Grace. Amen?
Well... not quite.
In fact, I didn't say AMEN to this
project until three years later,
when I'd written ... you guessed it ...
35 of these little poems. But I've gotten ahead of myself.
I promised to tell you about the rescue rings. Five years earlier, I'd met Swedish artist
Maja Spasova at Ragdale, a
retreat center near Chicago. by Todd Boss Kind of like a prayer retreat, but for making art. I said I had no idea
what she was talking about. Maja is a public artist, which means she makes art for public spaces. When she heard about the 35W Bridge collapse, she e-mailed me to say she wanted to collaborate with me to create an installation about it, in the Mississippi River. So she drew me some pictures. Maja wanted to anchor 35 oversized rescue rings just upriver from the collapse site.
The rings, she said, would be symbolic of aid and fragility, safety and salvation. Well, it turns out you can't just anchor a bunch of rescue rings in the Mississippi River.
We had to get permission from:
The Department of Natural Resources
The Parks & Rec Board
The City of Minneapolis
The Army Corps of Engineers
The US Coast Guard
The State Historic Preservation Office
and neighborhood groups We also needed donations of giant inner tubes, white paint, rope and anchors. I said, "Huh?"
And then I said, "Amen!" Somehow I sensed that a prayer was being answered. Meanwhile, I was wondering whether my 35 poems
should go out in search of a publisher.
Six of them had already
landed in my second
poetry collection, PITCH
(W. W. Norton & Co.) but ...
What to do with the rest?
35 poems isn't enough
to make a full-length
collection, and I wasn't
sure this topic was
of interest to anyone
I sent the whole sequence to Laurie Hertzel, BOOKS editor of the STAR TRIBUNE, and asked her advice. Laurie sent the poems to her editor. Her editor sent them to HER editor. And pretty soon the STAR TRIBUNE
wanted to publish the WHOLE WORKS
and host the SOUND COMPOSITION online,
and invite 35-word poems from readers. Maja's sound compositions of Minnesotans reading my poems can still be heard by dialing 612/573-5900. And the entire sequence
of 35 poems can be read
at StarTribune.com/35wPoems I started showing Maja my 35 poems-in-progress. She said she wanted to hear them in the voices of Minnesotans, and mix them all together into a sound composition that would accompany the installation. As in: "Lift every voice and sing." In the end, "PROJECT 35W" was a
huge success. It was covered on
two local TV news programs,
and caused thousands of people
to pause and reflect.
Its contemplative nature
made it a kind of "zen garden"
in the water. The installation
was only on view
August 1-31, 2012. 1st off: I'm not talking only of "religious" prayer. I'm talking about prayer as a cry, a call, a voice in the darkness, regardless of religion. And I'm not talking about "religious" faith. I'm talking about faith in humanity, faith in oneself, hope, a dream for the future. The STAR TRIBUNE told me that they had reported on the 35W Bridge collapse so much over the past 5 years, that they weren't sure how to handle the 5th anniversary as journalists. My poems gave the newspaper a perfect way to mark the occasion sensitively, with integrity, and elevate the moment to the level of art. I'm not a particularly religious person,
but I got to thinking about all the people
who must have immediately prayed for
the victims of the collapse, the moment
they saw it on CNN that day. Prayers like rescue rings... Poems like rescue rings... Amazing Grace was first a poem,
most likely chanted by the congregation. Thank you. Sometimes blind trust
is all you've got. My poem was beginning to feel like a great gift I could give to my community. Writing these poems,
I was conscious that
victims' families might
one day read them,
and that required me
to employ a great
deal of empathy as I
went, and to consider
what service these
poems might perform. When I read that
one of the victims
had been on her
way to church to
teach a dance class,
I knew I wanted
that in my poem.