Monday, January 17, 2011

January 2011 Challenge Winner

Congratulations to Sandra Fees, winner of the January challenge, to write a poem about prayer (but not itself a prayer).

The Sloping Room

When he pulled down
the rotted porch,
my father discovered
why the front bedroom
sloped, as it did,
not from settling,
after all,
or from the gremlins
roiling under my bed,

but because a log
was missing,
as if in building
there were some hurry
or a timber shortage,
as if the poor man’s
would naturally
lean a little,

deserve a little less,
to keep him honest,
and always on bended knee,
just the way my father taught me
to bend my knees
toward the rough planks,
to press palm to palm,
my small body,
a pew wanting to be a steeple,

a 90-degree angle
forming squares
and quadrangles,
when all I really wanted
were hula-hoops
to swing around my hips
and little wheels
to spin their o’s
in the sloping room.

~ Sandra Fees

I like the indirect approach to prayer in this poem, how it works its way in between the sloping floor and the child's wish for play rather than prayer. I was especially moved by these lines:

just the way my father taught me
to bend my knees
toward the rough planks,
to press palm to palm,
my small body,
a pew wanting to be a steeple,

There is a seeming contradiction between the desire "to be a steeple," and the conclusion, wanting only hula-hoops and little wheels. The narrator wanted to play, but evidently also wanted to please her father by praying sincerely. Isn't that the kind of contradiction we all experience in life, often wanting contradictory things?

Sandra Fees retains copyright to her poem; please do not copy it without her consent.

© 2011 Wilda Morris

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January 2011 Poetry Challenge

A new year is a good time to stop and think about one’s spirituality. What is expected of us as spiritual beings? What nurtures our spirits?

Prayer is perhaps the most common of spiritual practices, and one that originated very early in human history. Prayer plays an important role in both Eastern and Western religions. There are a variety of practices—prayers may be individual or communal; spoken, sung or silent. In various traditions, those who pray may sit, kneel, stand and sway, bow heads, become prostrate on the ground, or assume any of a number of other postures or movements. In some faiths, there are prescribed times each day when the faithful are expected to pray.

The challenge for January is to write a poem about prayer. Several years ago, William M. Ramsey wrote the following unique and thought-provoking poem about prayer:

Wild horses

Prayers are not predictions.
They are hardly contracts
binding gods and events
to the tether of our will.
They are wild horses.
The cures to our pains
and soothing of our losses
graze with unconcern
on slopes in the distance.
Some are spotted,
others solid bright or dark—
all free as ragged wind
on an upland range.
As we near them
they raise their head,
catching scent of our desire,
deciding whether to run,
whether to await us.

~ William M. Ramsey

Copyright © 2001 by the Christian Century. Reprinted by permission from the September 28-October 3, 2001, issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions: $59/yr.

This poem has more than just an interesting idea. It also exemplifies poetic artistry. I admire the extended metaphor, which begins in the second sentence with the word “tether” and continues to the end of the poem. Ramsey makes us see those wild horses. In addition to metaphor and image, this poem sings with assonance and is punctuated with subdued but effective alliteration.

Tania Runyan is the author of another thought-provoking poem, this one from a woman’s perspective. "Blessed are the poor in spirit" is more specifically Christian in its language than Ramsey’s poem. Runyan speaks of “the capital LORD,” which I take to be a double entendre referring both to the practice of use of the word “LORD” (in capital letters) to translate the name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures (which most Christians refer to as the Old [or Older] Testament), and to God’s transcendence. After drawing the reader in with domestic images, the poet transitions to images related to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

I am not made to pray. I close my eyes
and float among the spots behind my lids.
I chew the name God, God, like habitual
gum, think about dusting the shelves, then sleep.

It is hard to speak to the capital LORD
who deals in mountains and seas, not in a woman
rewashing her mildewed laundry while scolding
her toddler through gritted teeth. I should

escape to the closet and kneel to the holy
singularity who blasted my cells from a star.
I should imagine the blood soaking
into the cross's grain, plead forgiveness

for splintering my child's soul. But the words
never find their way out of the dark.
Choirs and candles shine in his bones
while I doze at the door of his body.

~ Tania Runyan

From Simple Weight (FutureCycle Press, 2010). Copyright © 2009 by the Christian Century. Reprinted by permission from the March 10, 2009, issue of the Christian Century. Subscriptions: $59/yr.

The first sentence of this poem has a wonderful ambiguity. It can be interpreted to mean that the poet was not created to be a praying person, that it isn’t her nature to pray. Or is the narrator saying that she is not compelled to pray? And if not compelled, does she mean that God does not insist on it? Or that she doesn’t feel “driven” to pray?

I suspect many readers—at least those who make it a practice to pray after they go to bed at night—can identify with experience beautifully expressed in line two, of floating “among the spots” behind their eyelids,” as they struggle to concentrate on God and to stay alert and awake enough to pray sincerely.

The simile in stanza two is interesting and fresh. The guilty repetition of “I should” adds power to the poem, as do some particularly powerful word choices (such as “rewashing,” “mildewed,” “gritted teeth, and “splintering”). Runyan also makes a judicious use of alliteration.

Some other interesting poems about prayer include:

Khalil Gilbran, “Prayer,” in The Prophet

Imtiaz Dharker, “If,” in The Terrorist at my Table

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” in New and Selected Poems: Volume One

Charlene Blue Horse, “Wagluh’ TaTapi,” in Dreaming History: A Collection of Wisconsin Native-American Writing

Pattiann Rogers, “Before I Sleep,” in Song of the World Becoming: Poems, New and Collected, 1981-2001

Mary Karr, “For a Dying Tomcat Who’s Relinquished His Former Hissing and Predatory Nature.” in Sinners Welcome: Poems

Deborah Garrison, “Into the Lincoln Tunnel, in The Second Child: Poems

Marge Piercy, “Time of Year, in Colors Passing Through Us

Mary Oliver, “Praying,” in Thirst: Poems

Emily Dickinson, # 437 and # 623 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The January Challenge

The challenge for January is to write a poem about prayer—not a prayer, but a poem which says something about the poet’s (or narrator’s) experience of prayer. The poem should reflect a faith tradition with which the poet is familiar. You may write in free verse or in a form; if you write in a form, please specify the form used. The winning poem or poems will be published on this blog.

Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data.

How to Submit Your Poem:

Send your poem to wildamorris [at] ameritech [dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces). Or you can access my Facebook page and send the poem in a message. Be sure provide your e-mail address. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog, if it is a winner. The deadline is January 15. Copyright on poems is retained by their authors.

© 2011 Wilda Morris