Poetry as Prayer
When I was in high school, I tried my hand at writing poetry. I don’t know what got me started, and I can’t recall if I ever showed it to anyone. It was a private pursuit. I had no idea if I was even any good at it. But I loved the process, the way the words on the page suggested where they wanted to go, as if they knew better than I what I wanted to say. The poems released something from deep inside me—a possibility, an idea, a feeling—and I liked it.
On the strength of my thin portfolio, I applied to take a creative writing course in my first year of university. The conversation with the prof was awkward. Handing my file folder back to me across his wide desk, he smiled crookedly, almost as if he enjoyed this part, and said he didn’t think my writing would be competitive with that of the other students. That was the actual word he used. Competitive. I hadn’t realized it would be a competition.
So, I turned instead to song writing. A good melody line made it easier to line up the words, and a repetitive rhyme scheme helped to contain them. It wasn’t as open-ended as poetry, and it wasn’t as exciting, but I got to perform my songs in front of my friends and, eventually, in front of audiences of strangers. I became “known” within certain circles and that itself was a pleasant reward that poetry had never offered me.
Toward the end of my first year in university, a friend, who had been accepted into that creative writing course, asked me for a favour. She’d written a poem she thought would work better as a song. She had a tentative melody for it and wondered if I might accompany her on guitar when she performed it for her class.
I thought the lyrics were pure doggerel—as a poem or as a song—but she was my friend, so I supplied some chords and came up with a little musical intro to start the thing off. When the day came, I sat on a stool behind her on the small stage while she sang her song. I also heard the poems written by her classmates. They were terrible, mostly, self-conscious and graceless. I wondered what twist of fate had kept me from bringing my own poems and songs into their midst, what the prof had seen in their portfolios that he hadn’t seen in mine. Clearly, for me, writing was going to be a solitary pursuit.
All these years later, I find myself returning to poetry, as if there is no one to stop me now. But the hard thing I’m learning about writing poetry is the faith it requires. Paradoxically, this is not true of most “religious” poems, the ones they turn into hymns, whose purpose is to teach the truth rather than to explore it. But poetry that is unfettered, that writes itself across the open page, with words that lead you, the poet, instead of the other way round, that’s where the magic is. If you can trust the process, that is, and be its faithful servant.
It is this aspect of poetry—its power to unlock the depths—that makes it particularly fitting as spiritual practice. Reading it, it becomes sacred text; writing it, it becomes personal prayer. And no one knows this better than my guest on this week’s episode of The Mystic Cave, Richard Osler.
Like me, Richard rediscovered poetry deep into midlife, and it didn’t let him go again. Not only does he write and publish award-winning poems, he leads poetry workshops and retreats, often inspiring people, who thought they hated poetry and who never imagined becoming poets themselves, to take up their pens and allow the muse to speak. It is, as he says, miraculous. Every time.
To hear my conversation with Richard, simply press the Play button, below.