William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019
“In prayer, as in many other areas of life, we ‘learn by going where we have to go.’” I was delighted to see a line from Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” as Marilyn McEntyre’s opening words in When Poets Pray because this was the first poem I ever memorized. The author’s writing captivated me from beginning to end: “Pray in dialogue with a poem,” she concludes, “in ‘call and response’ fashion, pausing after each line or two to speak or write a prayer that the poem evokes or allows.”
I experienced an animated, almost visceral quality in the pages of When Poets Pray. I like McEntyre’s genuine warmth in sharing personal gifts she receives from poets who pray. I like her quiet, unassuming way of weaving prayerful human yearnings into poetic scholarship. I especially like her choice of “Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, who invites us into nonverbal ways of praying “in languages that aren’t always sound but / Circles of motion/ True circles of motion / like eagle rounding out the morning / Inside us.”
When Poets Pray sweeps from the medieval worldview of Hildegard of Bingen to contemporary poets Lucille Clifton, Francisco X. Alarcon, Anna Kamienska and Wendell Berry. I found the author’s poetry selections as emotionally potent as they are illustrative. John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…” dives down into the dark mysteries of prayer. George Herbert and Thomas Merton penned overtly biblical prayer-poems. Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov and Galway Kinnell remind us how prayer can overlap with our own interior self-talk. “When the disciples ask Jesus, ‘’Teach us to pray,’ writes McEntyre, “they seem to be aware that prayer involves practice – even a learning curve—and some serious retraining in habits of the heart.” I laughed at the author’s playful interpretation of Scott Cairns, whose poetry “offers a wry, timely look at a few of the varieties of self-deception that those who pray are prey to.”
My only critique is that the author, a retired educator, did not include any Quaker poets. I do see McEntyre creating a pioneering archive here, one that links prayer with poetry, and hope she continues in this direction. Friends who treasure Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead (Introduction by Parker Palmer) will want to invest in a hardbound edition of When Poets Pray, not only to have and to hold but also as a resource in guiding spiritual practice groups.
Judith Favor of Claremont Meeting in Southern California values true prayer and true poetry. Both are essential nutrients for her contemplative soul.