Saturday, August 16, 2014

Peggy Rosenthal’s “Praying through Poetry”

A new word entered the country’s consciousness this week. A new word entered our prayers at home this week.


It’s a suburb of St. Louis, with some 21,000 people, and about 10 miles in a straight line from where we live in St. Louis.

Ferguson entered the world’s consciousness this week. A friend form St. Louis traveled on business to Bangalore, India, turned on the television set in his hotel, and on the screen was a news report from the United States.


A new word for our prayers. It joined other words, like Iraq and IS. Ukraine and Russia. Ebola.

I found myself reading more in the Bible this week, and reading more poetry.

And I read a small book, 83 pages including three pages of notes: Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times by Peggy Rosenthal. It was published in 2003, although parts of it were published in The Christian Century in 2002. Rosenthal wrote it after another word entered our vocabulary and our prayers.


She went looking for hope after the fall of the twin towers, and she found it in poetry.

She takes 10 poems, explains why each leads her to hope, and then suggests several ways each inspires her to pray. The poems included were written by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski; Lucille Clifton; Scott Cairns; Jane Hirshfield; Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; Denise Levertov; Wendell Berry; Daniel Berrigan; Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai; and St. Francis of Assisi. What all of the poets have in common is that they write about faith, belief, doubt, God, and humanity.

Here’s “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” by Yehuda Amichai:

God has pity on children in kindergartens,
He pities school children – less.
But adults he pities not at all.

He abandons them,
Sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
In the roasting sand
To reach the dressing station,
And they are streaming with blood.

But perhaps
He will have pity on those who love truly
And take care of them
And shade them,
Like a tree over the sleeper on the public beach.

Perhaps even we will spend on them
Our last pennies of kindness
Inherited from mother.

So that their own happiness will protect us
Now and on other days.

Rosenthal says that, for her, the transition from what begins as a rather dark poem to one of hope is the phrase “But perhaps.” At that point, she suggests the poem is like a psalm, some of many begin in darkness, too, and end with hope in God.

It’s small book, now more than a decade old. But Praying through Poetry is still current, and likely will remain current for a long, long time.

Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 


Jody Lee Collins said...

Glynn this sounds like a small but mighty book. Thank you for sharing it here.

Mary Sayler said...

Thanks for letting us know about this book, Glynn. Anne Higgins has a similar thought in Praying With Poetry that I recently reviewed on the Poetry Editor & Poetry blog - As a poet and a pray-er, I love the idea!

Martha Jane Orlando said...

Another "must-read"! Thanks for sharing, Glynn!

Maureen said...

I'm glad you found your way to Peggy's wonderful book, which I reviewed in 2011. I am blessed to have Peggy as a friend and great supporter.

For those who might not know, Peggy contributes to Image Journal's Good Letters blog. She's a "don't miss her posts" writer.

Peggy said...

I'm humbled and honored that my book still speaks to you today… though in another sense I wish it didn't. I mean, I wish there had been no violence in Ferguson, in Ukraine, nor anywhere. I wish the book would become irrelevant because somehow, through grace, we humans had moved beyond violence.

Sherry said...

It has been a difficult and discouraging week. If we can pray in harmony with the poetry of David, surely we can be led to prayer through the poetry of others, too. Thanks, Glynn, for the review.

Unknown said...

A dark poem for dark times. I hope as the apostle does that some will still have faith (and prayers).
Hope you are doing well Glynn

Louise Gallagher said...

This morning, I spent 10 minutes chanting for peace -- it was a prayer of hope.

thank you Glynn for inspiring me to hold the prayer for peace in my heart and mind throughout my day.

Let there be peace.