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Charles Wright and The Poetry of Prayer.

Despite the once-vaunted secularism of modernity, poets in our time have renewed the age-old congress between poetry and prayer, extending from the Vedas, the Psalms, and the divine odes in Greek tragedy to Rumi's Masnavi, bhakti poetry, and Christian hymns, to the prayer-poems of Herbert, Donne, Vaughan, and Crashaw, to American prayer-poems by Bradstreet and Wheatley, even Dickinson and Whitman. (1) Among modern and contemporary poets who have written poems enriched with prayer, or address to the divine, Charles Wright is one of the foremost in a distinguished company that includes Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Weldon Johnson, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, George Oppen, Geoffrey Hill, Agha Shahid Ali, and Louise Gluck. These poets have taken various approaches to incorporating prayer within poetry, some directly, like Hopkins and Eliot, others more obliquely, like Yeats and Oppen. Some postwar American poets have developed an ascetic variety of prayer-inflected poetry, which rejects models such as Hopkins's richly loaded, if agonized, prayer-poems. Oppen's "Psalm" (1965), for instance, honors its title by exalting deer as examples of being-in-itself, but it does so in a minimalist poetics that eschews metaphor and verbal splendor. Built in part on Oppen's example, Gluck's several "Matins" and "Vespers" in The Wild Iris (1993) address a divine being, but also warily limit prayer's anthropomorphism and figuration.

By contrast, Wright develops a style of prayer-poetry more akin to that of Hopkins, a priest-poet he calls "God-gulped and heaven-hidden," adapting his alliterative compounds and apostrophizing him in his own diction, "Father Candescence" and "Father Fire." (2) Oppen and Gluck poeticize prayer under the sign of litotes, or understatement, and Wright does so, like Hopkins, with rhetorical opulence; if their poems restrain trope and anthropomorphism, his abound with extravagant, almost baroque figurations of landscape, affect, and an absent God; if theirs approximate silent or mental prayer, subduing verbal music, his are written in strongly cadenced lines rich with sonic patterning. Some of these differences can be traced to sensibilities shaped by distinctive regional and religious inheritances, Wright's southern, Episcopal background and exposure to southern Evangelicalism by contrast with a northeastern Jewish heritage. But Wright's affiliation with Hopkins, despite the broad dissimilarities between an American Protestant background and an Englishman's Catholicism, demonstrates poetry's transnational and intercultural reach, even when imbued with religion.

That said, Wright is not a "religious" poet in the same way as his priestly Roman Catholic predecessor, let alone pastor-poets of the Renaissance such as Herbert and Donne. Wright simultaneously deploys and dismantles prayer, earnestly embraces and skeptically interrogates it. Self-described as a "God-fearing agnostic," (3) he abandoned long ago the Christianity of his teenage years, but still has often written poetry on Sunday mornings, has installed God as a powerfully absent presence in haunted landscapes, and has referred to his poems as "little prayer wheels" and "little wafers," "hymns" and "notes toward sacred texts." (4) From early in his career to late, prayer has persisted as an animating interdiscursive force in his poetry, though a force that the poems frequently question and impede.

If Wright's criss-crossing of poetry with prayer deserves further exploration, it has not passed unnoticed. "The urge to pray," as David Lehman observes, "outlasts the conviction that God will hear the prayer," citing Wright's comment, "Each line should be a station of the cross." (5) In Edward Hirsch's view, Wright "has an essentially religious sensibility," "a nonbeliever with a tremendous longing for belief," who refigures "a Christian terminology into a secular epiphanic aesthetic.... The concepts of penance, grace, and redemption occur often, though ... the beads of the rosary are broken and the religious hymns have fallen. Faith is elusive, redemption thwarted." (6) In the poem in which he tags himself a "God-fearing agnostic," Wright both elicits God and cancels him out; he addresses the divine, comments on address to the divine, and ridicules such address: "Are you there, Lord, I whisper, / knowing he's not around, / Mumble kyrie eleison, mumble O three-in-none." (7) From one phrase or line to the next, prayer and anti-prayer jostle, intertwine, and clash. In Bonnie Costello's words, Wright applies "the ancient practice of the via negativa to a modern skepticism about language and myth." (8) As indicated by the negatives that open up like quicksand under his invocations of the divine, Wright composes as-if prayers, would-be prayers, meta-prayers, discursive embodiments of a modernized negative, or apophatic, theology.

Like many of Wright's poems, "Stone Canyon Nocturne" intermixes prayer with melancholy over prayer's inefficacy, exaltation with lament, awe with scorn. It begins with a biblical epithet for God, "Ancient of Days," as well as an intimate appellation, "old friend," the poem nestling in the ecclesiastical language of song, praise, and worship. (9) A nineteenth-century Episcopal hymn had also begun,
 Ancient of Days, who sittest throned in glory,
 To Thee all knees are bent, all voices pray;
 Thy love has blessed the wide world's wondrous story
 With light and life since Eden's dawning day.
 O Holy Father, who hast led Thy children
 In all the ages, with the fire and cloud,
 Through seas dry shod, through weary wastes bewild'ring;
 To Thee in rev'rent love our hearts are bowed. (10) 

Although Wright launches his poem with the same words as the hymn, the grandiloquent affirmation of prayerful address is immediately turned on its head by the rest of his first line, which banishes what the speaker had just summoned: "no one believes you'll come back." God's ancientness is attributable not to his durability but to his pastness. The line doubles back on itself, short- circuiting address to the divine as impossible, a rhetorical structure that has outlived its communicative function, if ever it had one.

Instead of the hymn's glorious "light and life since Eden's dawning day," Wright's poem is a nocturne, and its description of the night setting gives but more evidence of the deity's withdrawal from the world: "The moon, like a dead heart, cold and unstartable, hangs by a thread / At the earth's edge." The speaker gazes on a corpse, from which the once infusing spirit has departed. But Wright hardly seems content with the God-abandoned material world he is left with. The remarkable simile of the moon as a "dead heart, cold and unstartable," evokes a longing to re-start that most vital of vital organs, as if vivid figuration could shock it back into life. The simile of moon as heart is overlaid with the metaphor of moon as a life hanging by a thread, though this divine heart is dead even without its thread being cut by Atropos. The Christian hymn had also incorporated cosmic images, but those traditional verses' fire, cloud, seas, and wastes remain comfortably within a familiar biblical framework, unlike Wright's jarringly cardiac-arrested moon. "Pray we that Thou wilt hear us, still imploring / Thy love and favor kept to us always," ends the Christian hymn. Wright's poem, holding out scant hope that "Thou wilt hear us," turns away from the beginning's first-person apostrophe to the third person: "Like a bead of clear oil the Healer revolves through the night wind, / Part eye, part tear, unwilling to recognize us." God reappears at poems end, in the guise of Emerson's transparent eyeball, but instead of being wide open and all-penetrating, he seems reluctant to share his healing powers with humanity, revolving in the circuit of himself. Having begun with a religious vocabulary--"Ancient of Days," "friend," "believes"--the poem returns at the end to religiously charged words and phrases such as "bead of clear oil," "Healer," and "tear," a vocabulary that in Wright's via negativa summons a divine presence under erasure. With all the yearning but none of the conviction of an Episcopal hymn, Wright's poem both reanimates prayer and mourns its irrevocable demise.

Any number of Wright's poems instance the whirligig of religious and counter-religious utterance that generates the particular poignancy of his work. Toward the beginning of "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," a title borrowed from Cardinal Newman's classic defense of his religion, we are invited to walk along "Spring's via Dolorosa," to hear "Church bells like monk's mouths tonguing the hymn," to conceive of journal and landscape as "breath and blood," to contemplate the "meat of the sacrament," and so forth, but with each of these transcendent abstractions, we're quickly drawn back to earth by down-home, deadpan, folksy phrases such as the droll "They've gone and done it again," interjections such as the dismissive "All that," and the wise-cracking "I'll say." (11) Titles such as "The Gospel According to Yours Truly" archly combine biblical diction and a deflating everydayness, a poem that asks, "Tell me again, Lord, how easy it all is, / renounce this, / Renounce that, and all is a shining--." (12) "Little Prayer" addresses a God not of grand sublimities and eschatological eventualities but, in its first lines, "Lord of the ugly chair and broken sofa, / Lord / Of mouse piss and pack rat shit." (13) This isn't to suggest that Wright's poems are works of easy or dismissive secularism. A strophe in "Clear Night" bespeaks a yearning to be overwhelmed by a no longer unavailable transcendence:
 I want to be bruised by God.
 I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
 I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
 I want to be entered and picked clean. (14) 

To these wishes, however, the wind and the castor beans skeptically ask, "What?," "And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark. / And the gears notch and the engines wheel." Far from a force of Love that will penetrate the speaker--in Wright's erotically charged tropes for divine revelation--what the poet is left with is a frighteningly indifferent, mechanical, and empty universe. But in his work, neither the skeptical nor the religious, the sacred nor the profane is allowed to dominate, and the power of the poetry lies in his rich language's seemingly endless twists and turns between these poles.

At one and the same time, Wright blurs the lines between poetry and prayer, and between prayer and anti-prayer. His poetry incorporates conventions of prayer--intimate address, awed colloquy, solemn petition, anthropomorphism, numerological structure, musical repetition, the language of the Eucharist, and so forth--imprinting contemporary poetry with sacramental and ritualistic qualities. Yet Wright also plays on the tensions between poetry and prayer, skeptically disfiguring prayerful conventions, hollowing out full-throated religious assent, and launching startling metaphors in excess of prayer's norms. His poems invoke and address the divine, but they also ask, if God has withdrawn from this world, then what is prayer but other-directed self-address? Deliberate and self-reflexive in its artifice, his poetry exposes the metaphoricity, rhetoricity, and self-obsession that structure human engagements with the divine and its aftermath, at the same time that prayer's absorption within his poetry reveals the survival of long-lived religious and poetic traditions, even within poems that negate or refuse, mourn or austerely surrender Godhead. In a poem dedicated to Charles Wright, Charles Simic encapsulates the intertwinings of prayer and anti-prayer, religious and post-religious sensibilities in his friend's work: "It's like fishing in the dark," he writes, "The hook left dangling / In the Great 'Nothing.'" (15)


(1) See Kevin Hart, "Religion and Poetry," The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 3rd edition, edited by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).

(2) Charles Wright, "Jesuit Graves," Black Zodiac (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 57.

(3) Charles Wright, "Confessions of a Song and Dance Man," Scar Tissue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 16.

(4) Charles Wright, Halflife: Improvisations and Interviews, 1977-87 (University of Michigan Press, 1988), 129-130.

(5) David Lehman, "Foreword," The Best American Poetry 2008, edited by Charles Wright (Scribner-Simon and Schuster, 2008), xiv; Charles Wright, Halflife, 5.

(6) Edward Hirsch, "The Visionary Poetics of Philip Levine and Charles Wright," The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini (Columbia University Press, 1993), 778; 795.

(7) Charles Wright, Scar Tissue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), 16.

(8) Bonnie Costello, "Charles Wright's Via Negativa: Language, Landscape, and the Idea of God," Contemporary Literature 42.2 (2001), 329.

(9) Charles Wright, China Trace (Wesleyan University Press, 1975), 47.

(10) The Hymnal, 1940 (Church Publishing, 2001), 274.

(11) Charles Wright, Black Zodiac (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 3-4.

(12) Charles Wright, Sestets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 24.

(13) Charles Wright, "Little Prayer," Virginia Quarterly Review 83.3 (2007), 113.

(14) Charles Wright, China Trace (Wesleyan University Press, 1975), 61.

(15) Charles Simic, "Mystic Life," Jackstraws (Harcourt Brace, 1999), 82; 85.
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Author:Ramazani, Jahan
Publication:Northwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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