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Metered meditation: a writer takes poetic license with her prayer life.

WHEN I WAS A COLLEGE STUDENT, MY MOTHER would call every week and ask if I went to church. After I had said no and heard the disappointment in her voice one too many times, I told her I joined a prayer group that met twice a week. Little did she know my spiritual reflection was with Professor John Mahoney and 50 other students enrolled in an English romantic poetry course at Boston College.

Professor Mahoney reverently held his poetry textbook as if it were the Bible as he recited "secular psalms" at the podium with the passion of a priest reading the gospel. He asked menacing questions connecting the poetic muse with mystic prayer and demanded far more than glib answers, as he did, I'm sure, when he taught a seminar in poetry and religious experience. I figured sitting in a poetry class was as good as sitting in a church pew, meditating on how to deepen self-understanding, how to listen to matters of the heart, how to find truth and beauty in life.

I often think back on these "prayer sessions" especially now that I'm writing poems as a way to redeem what's sacred in everyday life. I've come to realize that writing poetry is an act of prayer: a sequence of words, a rhythm of sounds that when read to one's self or spoken out loud has the power to release the spirit from within. And the connection between the two goes back to how poetry was invented as a mnemonic device to enable people to remember their prayers--the rhyme and meter of prayer as poem.

In his Defence of Poetry, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley points to poetry's prayerful quality when he says that it "transcends language, always escaping complete expression in words." It is this breaking out of the shell of words to find an inner life that is a poet's work. Our poems must "redeem from decay the visitations of the divinity in man," as Shelley puts it.

While writing poems set in the Pittsburgh river town where my family found blue-collar work after emigrating from southern Italy, I began by thinking about a concrete image such as my great-grandmother fanning herself with her playing cards in the summertime or a slag barge creeping down the river. Then I jotted down words, changed and rearranged them, and prayerfully read them to myself. I searched for the spirit inside those pictures that made me feel something I couldn't explain yet compelled me to relay its truth onto the page.

Since I wrote those poems in Brooklyn, the distance enabled me to celebrate the beauty of the river valley and water as a spiritual force in my poetry. I came to regard the point where the three rivers meet in Pittsburgh as a sacred place. Its current is a divine force, a purifying power that can give life--and take it away.

My family's river town has been depressed for years. Because I remembered the loss along with the beauty, my prayer when writing these poems was a contemplation of what to pray for. I meditated on how to revive a dying town such as this without losing the original spirit on which it was founded. Where is the divine vision in chain stores and gambling and prisons? Must economic prosperity result in loss of community? Is the town better off left as it is?

WRITING THESE POEMS ALSO GAVE ME THE CHANCE TO DO some soul-searching, to try and understand how to come to terms with leaving my hometown for opportunities in New York. In the more self-reflective poems from the collection, I ponder what weighs in my heart--my homesickness, the easiness of nostalgia from a distance, and the need for honesty. Was the time really that much better or is the look back an indulgent attempt to restore youth? I delve into my guilt for not being around to help my mother, who is still adjusting to widowhood and has growing health problems. Is being there in spirit enough?

If paying attention is a form of prayer, then yes, Mom, I've been praying that the transcendent powers of the river will show me how to appreciate what Alexander Pope calls the "magnificent regularity" of the universe and my place in it.

By PAOLA CORSO, a poet, writer, and author of Death by Renaissance (Bottom Dog Press, 2004).
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:Corso, Paola
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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