Christian Wiman's "Prayer"

Thoughts on humility & peace.


For all
the pain

passed down
the genes

or latent
in the very grain

of being;
for the lordless

the smear

of spirit
words intuit

and inter;
for all

the nightfall

into me

even now,
my prayer

is that a mind

by anxiety
or despair

might find

a trace
of peace.

from The Hammer Is the Prayer (FSG, 2016)

There are moments when poems have a stilling effect, when the very act of reading and encountering a poem — within the context of something wider and more rushed and full of its own complexity, which is to say, within the context of the world — reduces the intimacy of my attention to something smaller. I read a poem, and I am aware of my breath. I read a poem, and I am aware of the literal fabric of the page. I read a poem, and I am in a room in New York, and the walls are parchment thin. And I am sad, or longing, or joyed, or more. And most certainly stilled.

Today’s poem offered that kind of stilling. In a brief little essay about another prayer poem by Carol Ann Duffy, Christian Wiman writes that “the world and the soul…are far more permeable—and much more possible—than words like ‘faith,’ ‘truth,’ or even ‘prayer’ can suggest.” It’s a beautiful thing to say, particularly beautiful because Wiman is very much a poet of faith and wonder and all things related to those words that — though they potentially point towards the possible — will forever be limited in their scope.

I think I’m thinking about language — and really, I’m thinking a lot about language…the last thing I wrote in my notebook was Wittgenstein’s assertion: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” — because I’m back at my high school, immersed in planning for another year of classes. And the fun (by fun, read maybe a little bit annoying) thing about planning for high school classes is that language really does matter. It’s maybe one of the most important things I’ve learned as a high school teacher that I wish I had learned earlier when I was starting out my teaching career as an adjunct professor: if you aren’t consistent with your language in your directions and in the way you talk to students, and if you don’t clearly state the purpose of a lesson, and if you don’t provide consistent structures to accommodate the language of a lesson, then you’ll lose students along the way, and you’ll lose them not because consistency is some hallmark of efficiency, but because consistency communicates some degree of value (think about being in a relationship where you say I love you every day, and then think about what happens on the day I love you is not said), because, without consistent language, students don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, and when people don’t know either of those things (think of every mixed message delivered by the media) then they will often flounder, devise their own interpretation, veer off, get sad, or anxious, or mad, or so much more and worse.

Anyways, that’s a bit of an aside from today’s poem, but I found myself drawn to it at first because of the way in which it plays with language and situates itself on the page. It’s this long, thin, staggered line. A dotted line of sorts. And I was drawn toward the slowness of such a delivery, the way each short, deliberate line parceled out my breath, the way I paused even after the first couplet — “For all / the pain” — and held it my mouth, and then my heart, wondering if the poem was an attempt to embrace pain or deliver oneself from it.

The slowness that results from Wiman’s structure allows for a kind of accumulative dwelling. Each stanza reminds the reader of what it — so often sadly — means to be alive. There is pain. “Lordless / mornings.” The smearing “of spirit.” “Nightfall / neverness.” If this poem were long-lined or even composed as a solid block of text, I think each successive reminder of the fragility and despair of life would lose its weight, and, perhaps, reading this might feel too hurried. Life would blur into one quick burst rather than what it so often feels like: slow and still mundanity blistered by those mornings that feel lordless, that pain that feels as etched into the ordinary as the grain of a wooden floor.

There are two other structural choices Wiman makes that bring me a bit of delight in noticing. The first is the more obvious one: that the poem itself is a single sentence. I feel, in that choice, a sense of containment. That the poem — as both an act of prayer and rendering of life — contains both anxiety and peace. And that it contains — as life does — both at once, even if one feels heavier than the other, or more frequent. To place “peace” in the same sentence as “anxiety,” “despair,” “pain,” “lordless,” and more is to describe life itself: the overwhelming association of pain with every waking instant or thought, and then the stilling quality of peace. The way peace gets you like that: rain at the right moment, that one breath you decided to breathe with some intention, everyone finally leaving the party.

The second choice I delighted in noticing was the way in which Wiman arranged the poem into 14 (very short) couplets. And the way a sonnet is 14 lines. And the way Wiman’s “even now” — which begins a volta of sorts — sits right at the 10th couplet, which, if it were the 10th line, might be where a sonneteer would place a volta. And the way the final two lines within the 14th couplet — “a trace / of peace” — rhyme, and, as such, offer closure. And so yes, maybe, just maybe, this prayer is also a sonnet.

Maybe it is because I’m a lapsed Catholic — it’s definitely because I’m a lapsed Catholic — that I find myself drawn to any poem that is even remotely a prayer. I’ve written a few of them, too. I find in prayer — the very idea of it — a place of such utter humanness, even now, as a secular reader. Or, at least, a more secular reader. Maybe this is because prayer is at once an act of desire and so often a longing for reprieve. Prayer: both want and salvation. Allowance and cessation. A tide caught in that space between sea and land. Prayer feels like that so-much of life that simultaneously wants and wants reprieve from want. Like how Kimberly Grey writes, in her poem “Proper Expressions of Desire”:

Desire is not a thing

I can give up


And maybe it’s an impossible thing to give up. I feel that in Wiman’s poem, and in his choice to situate peace within the context of the poem’s dominant structure, rather than outside of it. The ask is not for peace to exist elsewhere, or for peace to overwhelm life itself. Perhaps that might have once been a desire. To rid oneself totally of pain and desire. But here, the ask is simpler. Just a trace of peace. And for it to be here, in this world of so much and so much that is worse and worsening. There’s a sense of radical humility in such an ask, like saying: I don’t want much, just a little.

Poets have been writing prayers forever. And I find, in so many of them, ways of expressing and articulating the ineffable. Not necessarily about an idea or an ask of who or what might be god. Or faith in a divine sense. But the ineffable qualities of life. The things that make life life. Maybe reading the prayers of poets are the things that make me feel the least alone in the world. Here’s Galway Kinnell’s “Prayer”:

Whatever happens. Whatever

what is is is what

I want. Only that. But that.

Here, Kinnell seems to almost resist knowing, and to resist his own agency. He knows, perhaps only, that he is want. And maybe that nothing matters more than the fact that he wants. And will want. And is want.

Then there’s the aforementioned Carol Ann Duffy’s “Prayer,” which begins with the lines:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer

utters itself.

I love Duffy’s humility here, and how it exists like Wiman’s does: in simple acknowledgment of the world, and the way peace can come as a “sudden gift.”

Maybe, to acknowledge the agency of everything that is not you is one way to surrender yourself to peace.

But sometimes peace is not attainable in the same sentence as pain. And that’s when I think of Cornelius Eady’s “Atomic Prayer,” which contains these lines:

Let each of us do

What we’ve always

Dreamed of,

But were too polite

To act out

Later, he writes:

Give us a taste

Of the stolen world

There are many worlds within this one, and in some of those worlds, peace does not exist in the same sentence as pain. The possibility of peace has been stolen. And so the sentence contains only pain, and the consequences of such pain.

And so, finally, I think of one last poem-prayer: “Litany,” by Aracelis Girmay, which entreats its reader, over and over again, to “go back”:

when the poem has been sung,

when the strings & tambourines,

when all the birds have gathered at the window, let us go,

let us go back there, let us go back

We live in a world that does not often — honestly, perhaps never — ask us to go back. We live in a world of relentless forward momentum, governed by things such as — as Barrett Swanson writes in his essay collection Lost in Summerland — “the dogged optimism of Silicon Valley, an unwavering belief that we can code our way toward wealth and ethical perfection.” It’s this same optimism that, like Wittgenstein says, places limits on our world by placing limits on our language. The corporations that govern us and the products that they sell us are progressive, ethically-sourced, and green. And so they sell us on a future that contains the same language. And in doing so, they express a language of promise rather than a language of so much else: reconciliation, grace, humility, even retreat. I was reading Elizabeth Rush’s Rising last week, and was drawn toward a moment when one of her interview subjects, Jeremy, says: “And in the meantime, if we can make our marshes more resilient to buy us all—humans, plants, and animals—some breathing room in which to figure out how to retreat responsibly, then let’s do that.” How to retreat responsibly. That’s language that provides or offers permission toward a world that might be possible in the future.

And maybe that’s why I find myself turning toward these poem prayers today. I find in them models of language that are also models of humility. They feel radical in the way that they admit despair, or want, or surprise. Wiman’s poem only asks for “a trace / of peace.” Meanwhile, the world is busy dismantling, every second, peace’s possibility. It’s one of the saddest things in the world: to long for models (of love, or care, or peace, or humility) and not find any without searching so hard for them. To find what you value buried so deep beneath the sand. And buried deeper every day. What do I find in a poem? That there is a way, sometimes, to brush away the dense and seeming-eternal sand of the earth and find something a little less lonely underneath.

A trace of peace. I think that’s all I want right now. Maybe you do, too. On Monday, when I went back to my high school, there were the usual how-were-your-summer’s among my fellow teachers. After a few too many “fine’s,” I finally cracked, and I said that I didn’t feel relaxed at all, that it felt impossible to relax in this moment. That the world, and the ongoing and seemingly unnameable malaise and anxiety and pain and witness of suffering and experience of suffering and preparation for suffering felt like too much to simply live within. She said she felt the same. And we both stood in the doorway to an empty classroom and felt it — the world, big and so often invisible with its relentless weight. We live, as Barrett Swanson writes, “in the clutches of this wearisome existence.” Where is peace? The rain at the right moment? And how can we live there, in that peace, a little longer? What sorrow. That we live in a world where to be alive means to ask, so often, for a reprieve from this world. And maybe you find it one day and not another. And maybe you are still asking and not finding it. A trace of peace. I hope you find it. I would like that. Only that. But that.