What Makes a Poem a Prayer? What Makes a Prayer a Poem? [guest commentary]

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Guest post by my friend and colleague Julia Rocchi. This post does not necessarily reflect the views of this website.

Fifteen years ago, when I began writing prayers on my personal website—a creative practice that eventually led to my book Amen? Questions for a God I Hope Exists (Lake Drive Books, 2022)—I had not yet received much formal writing training. That came later in my MA in Writing program where I took a variety of courses in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Being immersed in writing, from the 30,000-foot workshop views to the elemental structure of sentences, grounded me in the “rules” and then encouraged me to break them. With a stronger grasp of craft, I had more tools at my disposal to use across genres and styles—including prayers.

“Wait, Julia,” you might say. “Aren’t prayers different than poetry?” I’ve been asked this question often since my book debuted, and I don’t have a quick answer. Amen? uses a variety of formats—essays, short reflections, formal poetry, written prayers—and in the spirit of creating a meditative journey for the reader, I frequently switch the lids and labels among those containers. So while I will attempt to answer this question today, I’m doing so from the premise that prayers and poetry are more alike than not.

Let’s start with participant perspective—“participants” being those who read, those who write, those who pray. Our fair host here, Melanie Weldon-Soiset, posed an interesting question in March 2023 on her Facebook page: “What are some reasons that people (You? Me? Us?) avoid poetry?” A couple themes emerged in the comments. One, many people found poetry inaccessible or “hard to get”; one person used the word “exclusive.” Two, some have been taught there was a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read or write poetry, and the strict binary then killed the desire to engage with it.

Prayer too can feel inaccessible, an ethereal practice exclusive to mystics and contemplatives, something too lofty for mere mortals to grasp. Different prayer methods can also be presented as right or wrong—or rather, acceptable and unacceptable—oriented toward outcomes rather than relationship or presence. We generally enjoy things more when we feel we’re doing them well. But if God Themselves ends up being what feels inaccessible, and all we perceive is a distant, foreign, unreachable force, no wonder we are inclined to give up.

Yet in its rawest form, prayer can simply be a cry from the heart, which is also a way of thinking about the poetry we find most evocative or moving. Both prayer and poetry distill strong emotion in few words, if any. Their expression relies on images and sensations, modes of being and feeling rather than thinking and telling. And when prayers are written or spoken aloud, they often have an eye toward metaphor and an ear toward musicality, much as poetry does, with a focus and flow of language that moves beyond the words’ literal meaning and into a more embodied experience of them.

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Which brings us to a third place where prayer and poetry are alike: beauty, meaning, and resonance remain in the eye of the beholder, but a writer can help cultivate those qualities with thoughtful choices. Whether my role is reader, author, or pray-er, I never want to be the “craft police”—a smug know-it-all who judges a work to be valid only if it unfolds in a prescriptive or socially-sanctioned way. That very idea runs counter to the infinite variety of expression and experience we humans hold, our creative Imago Deis. We each create and receive art and prayer in our unique ways, and for me to deny or stunt that exchange is tantamount to slamming a door in God’s face.

That said, I can facilitate the exchange through my writerly toolbox. I can select metaphors or symbols that spark new connections. I can address God by a unique name or term that casts the divine in a new light. I can deploy assonance, alliteration, meter, repetition, rhyme, or other formal poetic techniques to enhance the reading/praying experience, emphasize my intended theme, or simply surprise the audience—and myself—with a new discovery or insight.

“That’s lovely, Julia,” you’re muttering, “but are prayers poetry, and is poetry prayer?” Indulge me a few minutes longer by reading these two pieces—one a formal poem that I originally wrote in my graduate writing program, the other a prayer that appears in Amen?—that approach a similar theme in distinct ways, and then we’ll chat some more.

Ok, we’re back! “At the Quarry” is a non-rhyming sonnet (14 lines, iambic pentameter) with a volta (or turn) after line 8. Its central image is of a quarry that’s been converted into a swimming hole. “On the Clothesline” is two short paragraphs of prose that uses, well, a clothesline as its main image.

Both pieces explore the same theme—how it feels in our bodies to contemplate mortality—but at different levels of remove. The narrators in “At the Quarry” are considering the mysterious enormity of space, but not examining too closely—perhaps even avoiding—the unseeable (but very real) bottom of the deep, dark pool where they float. In contrast, the speaker of “On the Clothesline” states exactly how they feel when considering “nothingness” and acknowledges death’s inevitability, albeit through the metaphor of “prevailing winds” and being “released from the line.”

In terms of traditional form, what puts “On the Clothesline” in prayer territory is the last line’s direct address to what the reader will likely see as a Higher Power, signaled by the “Amen” sign-off. But do the lack of those elements mean that “At the Quarry” is not a prayer? If a prayer is a cry from the heart, a burst of feeling, or a pause for thought, then the poem, for you, might be every bit as prayerful as “On the Clothesline.”

And with its lack of formal poetic structure or meter, is “On the Clothesline” not a poem? If a poem is a vessel for evocative language, surprising imagery, and personal contemplation, then it might be, for you, every bit as poetic as “At the Quarry.”

The crucial phrase here is “for you.” What speaks to me might not speak to you, and that’s okay. And what inspires me to respond might not inspire you—also okay. In fact, I’d like to suggest that we put aside the original question entirely, the one I’ve fielded regularly since Amen? came out. Maybe it doesn’t matter if poetry and prayer are different. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference. Maybe when we encounter a work that sits in this gray area, we can instead ask, “Do I feel something when I read this? Am I thinking about the world and my place in it differently? Do I feel connected to something bigger than myself?”

Our invitation, in art and prayer, is to ask question upon question. What question are you sitting with today? Feel free to share it in the comments, and let your conversation with Mystery unfold.

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Julia Rocchi writes prose, poetry, prayers, and a lot of thank-you notes. She is the author of AMEN? QUESTIONS FOR A GOD I HOPE EXISTS (Lake Drive Books, 2022). With an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University, she has garnered multiple story publications and honors, including First Place in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest. Julia also works in nonprofit marketing, facilitates gatherings, and performs improv comedy. As an ENFJ, Enneagram 2, and Cancer sign, she’s never met a personality indicator she disagreed with. Julia lives with her family in Arlington, Virginia. Visit juliarocchi.com to follow her on her blog or on social media.

Photo Credit: imarlon/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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