​The book - From the depths of the heart

2017-06-01 L’Osservatore Romano

The affinity between religious and poetic language is revealed in their dwelling in the depths of the human experience, on the margins of what is expressible. Poetry reflects with absolute clarity the complexity of human experience in the search for the divine by virtue of a gaze which passes through silence to draw from the source of life of the word.

Poetry and Prayer: The Power of The Word II (Routledge, 2016) is a book of essays which presents the opinions of theologians, philosophers and poets on the relationship between poetry and prayer, gathering some of its contributions from the second cycle of encounters of the project Power of the Word, inaugurated at Heythrop College, University of London, in 2011. The debate between poetry and prayer has enlivened European culture since at least the end of the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, in the wake of the interest in symbolism, mysticism and modernist theology. It is in this context that Karl Rahner’s theology of grace is offered as a fundamental instrument of interpretation in order to understand a dynamic relationship such as that between poetry and prayer, based on a theology of the poetic word which can open the reader’s heart and mind to the mystery of God. If prayer, according to the German theologian, is “a voice from the depths of the heart”, the same can be said of poetry because of its ability to dissolve the barriers between the physical and the spiritual, to set out into the unknown by “uneven means” and to make itself a joyful herald of the wonder of creation.

This sacramental encounter of poetry with an infinity plucked from time finds a privileged expression in the voices of women. In this book the poetic experience of Emily Dickinson stands out, for whom the encounter between poetry and prayer becomes the threshold of an excited dialogue with the divine. This poet from Amherst sees in prayer an invocation to a God against whose absence and at the same time her desire of him she complains: in her verses, rippling between impatience and confidence, the question about an unresolved matter recurs, that is, whether God listens. Yet despite her doubt the poems cannot but soar as they ask their questions.

In the case of Denise Levertov too, a British poet who died in the United States in 1997, poetry introduces prayer and unfolds the path to the mystery of the divine. About 20 years before her death, in the process of writing a long poem, the poet found herself establishing a new relationship with doubt and faith, conceiving her poetic activity as a true and proper form of prayer. Poetry, as an “incarnating” art, is in fact capable of penetrating a mystery which, as defined by the words of Levertov herself, “is not behind but within” all that exists. And she added: “When the poet writes he is a priest, he recalls the divine, the reader does this through reading the poetry and for divine I mean something that transcends both creativity and yearning”.

Francesca Bugliani Knox