By DAVID A. KING , Ph.D | Published August 8, 2019
Last week, my sons joined the multitude of students across the archdiocese in making their annual—and far too early—return to school.
It is a year of transition for us. For the first time, my boys are not at the same school. My younger son remains behind in his elementary school, while my older son has embarked upon the perilous journey through middle school.
When I dropped off my third grader last Thursday, he sauntered into his familiar school with confidence and even a bit of swagger. But my new sixth grader walked into his middle school doors as though he were entering the belly of a whale.
I thought of a poem I often think of each new school year, but this time it struck me as more poignant than perhaps ever before. The poem is Howard Nemerov’s “September, The First Day of School,” and it is one of the best poems I know about the difficulty of entrusting your children to the care of others.
Nemerov closes the poem with this unforgettable stanza: “May the fathers he finds/Among his teachers have a care of him/More than his father could. How that will look/I do not know, I do not need to know./Even our tears belong to ritual./But may great kindness come of it in the end.”
I went home and read Nemerov’s poem, and throughout the day, I uttered numerous prayers for my son’s first day of sixth grade. All of us got through that first day just fine.
For me poetry and prayer are almost inseparable. In fact, the liturgy and rote prayers of Catholicism are important reasons why I was drawn to the Catholic Church over half my life ago. I memorize prayers much as I memorize poems, and when I need them, I have them.
In his marvelous new book, “Twenty Poems to Pray,” Gary M. Bouchard asserts that “Poetry and prayer are close cousins, if not siblings.” Bouchard clearly understands the crucial connections between art and life and art and belief, and he knows that the mystery of faith is often best embodied in language. As he writes in his introduction, “It’s true that most poetry is not prayer and that many prayers make for pretty mediocre poetry, but both the earnest petitioner and the determined poet may each be said to achieve their highest aim when they deploy language with such grace and inspiration that their expressions transcend language itself.”
“Twenty Poems to Pray” is a unique anthology that arranges twenty poems into six different thematic categories, all of which have to do with transition, rites of passage and various stages and seasons of ordinary life and the liturgical year.
Through such an arrangement, Bouchard succeeds in making the universality of the poems relevant to the individual experience of the reader. As Sister Thomasita Homan, OSB, has said, Bouchard “invites, nudges, and encourages readers to open a poem by linking it with their own experiences.” So it was with great joy that I discovered Bouchard actually includes the Nemerov poem in his book!
Choosing only 20 poems out of western literature that achieve the aesthetic and spiritual aims of both art and liturgy is a nigh impossible task. For every poem that Bouchard includes, one could think of 10 or 20 or even more to stand alongside it. Yet as Bouchard acknowledges, “The endeavor of this small book is not to offer analysis, but to prompt meditation.” Hence, Sister Homan is correct in regarding the book as being “like a modern psalmody worthy of praying.”
There are poems among the 20 that one would certainly expect to find in such a collection. Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” is included, along with Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” with its famous opening line, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” There are perennial favorite poets such as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Bouchard wisely includes more contemporary poets, in particular the Catholics Dana Gioia and Denise Levertov. Yet there are also surprises, such as St. Pope John Paul II’s “The Song Opens.” Rather than being a sampling of over anthologized relics, then, the book strikes the reader as completely fresh. Even with well-known poets such as Frost and William Stafford, Bouchard chooses poems that even the experienced reader of poetry might not know.
That invitational quality of the book is one of its most appealing features. Bouchard is a teacher; in fact, he is the director of the Gregory J. Grappone Humanities Institute at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. As much as Bouchard wants to nurture the soul of the reader through prayer, he also wants to teach the reader about literature. That he does so without ever being didactic, pretentious, or condescending is both refreshing and engaging.
As much as one enjoys the voices of the poets, the reader comes to enjoy the easy, witty, empathetic voice of Bouchard himself. This is the voice of a wise and experienced teacher, the sort who loves his subject and his students, and who never ceases to marvel at the gift of each.
The reader revealed
In addition to the compelling structure of the book along six broad thematic categories, Bouchard offers a preface and a summary for each poem. These reflections serve multiple purposes. On one hand, they acquaint the reader with a basic biographical overview of each poet, so that each writer is placed in context. Further, they consider the universal themes that each poem addresses in a way that affirms James Dickey’s insistence that great poetry must reveal to the reader not something about the poet, but rather something about the reader. And in keeping with the poet and teacher Richard Hugo’s claim that the best poems navigate a region between sentimentality and the truth, Bouchard unabashedly admits that poetry is, after all, supposed to make us feel, and feel deeply.
“Twenty Poems to Pray” may be read in a variety of ways, either methodically according to the calendar of the year, as a devotional companion, or in life moments relevant to select poems. However the book is enjoyed, it will—like prayer itself—enlighten and sustain the reader.
While my boys are off at school, I am busy preparing for my own upcoming academic year; I’m planning lectures, making syllabi, and looking forward to the new discoveries my students and I will make. I’m perhaps most excited about teaching “Twenty Poems to Pray” in my adult education class, for this is indeed a book that is meant to be shared.
“Twenty Poems to Pray” is published by Liturgical Press and will be in wide release on Sept. 15. David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.