Friday, August 6, 2010

"Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer"

Here is an essay by Mary Karr that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005 and was reprinted in her volume of poems Sinners Welcome in 2006. It's a nutshell of her conversion (she describes herself upfront as a cafeteria Catholic, which is not unexpected), but goes on to write very cogently and movingly about the sacramental in poetry.


BettyDuffy said...

Wow, I don't know what to say about her first metaphor there, but I agree, she does go on to write beautifully about the Sacramental in poetry.

Her point that poetry, like the liturgy has a unifying element, reminds me of several of your posts, P, about listening to the radio and feeling a connection with fellow anonymous listeners. You are a part of a shared experience--something bigger.

I also liked her point about the darkness of certain poems and prayers that still have the effect of praise. I've often thought so about certain psalms--have felt comforted that any dark feelings I have are not incompatible with my status as a believer.

Especially related to this:

"My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin-challenged bitch."

Thanks for the link

mrsdarwin said...

I can't find Lit at the library, and I'm a bit hesitant to buy it because it doesn't sound like the kind of book I'd want to own and keep on my shelf. (We don't tend to buy books unless we know they're ones we'll want to have around and let our kids read one day.)

I did want to comment on this essay, though. Karr is a good writer, I can tell, and I enjoyed what she had to say about poetry (and especially, the poetry she quoted) and yet... Perhaps she felt that she was writing for a hostile audience, but she seemed too apologetic that now her life had some joy in it -- as if the desire for joy were something suspect or pathetic. I understand the ethos of the suffering artist, and the pull of loneliness or despair. But -- is she hesitant about joy because she feels she doesn't deserve it, or because she feels it spoils her poetic credibility? I almost felt like she was playing it a bit strong so as to resonate with her audience, and that's something I instinctively recoil from.

Maybe if I could find the book and read it, I might understand more. I feel that one of my failings is a tendency not to be sympathetic enough to others, so it's possible the fault lies with me, not Mary Karr.

Pentimento said...

A big part of her reluctance vis-à-vis joy, I think, is the fact that she is a recovering alcoholic from a family of mentally ill alcoholics. She herself was hospitalized both for alcohol detox and later for suicidal depression. And I think that the fact that she is a convert, writing for an audience that is, if not hostile, then at least suspicious, also has a lot to do with it. I went through this myself after my reversion/conversion. Some of my friends and colleagues were outraged that I went back to the Catholic Church, while others were merely bewildered. When your life changes dramatically, you usually lose friends, and no one wants to be lonely, personally or professionally.

Emily J. said...

I also can't get Lit from the library and didn't want to buy it because My Friends just showed up...and I have a hard time giving away books even though we have this ominous weight limit looming over our heads every time we move. (leave the washer and dryer, but not the books!) I was planning to go to Barnes and Noble after the kids start school next week and scan the book for about an hour. I'll buy a cup of coffee to ease my guilt.

But I did really enjoy this essay, after the initial thought that her deliberate coarseness seemed a ploy to win disbelievers with a sort of "Look, I'm still a sinner" attitude. I thought the reluctance to experience joy came about because she thought she wrote better poetry when depressed - that the muse of poetry doesn't hang out with happy people or something along those lines. Like BD, I liked her comments about poetry and liturgy, but I think what I appreciated most was the connection between poetry and beauty and faith. Poetry made her feel less alone, became a sort of sacred speech, bonded her with her family and finally was a portal to transcendence. An example of theological aesthetics in practice.

Also liked Thomas Lux's solid advice. And her final sentence is very moving. I'll be sneaking out to Barnes and Noble's soon.

Pentimento said...

Wow, I'm amazed that My Friends is easier to find than Lit . . . I decided on Lit in the end because I thought it would be *easier* to get hold of! Well, it's new enough that probably it's still on order at many libraries; I had to request my copy from a library that's about 80 miles away but is part of our system, which serves four counties.

Emily, if you decide to buy Lit, I will buy it off you if you need to unload it for a future move. I wouldn't mind having it around.

BettyDuffy said...

Here's what I think is going on with Karr and joy:
1. Like P said, she's a recovering addict, which Lit goes into with great detail.
2. As a convert and recovering addict, she is very clear that the sorrow of the Christian is still joy compared to life without God. It's difficult to explain to nonbelievers that you can still have bad days, still have spiritual darkness, still even be depressed, but maintain Christian joy. I think the comparisons she draws between the community of readers for dark poetry, and community of believers for the darker psalms helps to clarify for the unbeliever what she's talking about. They both have the ability to transcend the temptation to despair, which is a temptation I don't think humanity ever completely shakes, Christian or no. Faith adds layers of beauty, of community, of faith, of hope, but it doesn't take away the burden of humanity and all its attendant moods.

Enbrethiliel said...


I was going to be slightly unethical and read Lit in the bookstore that gets most of my business anyway . . . but they don't have it yet! =P But I'll do my best to follow along this month. =) (It'll be like all those times in English class when I was the only one who hadn't done the reading assignment . . .)