Reading: Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy

Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy (b. 1946) has said “poetry and prayer are very similar”. Here is her 1993 poem “prayer”:

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer—
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Yes, perhaps even atheists can make peace with that. We leave praying to that what utters itself in our surroundings. It becomes a name for the sensitivity with which we oberve the earth. I understand “cannot” in this way: We cannot pray because we don’t believe in God. So this poem reminds me of the famous quip by Niels Bohr who put a horseshoe over his door to bring him luck and replied, to someone who asked by he as a nonbeliever would do that, that he had been told it also works for nonbelievers.

We are indeed faithless (perhaps Duff’s upbringing in religious schools and her lesbianism is not irrelevant here), but we can observe the minims (small notes) sung by a tree and experience the beauty of this world as a gift, even as truth. I like the metaphor of the man reminiscing his youth from the sound of a train.

Who “prays for us” is the wrong question. Prayers occur on their own, without a conscious subject seeking contrition. All we need to do is train our poetic eye. Then, even a radio’s weather forecast becomes a prayer (the names in the final line are towns of British weather stations).

2 thoughts on “Reading: Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy

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