Thursday, February 3, 2011

Peggy Rosenthal's Praying Through Poetry

. . . violence sucks us—mind and spirit—into its world,
as into an all-surrounding dark chaos. It stifles our ability
to imagine anything but itself. . . [P]oetry can take this most
uncommon stuff of life and imagine the uncommon through it.
~ Peggy Rosenthal, Praying Through Poetry

One cold winter day not long ago, while browsing books online, I chanced upon and ordered Peggy Rosenthal's Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2003). Having read randomly through Kim Rosen's Saved by a Poem (Hay House, 2009) and David Richo's Being True to Life: Poetic Paths to Personal Growth (Shambhala Publications, 2009), I was drawn to  experience what Dr. Rosenthal calls "poetry's world-creating possibilities", to accept its invitation  to "[break] open the grip of violence of our times" so as to find a way into hope.

Last week, I went back to the book and re-read it. Now, watching the most recent events in the streets of Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria, Egypt, where hope is made manifest in people joined in common cause, where yesterday violence erupted and dissolved Tahir Square into chaos, I find solace in the poetry, needing it to pray into hope.

A slim volume, just 10 chapters long, each independent of the other, Praying Through Poetry is a book infused with its author's deep appreciation and intuitive understanding of poetry. Dr. Rosenthal introduces and quotes a single poem per chapter and then guides us through it, exposing the poem's insights and the meanings of its imagery by posing the question (the same for each poem), "How does the poem lead me to hope?" How she reads and breaks down the poem impels slow reading; it's important to sit with and hold the imagery in mind, to visualize where the poem might lead, and then to follow that lead. Meditating on the words, seeing a particular visual image from the poem, opens a space for reflection, which in turn lessens the burden of seeing the world darkly. And, as Dr. Rosenthal explains, "Any hope the poem has brought me to by its end will naturally lead me to prayer."

There is nothing mechanical in the approach. To the contrary, the suggestions Dr. Rosenthal offers to help us "pray" each poem, to reach a place where the poem might lift before recessing again, leave us with a different perspective, not only on the poem itself and our response to it, but on the greater world of which we're part. We are moved to imagine a world without violence, to believe in the possibility of hope, because, Dr. Rosenthal shows, the poem's author "has been moved in the course of composing it."

Dr. Rosenthal has selected 10 marvelous, wide-ranging poems, among them "The Greenhouse" by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, "The Translation of Raimundo Luz: My Imitation" by Scott Cairns, Jane Hirshfield's "On the Current Events", Denise Levertov's "The Altar in the Street", and "God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children" by Israel's Yehuda Amichai. She fully sources the 10 poems as well as the many others quoted or mentioned in each chapter.

If you believe, as I do, that even a single line of poetry can change how you "see" the world and your place in it, you will find in Praying Through Poetry a way to discover what Joyce Rupp describes as "the door to a holy site inside yourself."

Co-director of Poetry Retreats, Dr. Rosenthal is a contributor to Image Journal's Good Letters blog and many other periodicals, and the author of a number of books on poetry and Christianity, including, most recently, Reclaiming Beauty for the Good of the World: Muslim & Christian Creativity as Moral Power (Fons Vitae, 2010), co-authored with George Dardess

Of Interest

Artist of the Month, Image Journal, August 2003

Peggy Rosenthal, "Why We Need the Arts in Time of War", Image Journal, Issue #32

Joyce Rupp, Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self (Sorin Books, 2008)


Ami Mattison said...

What a fantastic review, Maureen! I'm left with a huge desire to read this, especially in this time of both violence and great hope. Thanks!

Louise Gallagher said...

Like Ami -- I have a huge desire to read this because of your review.

and what hope you give to all of us in sharing it!

Thank you.

Shirley said...

Hi, Maureen. Your RT sending readers to my blog post on Mary Karr's Top Ten Memoir List brought me to this wonderful blog. Your review does make me want to read the book. Also, I wonder if you heard the NPR program "The Story" today? It focused on the arts also, in this case music. Egyptian protest music is fueling the current revolution. I was very moved to hear, again, the story of how a beloved song about the homeland in Estonia helped the people there to regain their independence from the Soviets. You can listen here:

Maureen said...

Shirley, thank you for the link. I've just listened to the podcast; marvelous story.

Ami, Louise, and Nancy, thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

S. Etole said...

You cause me to add another book to my wish list ... you do this so well, Maureen.