The Prayer a Poem Can Make
In the Beginning
If the Psalms teach us nothing else – and they teach us plenty! – it is that poetry and prayer are close cousins. And though I have long known this, I successfully ducked the suggestion of creating a column dedicated to that idea for well over a year. Finally, when it became clear that Parable’s editor wasn’t going to stop asking, and that I had used up my best excuses, I acquiesced and The Prayer a Poem Can Make came to be.
That was three years ago. In the quickly fleeting time since then I have done my best to break open lines of verse from nearly 20 poems and lift from them the praise and penance, the anguish and bewilderment, the gratitude and affection, the astonishment and joy that their words contained. I have tried to make the words of good and great poets our own prayers. These pages here are my last attempt to do so. After this, The Prayer a Poem Can Make will fade quietly into the Parable archives.
So, here one last time are words in verse that may shape in us a prayer.
The author of the poem on this page cannot begin to stand beside the remarkable poets featured in this column over the past three years. No Hopkins, Eliot, Shakespeare, Herbert or Dickinson; that much is certain! But I can offer, I think, a suitable poem to bring this to an end - since it starts at the beginning.
The title of the poem below brings readers to that very opening verse of the Bible, a verse which expresses a profound and profoundly incomplete thought: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” This beginning of all beginnings is followed by a description of the “formless void” of darkness, wind and water that existed until God gave his very first command, “Let there be light.” The frightful and shapeless chaos immediately began to take shape into something that God acknowledged as good. And his work had just begun. Each subsequent day of creation is marked by the refrain that is the essential temporal measure of our lives: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
Who is this creator God and what is he up to in his whirling world-making? What kind of genius brings order from chaos? What kind of love shaped our world? And to what purpose? We may derive an imaginative answer to such questions by looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and seeing the white-bearded world-maker swirling around in clouds, separating the darkness from light. Or, closer to our own homes, we may ponder the daily acts of creation by which we measure our lives.
We may reflect upon the fact that – day by blessed day, through small and great triumphs, in manageable as well as overwhelming difficulties, somewhere between our deepest worries, our most exuberant joys, and the mere passing of time – we are all creators, that in each of our lives “there is evening and there is morning” and another day.
Nobody understands this daily act of creating more than parents, grandparents and teachers of all kinds, whose job it is to order the universe for the small or not-so-small persons in their charge. In the poem below the work of God the creator is conveyed metaphorically and actually in the loving and unending acts of parents whose job it is to bring order to the world of chaos begotten by the ceaselessly busy hands and feet of a busy toddler.
The earth is trampled under
by two small feet
carrying chaos on wings,
sweeping from place
all that order has placed –
teaching objects to fall.
You catch them
to keep the world
Balancing treasures on top shelves,
Keeping things out of reach,
Then handing them down
a piece at a time –
to hold and turn and see
The world –
small and blue in a universe of galaxies
is yet too big to know at once.
It must be rationed
in blocks and buckets,
spoon-fulls and cat-tails,
one leaf, then two, then tree,
wave, then water, then sea,
word by word
and truths small enough to be so.
And there is evening
and there is morning
When chaos is abed
and all objects steadied,
we must go about
replacing the small samples
(since it is our house at which we play)
to know where everything on earth belongs.
We must try to see the world at once
and hold and turn and provide.
Everyone who has ever cared for children understands very much why the God of Genesis rested on the seventh day. Creation is divinely exhausting work, and try as we may we cannot always keep a child’s world from breaking. Though we may try to unveil the world “a piece at a time,” in all its remarkable splendor as well as its uncertain chaos, we know we are working well above our pay grade. Do any of us really know “where everything on earth belongs”? Haven’t most of us in our exasperation felt like we are swimming in a “formless void”?
As children’s first and lasting teachers we offer explanations, “word by word,” knowing as we do so that while our words may suffice to stop the unfiltered barrage of questions pouring out of a child, these words do not begin to explain the many wonders of the universe that the child’s mind is beholding for the first time. Textbooks may help one day, but now and always, St. Paul’s three lessons will more than suffice. For we are not merely bluffing our way towards understanding. We are believing, hoping and loving our way.
We say prayers and say goodnight and turn off the light in a child’s room. We turn to re-ordering our world. “And there is evening and there is morning, one day.” But we are not the ones with the power to declare, “Let there be light.” Little in this world yields or moves at our command. We play at making our house, but our work as creators, honestly understood, engenders humility.
It must have been at the end of such a humbling day that I conceived and wrote “Genesis 1:1” over a quarter century ago. The child who inspired this poem turns 27 next month and lives more than half way across the continent. He and his brother continue to achieve many good things and yes, they are still very capable of bringing chaos into our lives. They are not yet entirely out of the reach of their parents' steadying lessons, but try as we must, and love as we will, none of us knows “where everything on earth belongs.”
A time may soon come when the little hand that inspired this poem must hold and turn and provide the pieces of creation for two new small hands that carry chaos and spill objects from their place. It is the place of each new generation of parents to keep the world from breaking. As our children learn to create, may they, and may we all, understand that the Book of Genesis is a love story; that every breath of the creation story is filled with the love from which it springs and the gratitude it must inspire. May we recognize who ultimately holds, and turns, and provides.
And there is evening and there is morning, one day. Amen.
Gary Bouchard is the Chair of the English Department at Saint Anselm College where he has been a professor of Early Modern and Shakespeare studies for 30 years.