Prayer is a waking activity, a way of giving thanks for consciousness. … When prayer takes the form of devotion, and devotion takes the form of poetry, the connection is through consciousness.

Mark Jarman wrote his new essay collection, Dailiness, about “the way poetry celebrates being alive as an act of consciousness.” But does consciousness deserve our joy? Often, no. So this dissent drove my reading of his book. Show me how it’s worth it, Mark!

He anticipates my pushback. A few pages after his claim about gratitude, he includes a poem he wrote “To a Brainy Child in Distress,” for a young woman “dwelling on no thought / But pain and the pain of thinking.” The ache of waking and awareness are not abstract to him, because he wrote the poem for his daughter, when she was suffering a mental breakdown and he was abroad. For her, “consciousness had ceased to feel like a gift. All I could do at the time was pray for her, but I could do one more thing, too. I could write her a poem, make an appeal for her well-being by creating that wrinkle in time and space which a poem is, bringing God to bear as God is always prepared to be.”

Pain and distance, and the pain of distance, animate much of Jarman’s reflections here. An essay on metaphor, titled “To Make the Final Unity,” dwells quite explicitly on these themes, since for him, “We make metaphors in order to achieve what W. H. Auden called ‘the restored relation.’” We make them to cross a distance. But as Jarman shows us, the sparks fly in poetry not because the analogies work, but because they short-circuit — not because the unity holds, but because it comes undone. And yet we are not left with a mere gap. Something new has happened:

St. Augustine, who was captivated by St. Paul’s image of the dark mirror, says to God, ‘I perceived myself to be far from thee, in the region of unlikeness.’ Life for St. Augustine could be lived in one of two realms, the realm of likeness to Christ or a realm too far from Christ to be at all like Him […] This realistic, metaphorical thinking might seem alien to us, but Robert Frost had this kind of thinking in mind when he said, in ‘Education by Poetry,’ ‘Greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, spirit in terms of matter, to make the final unity.’ ‘That is,’ he said, ‘the greatest attempt that ever failed.’ St. Augustine would say that failure is the reason for Grace. We might say it is the reason for poetry.

One example Jarman turns to is W. S. Merwin’s “The Present.” It’s subtle, but Jarman find the rupture that makes the poem so lively:

The beauty and the breakdown of this metaphor comes in the poem’s final line: ‘While the light worships its blind god.’ As right as this seems as a metaphor for our searching, its effect is to undermine the attempt to make a unity. Our yearning response to our flawed intelligence causes us to adore the sun, a god that has no consciousness of its effect. […]

The gaze through the dark glass described by St. Paul seeks the completion of identity, to know oneself as one has been known … to recognize a unified self, a restored relation. […] In making a metaphor the poet acts on that same impulse toward unity, the restoration of relation. One of the beauties of metaphor is its promise of putting a fragmented self back together. One of its dynamic and exciting issues is the way that promise isn’t quite kept.

But if we write and read poetry to experience some kind of unity, a little lessening of distance, why would metaphor’s infidelity excite us? Certainly we’re perverse, often inescapably transfixed by what harms us. But there’s more. If destruction were all that drew us to metaphor, it would completely disintegrate. Instead, even the breakdowns remain somehow coherent. Jarman comes back around to explain their continuing beauty and togetherness. He cites an old film, in which one character asks another if “the world itself is a metaphor for something else.” It’s a medieval notion, yet Jarman suggests this inclination energizes all metaphor-making. Re-enter Augustine:

When we make a metaphor, we are making that world, and we test metaphors, even the most outlandish, against the world we know, the one which in itself lacks the meaning and unity of metaphor. And it is possible, in fact likely, that the impulse to make metaphor occurs when we do see that world as a metaphor for something else. To tell the truth, I think poets are secret Augustinians, or at least let’s say they have one foot in the region of unlikeness and one foot in the region of likeness, and frequently have trouble telling the difference. There’s the excitement. […] I don’t think metaphor really can put things back together; it is the attempt itself, as it breaks down, that unites matter and spirit, and reminds us why the attempt is made.

The attempt itself is what matters. The content of any metaphor may fail, but the form of the metaphor, of trying to make one, can’t help but succeed. He makes this point clearer in another essay, on the evolution of devotional poetry. He begins, of course, with John Donne and George Herbert, but traces their influence right up to the present, through Whitman’s odes to himself and Jean Valentine’s prayers to an early hominid fossil. These more “secular” poems may seem to have lost all touch with devotion, being addressed to something that isn’t God, but I think Jarman’s more expansive definition shows us something true about devotion proper: “Devotional poetry not only expresses faith in something or someone, like God or time, but gives us a sense that the poet is trying to reconcile him or herself to the necessary reality of that object of reverence by establishing a personal, even private relationship with it.” In all of his examples, from Renaissance priests to modern atheists, we see poems trying, and the devotional poem is the form that leaves the most room to try.

Consciousness is often more a burden than a boon. But by attending to devotion’s many facets, and to the grace of metaphors’ breakdown, Jarman demonstrates that we don’t give thanks because we  already know consciousness is good. Giving thanks is itself a struggle to see it as good. It reminded me of the devotional poetry that precedes even 17th-century Anglican divines: the psalms. Fractious, tempestuous, immoral, these have been the prayers of God’s people for millennia. And what we find there is certainly no polite and pious gratitude for sentience but a more ferocious antagonism with God and other people than even Jarman’s modern atheist poets can muster. Theologian Catherine Pickstock has written about how these stormy emotions appear in the Mass, as an “agony of apostrophic striving” — the struggle of making an address (apostrophe) to God. The voice of the psalms

bespeaks its own appalling distance from God, in a stammer which abruptly shifts from a mode of passionate doxology to melancholia, in the space of two lines: [‘Upon the harp will I praise Thee, O God my God : Why art thou cast down, O my soul and why are thou disquieted within me?’] The liturgical I-Thou relationship involves ceaseless struggle for the worshipper […] Can his voice be heard by that which is absent? Will God respond? The words [‘O Lord, hear my prayer. / And let my cry come unto Thee’] express the fear that the worshipping voice will not be heard, that the silence of the text will triumph, and neither voice nor vocation will remain. The voice seems in danger of becoming less than nothing, since its striving language — as calling, welcoming, praising — casts speaking as continuous with being.

In a very deep sense — both historically distant and stylistically profound — it is the drama and dynamism of the psalms that inspires so much of the art that Jarman considers in these essays. It’s perhaps why Augustine crops up more than once: the “stammer” of poets, no matter their relation to God, takes cues from the “stammer” of doubtful believers. Because in some sense, that’s all of us, hoping for our felix culpa — hoping that consciousness feels like the gift that it is.

Featured image: Jr Korpa on Unsplash