Some days a prayer utters itself

I have a childhood memory of the BBC radio news playing from the kitchen in the morning while I was getting ready for school. As in the evening, so in the morning, the radio news concluded with the weather forecast which was then followed by the “shipping forecast” and the naming of the “fishing” grounds and you find these places named in Duffy’s poem. -Rockall, Malin, Dogger, Finisterre. Now in my love of poetry it is never my intention, nor do I have the knowledge, to teach poetry, but today there is a “teaching moment” in the  following summary of Duffy’s prayer, which offers a wider and deeper dimension and insight into the beauty of this poem.

‘Prayer’ is one of Carol Ann Duffy’s most popular and widely-studied poems, and packs an impressive emotional punch in just fourteen lines. But how does Duffy create such a powerful poem out of some very ordinary things – practising piano scales, or the BBC Shipping Forecast?

In summary, ‘Prayer’ locates the mystical or numinous experiences and feelings to be found in our everyday lives, especially at times when we feel despair or emptiness: the musical sound of the wind through the trees, someone practising musical scales on a piano, or the name of a lost child. A man hearing the sound of a train chugging across the landscape is suddenly reminded, unexpectedly, of his childhood, and his Latin lessons (the repetition of Latin vocabulary lessons, such as learning how to conjugate the verb, often has its own rhythm: e.g. in the famous example of ‘love’, amo, amas, amat). The suggestion is that, although such moments fall short of actual religious experience (Latin is associated with Christianity thanks to the Latin mass, but the memory here is of learning the language), they verge on the spiritual even though they are grounded in more secular and everyday routines and situations. ‘Prayer’ is a Shakespearean sonnet, as we can tell from its iambic pentameter rhythm and its rhyme scheme:ababcdcdefefgg However, note the a rhyme and the g rhyme are, in fact, the same: prayer/stare/prayer/Finisterre (with ‘Finisterre’ not simply rhyming with, but repeating, ‘stare’). ‘Finisterre’ rhymes with ‘prayer’, the word that not only ends the previous line also provides the poem with its title, as well as the final word of the poem’s opening line. In other words, that rhyming couplet takes us back to the previous line of the poem but also the very beginning of the poem. This is significant not least because the word Duffy chooses to end the poem – Finisterre – is literally about ends: ‘Finisterre’ means ‘the ends of the earth’. But in a sense, as T. S. Eliot had it in ‘East Coker’, ‘In my end is my beginning’. Prayers are repeated calls, things we return to, things we iterate and reiterate, just as the Shipping Forecast is repeated at regular intervals every night on BBC radio. I close with a prayer, (which for some will be a familiar prayer) from the Book of Common Prayer. Enjoy the poem and I encourage you to pray.

Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy
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 1 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.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
you are merciful and kind,
but we have gone our own way,
not loving you as we ought,
nor loving our neighbours as ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed
and in what we have failed to do.
We deserve your condemnation.
Father, forgive us.
Help us to love you and our neighbour,
and to live for your honour and glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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