Poets Online Archive
Natural Prayer
August 2007

Mary Oliver's poem, "In the Storm,"was the model poem for this prompt. It is from her 2006 book, Thirst (Beacon Press). You'd expect to find poems about nature, and readers familiar with her work might also expect a kind of spirituality. As several reviewers have written, you will also find her exploring in this book grief and faith.

Oliver recently lost her long time companion, and in this book she writes through and with her grief into a place that seems overtly spiritual, perhaps even religious. Some of the poems sound like prayers- "Oh Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am / not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.

In the poem, "Praying" she offers:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice can speak.

Patching a few words together into a prayer, or into a poem, they are still full of place: ponds, ocean and marsh full of "salt brightness," grass, fields and cattails occupied by herons, ravens, dogs, bees, hawks, snakes, turtles, and bears.

For me, these poems are a kind of natural praying. They are natural in the sense of nature, full of wonder and admiration for the majesty of what surrounds us, and they are natural in their inherent sense of right and wrong and their higher qualities of human nature like kindness.

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

For August's writing prompt, we ask that you try to write a natural prayer. You may use any definition of natural, any form of prayer, whether that be overtly religious or spiritual without any religious attachments.

By the way, this term, "natural prayer," is not my own invention - Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," and there are precedents for this type of poem.

There's more information about this prompt and others on the Poets Online Blog.

Mary Oliver is one of the best-selling poets in America and the winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the National Book Award. She lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Her 15 books of poetry include New and Selected Poems: Volume 1 and Volume 2, Winter Hours , and her non-fiction includes Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse.


The worst of summer, the driest
August I remember.
All color’s parched from dead grass
that rattles underfoot.
My sole stubs on a rock, I imagine
sparks, wildfire igniting
the next breeze.
This is the time to harden,
to just get through to something
better – rain, the first green
of November.
Already the sun that’s burned
this hillside
is rising again over the east
ridge. It strikes a dozen
cobwebs threaded among dry
weeds – webs that weren’t there
yesterday, spun by spiders
with more faith
than I have; spiders who believe,
as I would,
in this new day.

Taylor Graham


Not so angry,
the clouds murmured to the wind.
Not so angry,
the beach whispered to the crashing waves,

and in between flashes of lightning
illuminating my empty room,
I sat in darkness,

speaking with a silent voice
to the elements.
Not so angry,
I said.

Ghosts of shadows
shuffled across my walls.
I could almost hear
their unspoken desires,
evil thoughts,
darkly seductive.

Their power entered me;
in a moment I too
was chained to darkness
and despair
and violence,

and I was filled
with all the deeds of night,
all the unspeakable horror,
and I delighted
with the storm,

with the sea,
shattered destructively
my power with the wind.

But for a moment,
I was transported
beyond my safe haven,
beyond my concrete walls,
into void,
existing in another plane
devoid of life
but not empty,
and that moment was forever

until it seemed
my consciousness withdrew
and gradually I returned
to my place in the cold room
and it seemed
my world was altered.
I was whispering
Not so angry
to the night,

but in my mind
my silent thoughts
were laughing
as they chanted
Yes! So angry
Yes! So angry
Oh yes!
to the tortured night.

Janna Hastings


How could we have blamed the sun?
Was the white heat really so overwhelming?

They told us:
Don't look into it directly.
You'll go blind. Still,

we stole quick glances
and now all this talk of fault,
hanging like granite from our sleeves.

Look: these stones are simply stones,
gathered like companions by the water.
They can't will harm.
And that perfect stand of birch persists
in spite of all that has happened.

Let's not sit here dumb with shame
in these last hours; the thunder is still
too far off to quiet the delirious tongue
of the goldfinch burning in the sunflowers,
reminding us, again,
we have always been worthy.

P. Goudaman


I found it there, near the water.
I knew it was a swan's feather
from the very length of it.

It was white and slightly torn.
A simple thing, really.
Just a feather.

Yet this single cast off feather
knew what it was to fly,
rising among the changing clouds
and looking down on all of this.

And now it lay here alone,
no longer needed, discarded
and earthbound
unless a gust
chose to lift it up once more,
letting it taste the wind.

Mary Kendall


For a poet, the natural prayer
Is the lines that one remembers
That come out, like the ticking
Of a goose down pillow;
The ticking on an eye lash or lip.

One is tempted to recite
Thinking of time as a boxed fruit cake
We are uninterested in
And pass along to everybody
Till, you think, may be I should try a slice.

Bony Elsa Ebling gave me a slice
As my special school’s principle
When she met my brother and I
On Flatbush Avenue, down from Ebbets.
It was a bad prayer to meet her
Having last seen her
When I came back from the first year high
With great grades.

“So you write poetry.?”
She said with prayer like drifting thoughts
And the skyward eyes of the intense.
“There is this poem of Longfellow,
Where when you age, you put your toys back
The toys of growth into the back stair box.

This prayer is the pipes of Pan,
One melody, is a line of cursive invocation
As clustered petals in a cabbage rose,
No rose without a spine of time.

There are three ladies
At the table overlooking the river
Enjoying their cups of sweet and fragrant gossip.
“He likes to drive so fast
I barely see the trees.
This summer is so wet and green
The bitter sweet has over grown
The lines of the field and woods.”
But we have no compliments,
No forgiveness, no kindness.

How sad, there are only the hard lines of pencils
No soft pastels with love’s blurry vision. 

Edward Halperin


Throbbing arrow
wounded fawn
dying slowly.

Fallen colored leaves
primal wooded floor
drops of warm blood

Disappointed hunter
Angry, hungry and
Cursing his poor luck

Tony Cicatko


Shadow of curved edged petal
On the neighbouring flower's
Petal tip - nail of finger,
Shadow of a long petal
Across petals like the leaf
Serrated of banana.

Many flowers - all alike
For those precision not known
Praise be for one who repeats
Perfectness with complete ease.

Lahari Chatterji


Dust motes swim in the light,
a shaft angled perfectly
from the window above the pegs
where coats gather in winter
for solace when Orion rules the sky.

It is July,
and this space of cedar and oak,
of children conquering steps two,
even three at a time,
is empty, quiet.
Even the ghosts have left.

I will sweep, but not now,
not while I sit in a straight-back chair
waiting for the sun to fall,
for light to touch my forehead
in this chapel of grace.
It is good to be here,
for loneliness is precursor
to the perfection of God.

One day, Gabriel's wing
will sweep me away with the sun.

William Hammett


when he told you about the ovenbird
was that she builds her domed nest on the ground,
woven from vegetation, a kind of oven
with a small side entrance where the parents come and go
sharing the feeding of the young birds.
He was too busy saying that they know in singing not to sing
to mention that their song is teacher-teacher-teacher.
And when Frost comes to that other fall we name the fall,
the poet thinks the birds are saying the highway dust is over all,
but I think it is for the learning that they sing
a prayer from the questions we frame
that is answered in a diminished thing.

Pamela Milne


A flower fell at my feet.
A white jasmine.
I picked it up
and quietly
placed it in the centre
Of my breasts.
Its fragrance reached me,
I saw my mother's slim arms.
Deft fingers strung jasmine
in my oiled and plaited hair
every morning when
I left for school.
She whom I had left
behind at home, a choice made.
She who left me
Behind, then, herself,
not choosing to and yet.
There she was
Nestled right there in my heart.

Abha Iyengar


He was going down the side of the road,
between Pops Country store and the vultures tree.
I caught his movement in the grass,
saw him trotting towards me,
my two ton vehicle in too close proximity
to his tiny beagle body.
I pressed the brakes, pulled my heartstrings,
prayed he stay the course,
no sudden turns.
In my mirror, I saw him,
off to some doggie destination.
Would they all,
squirrels, chipmunks, opossum, deer,
have sensors in their feet,
asphalt sensors to send them scurrying
back to the grass and woods.
Stay safe, little creatures,
Stay safe.

Patti Conroy


Marshlands lie fallow in glory
use is their beauty
left alone to praise the sky they scrape
with moist green fingers

Evenings, a messiah of purple light
within a frog chorus chant
metallic clicks hums hisses
a million grasshopper throats
Shout, “Alleluia to us all!”

The long blades of sawgrass
gray green and hazed in August heat
cry thanks in a sibilant rustle.

They are laid end to end to infinity
make an ocean hiding
footed beasts hold fast a memory of sea.

The whole storm is sleeping
underneath the horizon
a horrible clap and flash
the heron rises up –
impossible spindle and wing!

God exhales
the slim grasses sway:
answered prayer.

Patty Tomsky


The wild duck startles me from my nap like a sudden thought -
I am a verb.
My notebook is sliding from my lap
like the idea that started the poem.
Why am I a verb?

If my notes could be music,
I would have a symphony now.

I open the anthology I brought with me
and there is John Clare (1793-1864)
poor, crazy, delusional, peasant in an asylum poet -

    Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
    And the rivers we're eying burn to gold as they run;
    Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
    Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

whose lines fit my current setting and mood,
but whose bio note shows me that with all his grief,
he wrote more, published more than me.

John, like you I long for scenes where man has never trod
but don't expect answers from a creator God,
though right now I send a brief prayer out
to the wild duck, the water, the sun on the leaves,
a green message chanted silently that closes my eyes
    Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie, -
    The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

Ken Ronkowitz

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