The Power of Poetry, Protest, and Prayer

Here’s my introduction to prophets of the 21st century

Nancy Hightower
Jul 29, 2019 · 5 min read

I spent the Fourth of July on a Brooklyn terrace barefoot and drinking a lovely pinot while watching the sun break into streaks of gold and pink as it set. In front of me and a small audience, hip-hop artist Mandella Eskia took the microphone while polymath rapper Mike Larry Draw spun a soft orchestra of accompanying sounds that I could not call music because it became more than music.

I registered it as a choir singing backup to a preacher as Eskia’s words spun around me. “Don’t touch me, your hate too disgusting, we stay on that upswing, you pray I get nothing.” I didn’t understand the tears in my eyes or why my hands were suddenly clenched together as if in prayer. I only knew this place was flooded with holiness, that the Spirit was here as Eskia rapped about love and resistance, about identity and social justice.

Even after I went home, I couldn’t shake the line about prayer.

I was raised in an evangelical house where praying was all about spiritual battle and little else. We prayed against demons and sickness; we prayed for healing and victory against religious persecution. I rarely, if ever, thought about the marginalized or those whom society had deemed invisible. You were either a threat or an ally. Nor did I think God heard my prayers unless I had praised him enough and repented of all my sins. There were so many rules one had to follow in order to be heard.

I never imagined a rapper could help create such a sacred space where I encountered such holy joy. And yet, why, as a Christian, should I have expected anything less? In his essay on poetry and prayer Jericho Brown reminds us that “One does not invite the Holy Spirit into one’s life and expect it to operate on one’s own terms, as a sort of butler to the soul.”

I’ve been struggling with my own doubts about what prayer can accomplish in combatting ongoing school shootings, systemic racism, children in cages, and other atrocities. Recently, I’ve had two friends my age die of cancer. I have to get a mass on my ovary tested to see if it’s a cyst or a tumor. The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has been both mocked and said in earnest as a response to such daily traumas, both public and personal.

But do I believe my prayers can magically stop a bullet or eradicate cancer? I’m not sure that’s even the right question we should be asking, which is why I’ve found myself reading more poetry than I have in years. Poet and memoirist Mary Karr says growing up as an atheist, “poems were the only prayers that got said — the closest thing to sacred speech at all….With both prayer and poetry, we use elegance to exalt, but we also beg and grieve and tremble.” I might add to this that through both we tell stories — our own and those of others; it is an exchange of narrative, a co-mingling of DNA.

In Jericho Brown’s powerful poem “Deliverance,” the narrator describes the tenuous relationship between prayer and doubt:

“Though I have not shined shoes for it,

Have not suffocated myself handsome

In a tight, bright tie, Sunday comes

Again to me as it did in childhood.

We few left who listen to the radio leave

Ourselves available to surprise. We pray

Unaware of prayer. We are an ugly people.”

When I listen to this poem, I find myself back on that rooftop in Brooklyn, eyes closed and hands clasped. The Spirit whispers. Such haunting authenticity echoes both Job and the Psalms. Brown’s poem Psalm 150 reframes David’s call to praise the Lord as a story of intimacy between lovers, but it is also a moment of waiting and an act of prayer:

“…Only memory

Makes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me?

Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,

Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,

Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head

And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.

Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.”

When I read this Psalm in its original version, I can’t imagine David’s cymbals and trumpets — such metaphors belong to another time and place. But I can hear the thunder in Brown’s poem; I can inhabit the interstitial space of waiting and resistance as someone who struggles with bipolar II disorder and “isn’t killed yet.”

Up until this year, I had always considered poetry as a correlative to prayer, even though I had written poetry as liturgy for my church when I lived in Denver. Brown describes something similar: “I speculate the two are like adjacent apartments in the same building: When you’re in one, you have no direct access to the other, but if you listen closely you can hear sounds — sometimes muffled, sometimes sharp — coming from the other side of the connecting wall.”

I wonder if perhaps the wall is thinner than that. More like a permeable membrane. Maybe the Psalms are a blueprint of how protest, prayer, and poetry form an unbreakable trinity because they transform how we see our own stories and the stories of others. Poetry as prayer might give us visions of how to slay the giant (who in their right mind would have thought to pick up stones in a battlefield of swords and arrows?). And now, more than ever, we need a new vision.

I have come to regard poets such as Ilya Kaminsky, Jillian Weise, Natalie Diaz, Elizabeth Acevedo, and so many more as our 21st-century prophets. I find myself praying as I read their work or immediately after. Their words, like scripture, have shifted my worldview to see who my “neighbor” truly is and what it means to disrupt narratives that go against love.

People too often think that prayer only belongs in church, poetry in school, and protest in the streets as opposed to a trinity that informs the dynamic of my spiritual life and reshapes my conversations with students, friends, and colleagues.

I wonder how much power and love would be unleashed by the Spirit if pastors read poetry from the pulpit as if in prayer, amplifying the voices of the LGBTQIA community, poets of color, and poets who write about disability. How might they breathe new life into Amos’ call for “justice [to] roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream (5:24)?

All I know is that prayer is no longer a conversation between me and God, but a multiverse of stories begging to be heard, and answered.

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

Nancy Hightower

Written by

Essays about spirituality, mental health, women’s health, politics, & MeToo. Bipolar poet. Storyteller. she/her

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

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