The Poem

“On Prayer” is a short poem, twelve lines long, written in free verse. The title suggests a meditation on the nature of the act of prayer, which immediately signals the presence of a number of potential issues: the question of God’s existence, the nature of one’s relationship to God, and explorations of the ideas of faith and belief.

The poet adopts a first-person voice in this short lyric, written in the form of a direct response to a problem: “how to pray to someone who is not.” The first line, in effect, announces the problem by restating a question asked by an implied listener, here assumed to be the reader. Czesaw Miosz’s concise poem retains the immediacy of a personal response to the query, even to the point of a brief schoolmasterly aside in line 9 to make sure readers are paying attention. Without relying on the language of doctrine, Miosz establishes his own quietly authoritative tone.

The first line raises the question of reconciling prayer, a desire for belief, with the contemporary context of disbelief or skepticism. How does one describe the act of prayer in such circumstances, and what function can it perform? Immediately, Miosz has focused his readers’ attention on a central paradox of spiritual expression in the twentieth century.

The next four lines make up the initial stage of the speaker’s response: a description of what prayer does in his experience. The act of prayer builds a “velvet bridge,” establishes a connection, and this bridge elevates people in some sense, creating a new perspective on reality. The...

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Forms and Devices

One of the most striking features of Miosz’s exposition on the nature of prayer is his elaboration of the image of the bridge. Miosz’s use of metonymy (the substitution of one term for another), in this case prayer and the bridge, fixes in very concrete terms an extremely intangible subject. The description admits no merely linguistic connection, but functions as an element of fact; thus, the poet maintains the materiality of the image while using it to describe an extremely abstract and metaphysical religious concept. By this means, Miosz retains a balance between his sense of human desire (goodness) and human limitations (the existence of evil). To leave aside the material nature of humans would be to invalidate the process, to render an untrue vision.

In an early section of Unattainable Earth, Miosz remarks, “The language of literature in the twentieth century has been steeped in unbelief. Making use of that language, I was able to show only a small bit of my believing temperament.” His use of the concrete reality to balance the metaphysical in “On Prayer” reflects this ongoing difficulty and incorporates the thematic material of the poem into its formal presentation. The deliberate simplicity of the diction and the generally proselike syntax is another way to keep his concerns firmly grounded in this world.

Another representative element of this short lyric is the studied, balanced tone. More extended lyrics in this volume give an indication of Miosz’s tendency toward a polyphonic voice to render the rich textures and variety of experience. Even in this short lyric, however, one gets an indication of the balances created by juxtaposing images of great poetic power (the illumination, for example) and his more prosaic, earthbound, and directive tones.