The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)