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Contemporary poems for Shabbat morning prayer

This coming Shabbat, I'm planning to lead a service at my shul where contemporary poetry is juxtaposed with the traditional Hebrew liturgy. My hope is that the poems will offer new ways of understanding the liturgy, and vice versa. Just as a diamond-cutter uses one diamond to open new facets in another, just as Hasidic scholars use one verse of Torah to open new facets in another, we'll use these poems to reflect new understandings of the traditional liturgy...and perhaps the liturgy will be brought to bear on our understanding of the poems, too.

Some years ago I wrote a poem which imagines what it might be like if we read poetry with the repetition and fervor which characterizes our study of Torah and our prayer -- People of the Book. This service arises, in some way, out of the impulse which that poem both describes and enacts. And it also arises out of a wonderful morning service I attended at Ohalah, about which I posted here: Rumi illuminating morning prayer. In that service, a set of Rumi poems were linked with the traditional poems in the Hebrew morning liturgy. We would read a Rumi poem, then pray the Hebrew prayer which Reb Ed had linked with that poem -- and as the Rumi material shed new light on the prayers, the prayers too shed new light on the Rumi. I'm planning a Rumi service for my shul in May, but in the meanwhile, the experience of davening the morning liturgy alongside Rumi poems made me want to try the experience of davening the morning liturgy alongside poems by a variety of writers.

At my shul we daven from Mishkan T'filah, the current siddur of the Reform movement. (I posted some initial reflections on MT back when it was first published: A place where prayer can dwell.) Usually I lead the service which called, in that siddur, Shabbat Morning I. This is a service which pairs the traditional liturgy with "faithful translations" as well as with contemporary poems and readings chosen by MT's editors. I like it because it is flexible. I can lead a service which features more Hebrew or more English, more traditional text or more contemporary reflections, depending on how I'm feeling, who's there, how I sense they're responding or not responding, and so on. This time, I'll be leading from Shabbat Morning II, which features only the traditional material -- it doesn't have contemporary poems on the facing pages. Instead, we'll be using the poems I've chosen, reading each one alongside the prayer I think it speaks to.

Many of the poems I collected for this purpose have been in my regular re-reading rotation for years: poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Norman Fischer, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Jane Kenyon. Often I read these poems as prayer, whether or not their authors intended them that way. These are some of my favorite poems, and I am excited to introduce them (or reintroduce them) to this community in this way.

Others are poems I have only recently come to know: by Esther Cohen, Karel Kryl (I found that poem here at 如 (thus) 是), Anne Porter. And still others are poems I found by rereading the Worship issue of Qarrtsiluni -- which has been spectacular from start to finish, and was well worth re-reading.

Anyway, here's the handout we'll be using in this weekend's Shabbat service. Each poem here is meant to be read alongside a particular prayer; the page numbers on this handout come from Mishkan T'filah, but the prayers themselves are ones which appear in any siddur (Modeh/Modah Ani, Baruch She'amar, Psalm 150, Yishtabach, etc) so this handout could easily be used for any morning service. Feel free to borrow it, adapt it, transform it -- and if you use it, either as-is or in an adapted version, please let me know how it works for you! This is an experiment and I'm really looking forward to seeing what works and what needs tinkering before next time we try it again.

PoemsForPrayer [pdf]