A Writer’s Litany

by Ken Craven (September 2020)


River Landscape with Two Trees, Egon Shiele, 1913


Lord, that we may pray like brooks and books,

Our words and wishes clear and wild,

That we may pray in Spirit and in Truth

In pebbles cracking down in streams

In words in tongues in improbable shouts

Lord, have mercy upon us

A serpentine tribe of Dan mingled with your people,

Poets whose vindictive hearts long for thee

Poets who need thy lightning and thy terrible silence.


That we may kneel down in the street in the rain

Mad and prayerful as Kit Smart

(Lord bless his cat Geoffrey and his whisking)

Doomed Doctor Johnson at our side

Dour and holy in his written prayers

Surprising in love with the chained madness he feared

My we kneel with them, doctors of raging hope,

Streams of cool grace running down our faces

Lord we pray for simplicity of mind


That we may chirp tune like Cary—Joyce—

Rejoicing in the foolishness of literary crickets

That we may worry less about small sins

Like Gulley Jimson, genius and good thief,

Hot for new canvas and for her

And pray hard running from the Law

Laughing in flight from Pharisees

For the forgiveness of the large sins

Of art its presumption and pride

Lord we pray for merriness of heart


That we may listen hard for angels

Clinking in tea things and engraver’s tools

Like Bill Blake mad hungry for vision

For a gift God will not give

Prophetic freedom from the law

(Lord, bless his hubris and his delight)

That we may listen for the grace of tiger roar

That we may establish Jerusalem green and free

That we may speak with angels in our living rooms

And watch for devils in the streets and malls

Lord we pray for poems acid-deep on copper plates

Lord we pray for poems sure as swords of iron


That we may sit on florid streets and watch

For the right license plate

The right true sign before we turn and amble

In our white linen suit up the steamed verandah

To write of power and glory and dark Scobied hearts

And tangled vines of sin and grace

Greene, generous green in knowledge of the cross

Where he wrote and watched

Men rage into the Jesus arms outstretched

In unimagined ways and wretched jokes

Where he saw men scheme destruction

Like boys after wars, hungry for evil

In the falling towers and bombed streets

Lord we pray for the heart of the matter


That we may sling stones and curves

At death, carve firm letters spelling

Out our graceful doom in holy prayer

One eye cocked at sex in eternal joy

Fixed in stone, fecund words,

Dominic preaching in Eric Gill

Rough street man from Nazareth

Whence comes nothing smarmy good

But only necessary rules and few

Lord we pray for poems that stand and prophesy like tombs


That we may sweep forth on swing

With Hopkins priest, his lilting hope and loss—

Hang heavy hard hammers on cynghanned and crack

Unstopped unEnglish lines like rattling Welshland wagon tongues,

Unleash all-colored all-efflorescent prayers that

Open buds and hearts and greyveiled storms where

Dying nuns affirm their King, Hope-hefting,

Storm walking on all-apocalyptic waves

Saving each soul, each, with words wrung hard

From saw and awl and awe-struck pins

In a small shop, at dawn, in a poor town.

That we may follow Lord in fallow days

Lord let us pray for words that buckle like diving birds.


That we may pound tables in the dining halls

And settle, unsettle Manichees and monks

With sentences that spell doom and resurrection

That we may be wholly one in tongue and mind

Deep as the water that pours out the words of wave

Hot as the iron brand that Thomas burnt into the door

Spurning all enticements to turn and write

Of worship small or meretricious

That we may always measure by the Monstrance

And test our tiny offerings against

The words that make us kneel and sing

O Salutaris Hostia, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus

Golden honeyed eternal poems

That we may write such and sing such

Lord let us learn speech in silence let us learn


That we may in heart and soul hear the

Sagas of Undset, wry tales of O’Connor

Know the endless turnings of the demons’ ways

And feel them turning in subtle coils

In every move we make, in every prayer

We dare to offer: that in tales of Olaf and

Kristin and Lavrans and Hazel and Tarwater

We see ourselves, good country people of

The fijords and backwaters of kudzu and lime,

And know the first country, the slithering

Come-ons of the first serpent, the taste

Of fruit that concealed the blade of razor bite

The ringing of the axe of revenge

The wilderness of the South and North

The Nazis come to Sweden, Sherman to Georgia

Lord, that we may pray not to be taken by surprise.


That we may learn heart from connatural men

Who trusted in the line, the word, the taste and touch

Of time, who held sentences like guns and rods

And felt the pull of old men and the sea, of tigers

And rhinoceri, of the tough wrenching of sails and rope,

Of the big guns and dazzled eyes and red dawns

That we may learn from Hemingway and Campbell

From Pound and Kipling, Buchan and Faulkner,

Conrad and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Melville

And miners and sailors and cowboys and men of steel who

Left letters or journals or scrawls on underground walls

All who wrangled with dust or felt the thwart of wind

Whose forbears axed the tree that made the cross

And were loved by the carpenter who graced the tree

That we may know the earthly sacraments

Of tried and true and plank roads to the fort

Prophetic emptiness in gated openings for grace

The astonishment of loss, the fields of rotting soldiers

That we may know the love of sentences like taut wire

Lord, we pray for honesty like men lost on rafts at sea


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Ken Craven describes himself as a scholar in exile. He has taught for over thirty years in colleges and universities—from the University of Kansas to the Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman, and last taught English and Honors at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee. His short story, “Paying  Attention,” won first place in the Mississippi Review’s Short Fiction competition in 1985. He lives in Sparta, Tennessee.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


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