Conference Announcement: The Power of the Word

The Power of the Word

Poetry and Prayer: Continuities and Discontinuities

29-30 June 2012

Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence—is denied them

– Emily Dickinson

An international conference organized jointly by the Institute of English Studies and Heythrop College, University of London.

Venue: Senate House, University of London

The second Power of the Word conference focuses on the theme of poetry and prayer. It seeks to promote further the dialogue, begun successfully at Heythrop College in last June’s conference, between theologians, philosophers, literary scholars and creative writers about the following questions: What do poetry and prayer share? How do they differ? In what ways do they relate to each other? The conference, interdisciplinary and ecumenical in scope, encourages theoretical discussion as well as analysis of specific texts and reflection on the work of particular authors, poets and thinkers of different countries and religious traditions.

The analogy and continuity between poetry and prayer, the poetical and the mystical, has often been discussed. The psychological mechanism used by grace to raise us to prayer is, Henry Bremond wrote, the same as that set in motion in poetic experience. Both poetry and prayer are rooted in an inner experience of concrete and fundamental values so that both invite, using the language of John Henry Newman, a real rather than a notional assent. Reading a poem can be perceived as a prayerful experience. W.H. Auden wrote: ‘to pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.’

And yet it is also true that we have no shared understanding of the terms ‘prayer’ and ‘poetry’. Some might claim that there is no connection between them. The traditions of poetry and prayer are numerous and the connections between them elusive. And poetry is, self-evidently, not exactly the same as prayer.

The conference will consider the similarities, interrelatedness and differences between poetry and prayer. Theoretical reflections and historical surveys will provide a context for the discussion of individual texts and authors from different countries and cultural and religious traditions.

Conference committee: Professor John Took (UCL), Dr Anna Abram (Heythrop College), Dr Antonio Spadaro (Gregorian University, Rome), Dr James Sweeney (Heythrop College), David Lonsdale (Heythrop College), Dr Francesca Bugliani Knox (Heythrop College), Dr Michael Kirwan (Heythrop College).