Poetry Puts Soul in his Life

For almost 40 years, between 25 and 65, I rarely read a poem – except perhaps a verse or two I came across in The New Yorker. I’m not proud of that; in fact, I’m a little chagrined, but my life was busy with chasing stories, teaching classes, managing calendars and, well, feeling important.

So when I stood on the patio of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center on Tuesday in the noon sun and read a poem by Mary Rose O’Reilley, I was kind of proud of myself.

It was all part of Poetry on the Patio, first held at UST in 1997 as part of National Poetry Month. Eleven of us read favorite poems, from William Wordsworth to Ogden Nash.

If I’m right that this part of my life is a spiritual journey, then I’d better be paying attention to art, music, literature and … poetry. How fortunate I am to hang around a place that fosters, along with those sought-after job skills, the liberal arts.

The job put money in my pockets, but those liberal arts are now putting soul in my life – none more artfully or poignantly than O’Reilley’s poem, “Speaking in Tongues:”

I go to church every Sunday
though I don’t believe a word of it,
because the longing for God
is a prayer said in the bones.

She surely knows the landscape of the valley I occasionally wander in, caught between doubt and faith. O’Reilly, an esteemed member of the St. Thomas English Department beginning in 1978, retired three years ago. According to her former department chair, Michael Jordan, she was one of the contemporary pioneers in bringing spirituality into the classroom.

“In fact,” Jordan said, “she engaged her students in deep and spiritually relevant conversations.” Her poem was certainly spiritually relevant to me.

When people call on Jesus
I move to a place in the body
where such words rise,
one of the valleys
where hope pins itself to desire;
we have so much landscape like that
you’d think we were made
to sustain a cry.

Mary Rose O’Reilly wields words with power and precision. I’ve always loved short stories, from Jack London to Ernest Hemmingway to Raymond Carver. The economy of language appeals, every word chosen for a reason.

Well, then, the poet is at the pinnacle – where five words do the work of fifty and rhythm replaces repetition.

The poetry reading on the patio is just another part of my continuing education at St. Thomas, where the experience is the stuff of new ideas and the grace of the liberal arts.

To those undergrads who grumble about the required courses in philosophy, theology and English, I have a caution: When you’re 65, that last business card of yours – complete with name, title and website – may not mean as much as the Robert Frost poem you read in college and can still recall:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“Road Less Traveled”