Sinners Welcome: Poems, with an Essay on Poetry and Faith

Sinners Welcome: Poems by Mary Karr. Harper/Collins, 2006; 93 pages; $22.95.


Mary Karr describes herself as a black-belt sinner, and this -- her fourth collection of poems -- traces her improbable journey from the inferno of a tormented childhood into a resolutely irreverent Catholicism. Not since Saint Augustine wrote "Give me chastity, Lord -- but not yet!" has anyone brought such smart-assed hilarity to a conversion story. Karr's battle is grounded in common loss (a bitter romance, friends' deaths, a teenage son's leaving home) as well as in elegies for a complicated mother. The poems disarm with the arresting humor familiar to readers of her memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry. An illuminating cycle of spiritual poems have roots in Karr's eight-month tutelage in Jesuit prayer practice, and as an afterword, her celebrated essay on faith weaves the tale of how the language of poetry, which relieved her suffering so young, eventually became the language of prayer. Those of us who fret that poetry denies consolation will find clear-eyed joy in this collection.


Mary Karr, born in the mid-1950s, grew up near Janis Joplin's birthplace, the coastal oil patch Texas town of Port Arthur. Joplin's little brother was one of Karr's friends, and the two youngsters often surfed together. Karr was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and her essays. She has also published two bestselling memoirs: The Liars' Club, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and Cherry. She has received the Whiting Award and the Bunting Fellowship from Radcliffe College. Her poetry appears frequently in the New Yorker . She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.


Friday afternoon and Mary Karr was seated in a taxi's back seat. The taxi pulled out of a parking lot at Syracuse University to head to Manhattan where Ms. Karr maintains an apartment with her 20-year-old son, a student at NYU. During the week Ms. Karr lives in her home in Syracuse. The trip, via car, she said, would be "about four hours, door to door." Usually, she said, she flies. "When the train gets fixed, I'll take the train. I'm four blocks from Penn Station, so that'll be much easier."

She excused herself several times to talk with the driver, and off we went through subzero temperatures and a razor wind.

Earlier this year (February 2), the Reader reprinted Ms. Karr's essay, "On Poetry and Faith." In that essay, included in

Sinners Welcome, Ms. Karr, a recovering alcoholic and an un-recovered philanthropist of human kindness, writes about her relationship with the Roman Catholic church.

In the days before Ms. Karr and I spoke, I had been reading critic Helen Vendler's newest book, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery. Vendler notes that among the lyric's possible addressees is God, or, gods. A poem often is a prayer, spoken from an open and often broken heart. The voice of such a poem seeks an answering voice, a voice that will speak to the poet in depths that satisfy. Vendler reminds readers of Dickinson's "This is my letter to the world,/That never wrote to me," the poem that tears open the soul's every secret and asks readers to bow low and listen.

Writing, said Ms. Karr, "is not like that for me, really. I think reading poetry is like that, but writing it is not quite like that for me."

"What it is like for you?"

"Writing? It's like setting my hair on fire. It's really hard. I don't write with much ease so I find it very difficult. I never know what's truth, so I spend a lot of time saying no to myself saying, 'Not this, not this, not this.'"

"Not this line, not this word?"

"Yes, exactly. I have a lot of jabber in my head. It takes me a long time to get somewhere with it."

"Does the word arrive on the page before you begin to converse with that word about whether it's the right word or the wrong word?"

"No, I'm not a very fluid writer. It's not very fun for me."

We talked about a poet we mutually admire for whom we thought it was "not fun." Ms. Karr said, about this poet, "And he has a lot more natural praise in him than I do in me, I think."

"Well," I said, "he didn't grow up in Texas."

"No, but he didn't grow up easy, either. Nobody gets easy, they don't promise you easy when you show up, and, boy, they're right. It's not about easy."

"The poems in this book must have taken a long time."

"They did. I think there were five years between the last book of poems and this one. I wrote a book of prose between the last book of poems and this one, so I would say I've been working on this book seven years. Obviously, intermittently, I was writing other things."

"Reading you, I can almost feel your breath in my ear; that's how intimately you inhabit your pages."

"I feel that with other poets. I don't feel it with myself. I always joke that the only poem I ever write is 'I'm sad. The end. By Mary Karr.' I tell my students this, that all my poems are variations on that, or elaborations. I make all of them a little more specific every time. I never know what I think so they're sort of eked out and then I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, as I'm sure you do and everybody does."

"I like to rewrite."

"Me too. I'd much rather rewrite than write."

"Writing feels like surgery without anesthesia. Rewriting can almost begin to feel like getting well," I said.

"Toby Woolf calls rewriting, 'lapidary work.' It's sort of like polishing a stone."

"Do you read your lines aloud to yourself when you work on a poem?"

"Absolutely, I do."

"What do you listen for when you read your poems aloud?"

"Just mainly things that aren't true. Things that are false. I listen for what's true. I listen for music. I always love what Pound said: 'Form is a pattern cut in time.' I listen to what that pattern is trying to be and try to shove it around a little bit."

Ms. Karr has had some of America's best teachers of poetry, many of whom were students of Stanley Kunitz, born in 1905 and for many years a teacher in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. She studied at Goddard with Robert Hass -- "probably the greatest teacher I ever had. Louise Glück was my thesis advisor. I had Heather McHugh. I had Stephen Dobyns and Ellen Voight. So, I was lucky in my teachers. What can I say?"

"Syracuse, for writers, has been very good."

"True. I love it there. My students are serious, and they're so far from the marketplace they really are not ambitious for the kind of horrible thing that Columbia students are ambitious for."

"And what is that?"

"Just publishing as opposed to learning how to write. The marketplace is at too low a bar, and it's getting lower."

"And yet," I said, "there's this great longing for poetry."

"Yes. people are spiritually starving, which, in part, counts for how much poetry publishing does go on. But I think at the muddy middle level we will all disagree, but at the higher level none of us do."

"Writing is a great gift to be given, the desire to do it."

"I don't know. I write in a poem in Sinners Welcome about the resident genius who was Louise Glück. (See page ## in the poem 'The Choice.') I said to her once, 'If I had a choice between writing and being happy, I'd choose to be happy.' And she said, 'Oh, don't worry, you don't have that choice.'

"I had a student, actually a very good student. I remember him coming in, his second year as a graduate student, and saying, 'I'm done with poetry, I'm going to give it up.' I said, 'Great, get a real job. You can take me out to lunch.' I said, 'You're ready to quit? You should be so fucking lucky.'

"I had a student's father yell at me and say, 'I wanted him to be an engineer.' I said, 'Oh, it's not a choice of his being an engineer or being a writer, it's a choice of his being a writer or blowing his brains out.' Steven Dunn has a great poem. In his book Different Hours, he has a poem that says, 'I was burned by books early, and I kept sidling up to the flame.'"

"I couldn't believe the first time I began reading poetry that someone could speak to me so truthfully."

"I know. It does save your life. I mean Bob Hass always talked to me about his salvation. I think it did save my life.

"My mother," Ms. Karr laughed, "always said that I became a poet because I sat on the Shakespeare for a booster seat."

"Tom Lux says that while he is teaching, he gathers up poems he's going to work on when vacation comes around. Then he gets them all out, and works on them, one after another and edits."

"I have to do it all the time. I'm writing poetry all the time. I almost have to keep myself from it when I'm working on a book of prose, like I am now. I feel like I'm cheating on my husband. But I've got to get this book done and pay for my kid's tuition."

"Recently," I said, "almost every writer I talk to who's got children your son's age, talks to me at some point about having to pay for his or her kid's tuition."

"It's a lot of money. $50,000 a year. But it's great to have him here in the city."

"So, writing a poem while you work on a prose piece is like cheating on your husband?"

"That's the way writing poetry is to me right now."

Ms. Karr's memoir, Cherry, was published in 2000. We talked soon after the publication. I asked her if it seemed odd to her that lines she'd written, years earlier, stayed in readers' minds and carried as much heft as readers' memories of events in their own lives.

Karr said it didn't seem odd, no. "I've been taking communion from other people's mouths for years, you know. I feel that language saved me. Poetry saved my life, in a way. Being able to read those sad soliloquies in Shakespeare. I never really liked the sonnets as much as a kid. I'm sure I didn't know what any of them meant. They were so beautiful. And you know, you're sitting around your house with this sense of ineffable sadness that everybody else seems just numb to, and you find someone else expressing it, and it is like you say, 'their words in your mouth.' It is like communion. You make a community with others. You take these words in your body. That's how I always felt. It's such a happy thing, reading is. It really is. It's what keeps us from being lonely."

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