Poetry Shelf favourite poems: Bill Manhire’s ‘The Prayer’

The Prayer

What do you take 
away with you? 

Here is the rain, 
a second-hand miracle, 
collapsing out of Heaven. 

It is the language of 
earth, lacking an audience, 
but blessing the air. 

What light it brings 

with it, how far 
with it, how far 
it is. 

I stayed a minute 
& the garden 
was full of voices. 

I am tired again 
while you are crossing 

the river, on a bridge 
six inches under water. 

Small trees grow out of 
the planks & shade the water. 

Likewise, you are full of 
good intentions 
& shade the trees with your body. 

Lord, Lord 
in my favourite religion 
You would have to be 
a succession of dreams. 

In each of them  
I’d fall asleep, 

scarred like a  
rainbow, no doubt, 
kissing the visible bone.

Bill Manhire
from The Elaboration (Square & Circle, 1972, with drawings by Ralph Hotere)


I’ve always loved ‘The Prayer’, I think because it manages to seem fairly straightforward while maintaining a resistance to paraphrase. Or maybe it’s because the poem’s so plainly concerned with mystery and miracle. I think I was 23 when I wrote it. It was in my first published book of poems (The Elaboration, 1972) and also appears on Ralph Hotere’s Song Cycle banners. It’s been in my mind lately because the first section has found new life as the opening movement of Victoria Kelly’s Requiem, which is about to be presented at the Auckland Arts Festival. You can hear Victoria’s glorious setting of Sam Hunt’s contribution to the text here. The other contributing poets are Ian Wedde, Chloe Honum, and James K Baxter. It’s a good feeling, being resurrected in a requiem!

Here’s a little note I wrote on the Requiem text for the CD booklet:

Lost for Words 

Before it is music, it is words – texts from five writers brought together to make a single poem. 

The poem tells us that we are among the perishable things yet it also makes us feel better about this difficult truth. 

Poetry, some people have said, aspires to stop time, but these words are on the move. They ghost each other, reach out a little, and then reach further out. 

The smallest words evoke cosmic dimensions: light and sky echo and rhyme their way from page to page. 

There are also stars. 

At the very centre are the great horizons – earth and sky, sea and sky – which remind us of our own great longing to touch and be touched. 

On each side are particular deaths, while the work as a whole begins with the mīharo of the natural world and ends with the surrender that awaits us. 

Five separate voices – touched by wonder and strength and grief and frailty – brought together in a single work, which now adds a chorus to gather us all in.  

Sometimes poems (and poets) end up lost for words. 

They tiptoe towards silence. 

On the other hand, here come the singers and musicians.

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire‘s last collection of poems, Wow, was published in 2020, and was a Poetry Book Society Selection. An interview subsequently appeared in PN Review. A recent collaboration with Norman Meehan and others, Bifröst, has been released by Rattle.

Poetry Shelf is hosting a series where poets pick a favourite poem from their own backlist.

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