Effective Sincerity: On Catholic Private Prayer and the Poetry of Mary Karr

Faculty Sponsor

Chelsea Wagenaar


Christ College


This paper was written for a Christ College research seminar "On Poetry and Prayer: How (Not) To Speak of God"

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-3-2018


This paper questions the assumed theological and literary division between seventeenth century poet Ben Jonson and contemporary poet Mary Karr. Jonson’s poetry depicts a Catholic relationship with God as traditionally uncomplicated and therefore unrealistic, where Karr’s poetry is theologically atypical and might even be considered obscene. This paper argues that Karr’s poetry is similar to Jonson’s in that they are both influenced by the traditional elements of private prayer: confession, invocation and thanksgiving. Despite these shared elements, the poets diverge when evaluating the effectiveness of their interpretations of Catholic prayer form. This paper explores where prayer and poetry overlap through “effective sincerity,” as both are most effective when they are most sincere. It argues that Karr in going beyond Jonson’s prayer-influenced poetry by adding her own personal experiences and raw emotions – e.g., anger at God, at life and at herself – produces more relatable, more sincere work than that of traditional poetry. Her sincere work humanizes Catholicism to the point of wide understanding, and so is more effective in both poetry and prayer at creating accessible platforms for all readers to reach for God’s forgiveness and love. In making this argument, this paper suggests ways to approach the notions of “effectiveness” and “sincerity” when analyzing intimate, subjective language like that of prayer and poetry.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

I am a sophomore Creative Writing major with Christ College Scholar honors. I am Editor in Chief of our literary magazine The Lighter. I am passionate about the powers of creative expression, and have loved the opportunity to showcase said powers in a "objective, concrete" way that is more persuasive to people who might underestimate literary and artistic scholarship. My poetry has appeared in The Lighter and Tributaries. I'm an empath, artivist, alien-believer, and metaphor-junkie.

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