Ode to St. Cecilia

cecilia-4The 22nd of November is the feast day of St. Cecilia, Christian Martyr and Patron Saint of music. Last year I was commissioned by JAC Redford the LA-based composer and orchestrater, to write an Ode to St. Cecilia for a new piece of music he has in turn been commissioned to write, which had its premiere in LA in October of last year.

Here, for this year’s St. Cecilia’s day is the text of my ode and a recording of my reading of it. In the recording I also talk a little about the inspiration and how it came to be written. I hope you enjoy it. Margot Krebs Neale has contributed the beautiful image which follows the poem As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.


Ode to St. Cecilia

You rested briefly here Cecilia

In this good ground, the Roman catacomb:

Its rounded vaults are rich with sudden sound

As pilgrims hymn you through the darkened air.

For you made music in your martyrdom,

Transposed the passion of your wedding night

To angel-given garlands, wreathed in light.

In all your three days dying you made room

For beautiful abundance, gifts and giving,

Your death was blessing and your passing praise,

As you gave way to grace,

Like music that still lives within its dying

And gives in giving place.

 

Cecilia, give way to grace again,

Transmute it into music for us all:

Music to stir and call the sleeping soul,

And set a counterpoint to all our pain,

To bless our senses in their very essence

And undergird our sorrow in good ground.

Music to summon undeserved abundance,

Unlooked for overbrimming, rich and strong,

The unexpected plenitude of sound

Becoming song.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a sonnet, and a new book!

SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe great poet, philosopher, and Christian sage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, so I am posting this sonnet for his birthday!

I am deeply immersed in Coleridge at the moment, because, I am happy to announce, I have signed a contract with Hodder and Stoughton to write a new book, which will be called Mariner! A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and will be published in the spring of 2017, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Coleridge’s seminal book Biographia Literaria, and also the first full collection of his poems Sybilline Leaves. My book will tell Coleridge’s story through the lens of his own great poem The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, a poem which was uncannily prophetic not only of Coleridge’s own life, but of our own history and culture. My book will try both to show the vital thread of Christian thought and witness that runs through Coleridge’s life and writing and also the startling relevance of that life and writing to the challenges of the 21st century, so, as they say, Watch This Space!

I could not begin to reckon the personal debt I owe to Coleridge; for his poetry, for his personal and Christian wisdom, above all for his brilliant exploration and defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty which participates in, and is redeemed by the Logos, the living Word, himself the Divine Imagination. We are only now coming to appreciate the depth and range of what he achieved, his contemporaries scarcely understood him, and his Victorian successors looked down in judgement at what htey saw as the shipwreck of his life. Something of that experience of rejection, twinned with deep Christian conviction, can be seen in the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

From my teenage raptures when I was first enchanted by Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, to my struggles and adventures in the middle of life STC has been my companion and guide.In the chapter on Coleridge in my book Faith Hope and Poetry I have set out an account of his thinking and made the case for his central importance in our own age, but what I offer here is a sonnet celebrating his legacy, drawing on that epitaph I mentioned above, one of a sequence of sonnets on my fellow christians in my most recent book The Singing Bowl,  published last year by the Canterbury Press.

As Always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or clicking the ‘play’ button.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

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And Is It Not Enough?

what falling leaves disclose

what falling leaves disclose

I have been wanting for a while to make an Autumn song and somehow catch in sound the feel I have for falling leaves and for what is cleanly revealed in the naked shape  of the trees. At the same time I have been reflecting again on why one writes at all. So much is beautifully shaped already and given by God, why should one try to shape it again in writing? And yet each day begins again the urge and calling to renew the rich connection, the covenant of word and world, to make, and then to walk, the airy bridge between our island minds, so that another self can say, ‘you feel it too’!. This poem rises out of all these things; an Autumn song that also feels its way, I hope, into the mystery of what is written, on the leaves of pages and of trees.

The photo is one I took on the banks of the Wear in Durham on the day this poem was composed. as usual you can hear me read the poem, and its preface, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

And Is It Not Enough?

 

And Is it not enough that every year

A richly laden autumn should unfold

And shimmer into being leaf by leaf,

It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere

In hints and glints of hidden red and gold

Threaded like memory through loss and grief,

 

When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled,

When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel

And ready us for winter with strange calm,

That I should see the inner tree revealed

And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall

And feel its truth within me as I am?

 

And Is it not enough that I should walk

Through low November mist along the bank,

When scents of woodsmoke summon, in some long

And melancholy undertone, the talk

Of those old poets from whose works I drank

The heady wine of an autumnal song?

 

It is not yet enough. So I must try,

In my poor turn, to help you see it too,

As though these leaves could be as rich as those,

That red and gold might glimmer in your eye,

That autumn might unfold again in you,

Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose.

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Abbess we need your help! St.Hilda and the Synod!

 

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

The General Synod of the Church of England is in session, and is working on the measure to allow women to become bishops. I know there are strong feelings and deeply held beliefs on both sides, as there were at another Synod at Whitby 850 years ago in 664. That Synod was presided over by the great Saint and leader of the Church Hilda of Whitby, the first patron of English Christian poetry, and she brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I wrote this sonnet in her honour I also had in mind our need for her vision and for the gifts of women like her in the church now. We keep St. Hilda’s Day on the 19th of November but I  post this today as part of my prayers for the current General Synod.

The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup

The sonnet also appears in my new book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button

Hilda of Whitby

 

Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,

Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,

You had the gift to find the gift in others,

A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.

You made a space and place for poetry

When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,

Was called by grace into community

And local language joined the Latin choir.

 

Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

Your exercise of true imagination.

Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,

That every fettered gift may find release.

 

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On Prebends Bridge; a reflection

I linger on this bridge above the flow, And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

I linger on this bridge above the flow,
And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

To my great joy I have been spending part of my Sabbatical term up in Durham, as a Ruth Etchells visiting fellow at St. John’s College. This means that every morning I can wonder down the cobbled streets of the Bailey, beneath a lovely old stone arch and out onto the banks of the river Wear to where the graceful shape of Prebends Bridge arches across the river. This poem was written  about the experience of looking out from that Bridge,both down at the river and up at the Cathedral, and holding in balance that double sense of the flow of time and the stillness of transcendence. I hope you enjoy it. I had the great privilege of reading it in the Cathedral only a day or two after it was written, and so sounding out its last line along that line of presence between two saints with which the poem concludes. An unforgettable experience. The whole of that Cathedral reading is available here.

As usual you can hear the poem itself, recorded the day it was written, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is not yet published but will appear in my next volume. Meanwhile my new Anthology, The Word in the Wilderness is available here.

On Prebends Bridge

 

I linger on this bridge above the flow,

And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear,

Whose purling turns and gentle fallings call

Some inner spring to stir and rise in me.

The morning light lies richly on each arch

And signs its white reflections on their stone,

Telling me more than I can see or know.

I am a passing eddy in the flow

And force of centuries that raised this hill,

That shaped this sheer peninsula and let

The Wear’s slow curve enclose the city’s crown.

Above me on that crown I sense the pull

And presence, hidden deep within their shrines,

Of saints through whom the primal spring still flows:

Bede in the west and Cuthbert in the east,

A field of force in flux between two poles,

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge

Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Pushing and pulling through the pulse of things.

 

And now a bell is calling me to climb

And take my place with others where the choir

Unbinds a waiting Sanctus from its chords

And joins our voices, in rich Latin words

With all the company of heaven and earth

And with these two, between whose hearts we sing.

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge
Above the hush and hum of their exchange

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A Recording of my Reading at Durham Cathedral

A Good Place to read Poetry!

A Good Place to read Poetry!

I had the extraordinary experience, and indeed great privilege, of reading my poetry in the Quire of Durham Cathedral, at the invitation of the Dean and Chapter there, and in collaboration with St. John’s College, where I am currently the Ruth Etchells Visiting Fellow. Many of my Facebook friends, and followers of this blog, who couldn’t be at the event itself, have asked if they could hear a recording. So here is the reading I gave. It is largely drawn from Sounding the Seasons, though it does include four completely new poems written whilst I have been up here. Will Ford, from the St. John’s College Choir sings the ‘Great O’ Antiphons which inspired my Advent Antiphon poems. I hope you enjoy this recording.

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Fire: A Sestina for Remembrance Day

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.

As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.

Fire

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.

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