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.
Category Archives: Theology and Arts
Here is a poem called Spell, which I re-post for National Poetry Day, as it celebrates the magic powers of language itself. I have written in a previous post about the ‘daily miracle’ of our language and literacy, the magical way that words can summon up images, images that bring with them whole worlds, all the hidden correspondences between Word and World, a magic witnessed by the way a word like spell means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way chant is embedded in enchantment, the way even the dry word Grammar turns out to be cognate with Glamour in its oldest magical sense. But if all language is a kind of spell, it is a Good Spell (or Gospel as we later shortened that term). For Christian Faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.
Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the paralells between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be..” and each thing he summons springs into being, and the way, the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the sub-creations, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his Love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as ‘Makers’ (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.
Of course, because we are fallen we can abuse this gift of sub-creation, we can abuse language itself, making the very medium of creation a means of destruction. I have explored that shadow side of language in my poem “What IF…” But now I want to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, the summoning powers entrusted to us in the twenty-six letters of our alphabet., in a sonnet I have simply called “Spell”. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.
Summon the summoners, the twenty-six
enchanters. Spelling silence into sound,
they bind and loose, they find and are not found.
Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,
summon the summoners, the shaping shapes
the grounds of sound, the generative gramma
signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana
runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,
leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,
shining, re-combining in their dance
the genesis of every utterance,
pattering the pattern of the Tree.
Summon the summoners, and let them sing.
The summoners will summon Everything.
In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours. The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.
This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.
I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .
GK Chesterton famously sent a telegram to his wife saying. ‘AM IN MARKET HARBOROUGH. WHERE SHOULD I BE?’
I empathise with both GKC and the long-suffering Frances as I too am often muddled, befuddled, and as like as not double-booked, when I come to look at my diary. In an attempt to straighten things out I have just gone through my commitments, as far as I can remember them, for the next year, and have discovered that I am indeed in Market Harborough in June, and in between, and beyond in all kinds of places on both sides of the Atlantic. I would be delighted to see, and to meet up with readers of this blog at any (or all) of the events/readings/retreats which I have discovered (sometimes to my great surprise) in my diary. so here they all are, as far as I know them, do join me at one or two of them if you can.
Here is a list of my forthcoming events including gigs, poetry readings, conference talks and retreats, as far as I know them, from May 2014-March 2015, more to be added soon
May 24th: I will be leading, and speaking at the annual Little Gidding Pilgrimage. Details will appear on the Friends of LG Events Page
May 30-th to June 1st: I will be reading at the Bloxham Literary Festival
June 18th I will be doing a poetry reading as part of a Quartet of Poets at Girton College FDR 8pm All Welcome
June 28th ‘Songs and Sonnets’ at Market Harborough Methodist Church from 2:30pm
July 22nd-25th: I will be a speaker and resident poet at Kindlingsfest on Orcas Island
July 28th-31st: I will be speaking at the CS Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge conference, here in Cambridge
August 13-15th I will be a plenary speaker at the George MacDonald and the Victorian roots of Modern Fantasy conference in Oxford
September 1st-25th I will be Artist in Residence at Duke Divinity School, Duke University North Carolina. This residency will include A Public Reading, a Public Lecture and a concert in the Sean’s Singer-Songwriter series -more details to follow.
October 1st-November 20th: I will be a visiting fellow at St. John College Durham and will be doing various readings and lectures, at the College and the Cathedral more details to follow.
March 14th 2015: I lead a day of prayer at Westminster Abbey, titled ‘Read Poems as Prayers’; praying through the poetry of George Herbert and Seamus Heaney’
March 23rd-27th: I will be ‘Visionary in Residence’ at Biola University Centre for Christianity culture and the Arts in Los Angeles. this residency will include poetry readings, performances and workshops, a concert with Steve Bell and a public lecture on Faith and the Arts. More details to follow.
Tuesday 25th of March is the feast of the Annunciation, that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.
This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.
As so often I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:
‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.
« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?
« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »
May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’
As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.
We see so little, stayed on surfaces,
We calculate the outsides of all things,
Preoccupied with our own purposes
We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,
They coruscate around us in their joy
A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,
They guard the good we purpose to destroy,
A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.
But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.
Image by Margot Krebs Neale
Continuing with Sounding the Seasons, my sonnet-sequence journey through the Church year, we approach the 25th of January, the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.
This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or viaAmazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry book The Singing bowl are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE
As always you can hear the poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.
An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.