los tres amigos; a tale of three villanelles

Los Tres Amigos, or A Tale of Three Villanelles

I was recently asked by two friends to judge a friendly villanelle competition.

Davey Talbot (yes, he of http://www.PoemaDay.org) had written a splendid meditative piece touching on Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It, whilst Michael Ward (yes, he of http://www.planetnarnia.com/) had put together a wonderfully ebullient series of scriptural allusions (somewhat in the manner of Herbert’s ‘Paradise’) and puns on fish!

The poems were written as an ordination gift to their mutual friend, Andrew Cuneo, who has just become a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

I received and admired them both, but what was I to do? The river poem and the fish poem succeeded in such different ways I hardly had common criteria for comparison.

Here are their poems and my response. Perhaps our readers can make their own judgment, or better still make their own poetic response:

I Fish The Big River
after Norman Maclean

by Davey Talbot

I fish this big river,
Always flowing westward.
More men will come after.

I’ve walked every acre,
Memorized its nature.
I fish this big river.

It’s bluest come winter
After it has rested.
More men will come after.

Its life is in color.
The brown trout run is good.
I fish the big river.

Beer waits in the water
At a shallow bank-head.
More men will come after.

Its current is grammar;
Under the rocks are words.
I fish the big river.
More men will come after.



Whale Catch Sole Catch Pike Catch Plaice

by Michael Ward

‘There’s a catch? To convince you that I am divine
I must prove it?’ He said, {Matt 12:39
‘Except for a wail I will give you no sign.’

We are dab-hands at fishing: why should we incline
To net people instead? {Matt 4:18ff
‘There’s a catch to convince you that I am divine.’

We’re five thousand famished; you tell us to dine
On two herrings? They’re red! {Mark 6:30ff
‘Except for a soul I will give you no sign.’

How long must we flounder around in the brine
If you know where to head? {John 21:1ff
‘There’s a catch to convince you that I am divine.’

You eat broiled fish? This is way out of line:
On a pikestaff you bled! {Luke 24:42
‘Except for a pike I will give you no sign.’

You’re pulling me right off this nice perch of mine:
Cut the twitch on your thread!
‘You carp and have scales on your eyes, I divine. {Acts 9:18
‘Except for a place I will give you no sign.’ {John 14:3

Well, Gentlemen, I have thought long and hard. These are two very fine poems, very different and yet in many ways complementary.

The current of Davey’s poem carries his vivid images which are left haiku-like to do their own work and grow to symbols in the reader’s mind, and I especially like the clarity and simplicity of its movement between colours, between blue and brown; it goes and flows as it should, like the river.

Michael’s poem by contrast is the fish; lithe, compact, muscular, – constantly flashing and jumping in the play between its own possibilities, a net of Herbertian wit that brings in a fine catch of whale, dab, herring, sole, flounder, pike, perch, carp, and plaice. (Pike was a nice glance at Herbert’s cask “which on the cross a pike did set again abroach”.) Anyone who loves the Logos – two natured, one personned, – will love the pun, the power of words to be two at once.

This two-at-oneness brings me to the nub. How am I to choose? Each of these poems is successful but in completely different ways. Davey’s is organic, flowing from within; Michael’s is fine wit struck from without. Davey’s is the river and Michael’s the fish. Can we have one without the other?

Unable in my own powers to choose, I decided to consult my Muse. Having invoked Her, I put to Her this formal question: “Which should come first, the fish or the river?”

Gentleman, here is her reply, and I hope you will both be pleased with it:

Which Comes First, the Fish or the River?

by Malcolm Guite

Since every gift comes down from the All-Giver,
How can I choose between the Giver’s gifts
Or say which should come first, the fish or river?

He scatters first, and then calls us to gather,
To lavish on his work our smaller crafts
And sail our praise upstream, back to the Giver.

He gives His gifts when we are met together,
Not in our splits, our schisms, and our rifts:
We cannot prize the Fish and not the River,

Divide the two and say ‘which would you rather?’
We float through time on fragile little rafts,
But time and life alike flow from the Giver.

Away upstream, it all flows from the Father:
The stream is His own Spirit, giving gifts;
His Son, our brother, joins us in the River.

He is our ‘both-and’ God, not ‘or’, or ‘either’;
He gives full measure: steady, heady draughts!
The Giver must come first, always the Giver,
We prize alike His gifts: both Fish and River.

So, as I interpret Her gnomic utterance, I think that’s first prize to the Maker, who gave each of you such conspicuous poetic talent, and a joint second prize, to each of you, sub-creators, through whom the logos-fish and spirit-river are at work in complementary ways.



Filed under Poems

4 responses to “los tres amigos; a tale of three villanelles

  1. “My house is not silent, nor I myself loud
    around the splendid-hall; the Lord shaped us two
    to venture together. I am swifter than he,
    at times stronger. He is more enduring.
    At times I rest myself; he must run forth.
    I dwell in him ever while I may live.
    If we two are parted, death is appointed for me.”

    We looked at this Exeter riddle yesterday in class, pondering for a moment whether the river and fish had ever had any other significance. It had me remembering this 🙂

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Annelise its great to be reminded of that; another lovely tributary to the stream of English verse

  2. I loved it. When I first read it, that silent fish in the rushing stream was crystalline, and got to me. He seems so solitary to me, and yet in such company. The Anglo-Saxons were so good at that resonance among solidity: hooray for brilliant pictures-in-words.

  3. Pingback: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: back to the source! | Malcolm Guite

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