Monthly Archives: January 2010

Who Is The Honest Man? George Herbert on Tony Blair and Iraq

George Herbert should have been on the Chilcot Inquiry!  At least he would have known how to ask the right questions. His poem Constancie sets out in searching detail the real criteria by which we should judge honesty in our selves and others.

Who is the honest man ? he asks, and then goes on to set out a series of bench-marks all of which are astonishingly pertinent to our judgment of today’s proceedings at the Iraq inquiry. He asks us to look for a leader whose pursuit of  integrity neither force, nor fawning can unpin from giving all their due

Those two terms force and fawning go right to the heart of this inquiry.  What was the influence of force, fire-power and power-politics on behalf of both Iraq and America? How much fawning was there? Was Tony Blair  Bush’s wise restrainer or his poodle?  Was he ‘unpinned’ by either of these two f-words from giving all their due?  The families of Soldiers who died in Iraq are rightly present in the room at this inquiry, for they have a strong case for saying that they have not ‘been given all their due’, not yet in terms of honesty.

And Honesty is the next topic in Herbert’s masterful inquiry. He asks us to sift every claim and to look for someone Whose honesty is not So loose or easy, that a ruffling wind Can blow away, or glittering look it blind Was Tony Blair that man?  Or were there glittering looks that blinded him? That’s what this inquiry is meant to uncover.

Now Blair himself might seize on the next item on  Herbert’s agenda, as a summary of his own position. He clearly believes himself to be someone ‘Who, when great trials come, Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but does calmly stay, Till he the thing and the example weigh.. ‘I had the integrity’, he is claiming, ‘to weigh all things and come to a judgment, I asked you to trust my judgement then and I’m asking you to trust it now’. Certainly that’s what he believes of himself, that his integrity is unimpeached. But whereas the present members of the inquiry seem ready to take that assessment at face-value without further question, George Herbert asks us to probe a little more closely and suggests that if someone wants to claim that kind of integrity and ask us to trust their judgment then we should ask whether they are a man Whom none can work or woo To use in any thing a trick or sleight; For above all things he abhors deceit: His words and works and fashion too All of a piece, and all are clear and straight. We are entitled to ask, says Herbert, whether the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the ringing speeches that led parliament to vote for war were put together using ‘any trick or sleight’ or whether were ‘all of a piece’, ‘all clear and straight’

I give below the text of a poem which should have been given to every member of the inquiry and written in letters of gold over its door, but with the proviso that if the strong light of Herbert’s verse is to be trained on our politicians, we should, in justice, also turn it back and train it on ourselves.

Who is the honest man?

He that does still and strongly good pursue,

To God, his neighbor, and himself most true:

Whom neither force nor fawning can

Unpin, or wrench from giving all their due.

Whose honesty is not

So loose or easy, that a ruffling wind

Can blow away, or glittering look it blind:

Who rides his sure and even trot,

While the world now rides by, now lags behind.

Who, when great trials come,

Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but does calmly stay,

Till he the thing and the example weigh:

All being brought into a sum,

What place or person calls for, he does pay.

Whom none can work or woo

To use in any thing a trick or sleight;

For above all things he abhors deceit:

His words and works and fashion too

All of a piece, and all are clear and straight.

Who never melts or thaws

At close temptations: when the day is done,

His goodness sets not, but in dark can run:

The sun to others writes their laws,

And is their virtue; Virtue is his Sun…

…Whom nothing can procure,

When the wide world runs bias from his will,

To writhe his limbs, and share, not mend the ill,

This is the Mark-man, safe and sure,

Who still is right, and prays to be so still.


Filed under Current affairs, Poems, Uncategorized

JD Salinger – ‘a terrific friend’

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” (Holden Caulfied in The Catcher in the Rye)

As I read the news of JD Salinger’s death I remember first reading Catcher in the Rye in my mid teens, in Canada. It was mesmerising. When I came to those lines I’ve quoted, I remember looking up from the page and wishing  JD Salinger were ‘ a terrific friend’ of mine! He was one of those authors , like Lewis, who seems to know your hidden self, who cut through the outer layers, uncovered things, and made you agree or disagree so strongly that you wished he was in the room with you to start a conversation that would change everything. But in a way the conversation that starts when we read some books never really stops, and some authors really do become ‘terrific friends’ even though we don’t know them in the flesh. Holden Caulfield wondered where the ducks went when the pond froze in winter, may the man who imagined that strange compassion in his hero find the real compassion of his Creator as he leaves this frozen world.

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Filed under literature

ipitaph on an ipad

So,  Steve Jobs brings the Tablets down from the mountain!

The launch of iPad, hyped or not according to your view of things,  and the fervent, nay religious, language surrounding it all has prompted me to post this little poem. I wrote it a while back, really as a warning note to myself. I enjoy the technology and (I confess) might quite fancy an iPad, but I’d like to feel, when I looked up from my multicolour doodle pad that I was still engaged with life itself. So here’s the little i-Poem:

Half-Life an Epitaph

The life he left,
He skipped and skyped,
No book but face-
No space but my-
No tune but i-
No mail but e-
No roots, no tree
No he nor she
With love to share,
To bind and bear…

Death did not digitise
his unrecorded cries
His last unsampled sighs.
Deleted without trace,
In placeless cyber-space,
He lived no second-life.

On some enduring stone let this be carved,
Life hyphen-hyped is only hyphen-halved


Filed under Current affairs, Poems

A Quartet of Sonnets for St. Edwards

I have been working on, and have now completed, a quartet of sonnets for and about my beloved church of St. Edwards in Cambridge, though I hope they will have wider resonance beyound the place where they are rooted.

I am taking a leaf out of George Herbert’s book A Priest to the Temple, his poems like The Church Floor and The Windowes begin with the outward visibly part of the physical church fabric and move through it to show the spiritual ‘inside’, the ‘heaven in ordinarie’. My  sequence of four takes you on a journey eastwards towards the heart of our mystery from the font by the West door of the church, a place of beginnings, to the lectern and the pulpit,, the places where  we hear the bible and hear it opened for us, as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus, to the altar,(my poem is about our sixteenth century communion table) where for us, as for those disciples on the road, Jesus is known  in the breaking of the bread.

I believe in the incarnation,and therefore I believe that the spiritual is  known in and through the physical. I love and celebrate in these poems the particular physicality of ancient stone and wood in these time-worn objects, font, lectern, pulpit,table. I hope however that there is enough of the universal in what I write for something of what is in these sonnets to be helpful to anyone coming to any font, lectern or communion table anywhere. If you find these verses helpful please feel free to copy them and make what use of them as you like in your own church and church life.

This little sequence is in turn part of a much bigger project, to do a book of poems and pictures in collaboration with the wonderful artist Rebecca Merry, which will take the reader on a journey through the liturgical year and the sacraments, telling afresh the great sequence of Incarnation Death and Resurrection.

A preliminary note on Latimer’s Pulpit

Of the four the only one which is perhaps peculiar to St. Edwards is the pulpit. Ours is known as Latimers Pulpit,  for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.

In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I do each week. But setting the pulpit sonnet aside, I hope that readers both in and beyond St. Edwards may find something helpful for their own journies from the font, past the lectern to the altar, and through life.

Four Sonnets for St. Edwards:

The Font

Old stone angels hold aloft the font
A wide womb, floating on the breath of God,
Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift
Bright lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,
And under-girded with their unheard song,
Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,
Calling us to the life for which we long,
Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters
In whose reflecting face our candles shine,
Again he draws from death the sons and daughters
For whom he bid the elements combine,
As old stone angels round a font today
Become the ones who roll the stone away.

The Lectern

Some rise on eagles wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak:
Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain.
Be still the lectern says, stand here and read
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow…
So you stand
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.

Latimer’s pulpit

Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.

This Table

The centuries have settled on this table
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.

This table too the earth herself has given
And human hands have made. Where candle-flame
At corners burns and turns the air to light
The oak once held its branches up to heaven,
Blessing the elements which it became,
Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.

Because another tree can bear, unbearable,
For us, the weight of Love, so can this table


Filed under Poems

Haitian Revelations a reflection from St. Edward’s

Every disaster is a revelation. Sudden extremity, deprivation, or fear uncovers for us what is in our own hearts and in the hearts of others. So it is with this latest appalling blow in the long tragedy of Haiti; the hidden layers of who we are, have been stripped bare for all to see, and what is revealed is worthy of both praise and lamentation. We are often told that we are a greedy selfish broken society, but within hours of the earthquake being reported, ordinary people in the UK had given millions. So it seems that for many people fearful self-concern is only a surface, skin deep; underneath still beats the heart of hidden generosity; the compassion and overflowing love which is the image of God in us all.

But if generous hearts were unveiled then so were predatory instincts, deep in individuals and organisations. In Haiti itself crowds of victims scrabbling in the ruins to help their fellow victims were falling prey to gangs of looters and robbers ready to exploit the vulnerable wounded. Likewise hundreds of well motivated individuals who work or volunteer for NGOs; doctors, nurses, firemen, were being flown to the scene of devastation only to find that their efforts were stalled by unseemly squabbles between the very organisations they served; quarrels about  who would have precedence, who would be allowed to get there first, control the airport, be in charge. It was a revelation that for some people in a crisis, their own prestige or that of their organisation is more important than any individual suffering.

What has this disaster has unveiled for you? Doubts and agonies about the place of an all-knowing God? Despair about the world? A sudden spring of generosity and a conviction that human love and solidarity are all that matters? Or a bewildering mixture of all these? Whatever has been uncovered,  bring it all to God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, for he can cleanse whatever darkness is exposed and bring to maturity and good fruition those hidden seeds of goodness  that are surely in us all.


Filed under Current affairs


The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis, co-edited by Michael Ward of Planet Narnia fame is at last beginning to emerge into the light of day! It is now properly listed in the CUP Catalogue and you can read about it HERE. It should be out and on the shelves of the bookshops,and the warehouses of  Amazon in the spring. Its very wide ranging and original and I was especially pleased to be asked to write the chapter on Lewis as a poet. I think Lewis is a much better poet than is commonly thought, but has been unjustly neglected by the mainstream literary establishment largely because his supposed antipathy to TS Eliot. but its more complex than that. In the chapter I argue that Lewis  and Eliot, who became real friends towards the end of of their lives have more in common then either was at first willing to admit (including of course their adult conversions to the christian faith). I try to show that even, (and especially) judged by Eliot’s own criteria Lewis emerges as a more accomplished and important poet than he is usually given credit for. I also make some comparison between Lewis and some significant poets who have emerged since his death, particularly Phillip Larkin and Paul Muldoon and show how he anticipated some of their forms and themes, and how reading them can send us back to Lewis with a new appreciation. I look forward to the controversy that some of these ideas may cause!


Filed under imagination

Patterns (Tree and Leaf) a poem about Tolkien

This is the first of a series I hope to write meditating on different photos of the Inklings

Tolkien is leaning back into an oak
Old, gnarled, distinct in bole and burr
As, from the burr and bowl of his old pipe,
Packed with tightly patterned shreds of leaf,
The smoke ascends in rings and wreathes of air
To catch the autumn light and meet such leaves
As circle through its wreathes and patter down
In patterns of their own to the rich ground.

He contemplates again the tree of tales;
The roots of language and its rings of growth
‘The tongue and tale and teller all coeval’
And he becomes a pattern making patterns,
A tale telling tales and turning leaves,
From the print of thumb and finger on his pipe
To the print and press and pattern of his books
And all their prints and imprints in our minds
Out to this grainy patterned photograph
Of ‘Tolkien, leaning back into an oak’.


Filed under literature, Poems

Out for the count

Heres a poem I wrote, voiced for Neal Cassady on his last night. I hope it will form part of a larger work, my second libretto for Composer and Jazz Saxophonist Kevin Flanagan. First a little background:

On February 3, 1968, Cassady spent a night of hard drinking in the
Mexican town of San Miguel De Allende. In a state of extreme
inebriation, he wandered along a deserted railroad track with the
intention of walking the fifteen miles to the next town. It was a cold
and rainy night, and Cassady eventually passed out wearing only a
T-shirt and jeans. He was found beside the tracks the next morning in a
coma from the mixture of the inclement weather, alcohol and drugs. He
was taken to the nearest hospital, where he passed away the following
day. Typical of Cassady, even in death, a legend persists – that he had
been counting railroad ties, and his last words were “Sixty-four
thousand nine hundred and twenty eight.” His death came four days before
his 43rd birthday and one year before Jack Kerouac’s.

Out For The Count

Tongue-tied as I count the rail-road ties,
The crucifying cross-beams of my dream,
You roll me on your scroll and count me in
With angel-headed hipsters, cowboy junkies
A panoply freewheelin’ thru’ your head,
Count me with the ghosts, the countless shadows,
The hardly-living and the grateful dead
Call me and count me, call me cowboy Neal
Call me the Dean my friend and count me in
Make me another poetry projection
And run my life out on your empty screen
Co-opt me as the the driver of your dreams
Your drunken angel on the magic bus
Count me in before you count me out
Love me before you see me crucified
Before the rain man gives me my two cures
Tongue-tied, as I count the rail-road ties.

Kevin and I also collaborate on a neo-beat project called the riprap collective, check it out here


Filed under Poems

Imagine (a found sonnet taken from The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis)

Imagine a new natural philosophy;
I hardly know what I am asking for;
Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,
With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,
Continually conscious and continually…
Alive, alive and growing like a tree
And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,
The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser
The tree of knowledge and the tree of life
Growing together, that great ritual
Pattern of nature, beauties branching out
The cosmic order, ceremonial,
Regenerate science, seeing from within…

To participate is to be truly human.


Filed under literature, Poems