Monthly Archives: May 2012

A Sonnet for the feast of the Visitation

The feast of the Visitation celebrates the lovely moment in Luke’s Gospel (1:41-56) when Mary goes to visit he cousin Elizabeth, who was also against all expectations bearing a child, the child who would be John the Baptist. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them, that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaped for joy’ when he heard Mary’s voice, and it is even as the older woman blesses the younger, that Mary gives voice to the Magnificat, the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world. There is much for the modern world to ponder in this tale of God’s blessing and prophecy on and from the margins, and i have tried to tease a little of it out in this sonnet. I am grateful again to Margot Krebs Neale for her inspiring image, and , as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

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A Sonnet for Pentecost

A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green

Continuing in my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year this is a sonnet reflecting on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost. Throughout the cycle, and more widely I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire, considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.

As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself. Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image which follows the poem.

I also have some good news to share. Yesterday I signed a contract with the Canterbury Press to publish all these sonnets for the church year in a single volume to be entitled Sounding the Seasons’. It should be out by Advent sunday in early December in time for the start of the new church year. I will post more about it in my next blog post and let all my readers here know how to get it as soon as it is available.


Pentecost

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Whose Mother-tongue is Love in every nation

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A Sonnet for Ascension Day

The experience of writing Sonnets for Advent and for The Stations of the Cross has encouraged me to go a little further and to write a more extended sequence that will touch on the major moments and turning points of the church year, and so on the central mysteries of our faith.

So here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, which falls this year n the 17th of May. The mystery of this feast is the paradox whereby in 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. His humanity is taken into heaven so 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.
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 have lift off!

Ascension

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 .

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Kindling the Imagination An interview about Poetry and Truth

Kindling the imagination. Photo courtesy of Lancia smith.

A while back I agreed to do an extended interview for the Photographer Lancia Smith’s excellent Web site The True the Good and the Beautiful, which she was going to run alongside some superb photographs she had taken at this years CS Lewis Summer Institute. When Lancia sent me the questions and I began to answer them, I realised that she had such a gift for framing the questions that I was delving deeper and giving better and more coherent answers than I had done before, even in my own ‘notes to self’ about what I was thinking. Her interview, in three parts, covered everything for my childhood, my journey to faith and the first kindlings of my love of literature, to my understanding of balance and variety in life and writing, my attutudes to suffering and depression, and finally delving deeply into the heart of what I am saying in Faith Hope and Poetry and helping me to set out my own poetic credo. I thought readers of these pages might be interested to see the interview so I am posting links to all three parts below, each with a little hi-light to give you a flavour of whats in each section. I hope you will also enjoy a more general exploration of her site. Click on the title of each part to go to that section of the interview.

The three parts of the interview are each illustrated by some of the remarkable Photographs she has taken, one of which I have posted above, and another of which has now prompted some further collaborative work with another artist

Part I Childhood, Faith, and Sources of Inspiration:

What role does inspiration play in your work?  Where does inspiration come from for you? What are sources of Joy?

Now there’s a question! At one level, everything is gift; to live, to breathe, to comprehend, to write, to create. Even when we are ‘working’ at these things with all our might, it is still a gift, still a grace to be alive at all and able to work at anything. So I don’t think of the creative process as a certain amount of hard work topped up by inspiration, I see the work itself as the inspiration. Having said that there are of course times when one is more or less aware of the nudge, the proffer, the gift of words and lines and images, arising as given things from an unguessed at depth and one receives them gladly. I find inspiration throughout nature but especially in images of light and water, light reflecting on water. The lines in my sonnet ‘O Oriens’: “ So every trace of light begins a grace/ In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam/ Is somehow a beginning and a calling;” are literally true.

I think the poetic language about waiting on a muse is something to take very seriously and I think the reality behind every Muse is the Holy Spirit.

Part 2 Balance in life, dealing with darkness, paganism and poetry

How do you overcome the difficulties you encounter in your own life and reconcile their reality with the beauty that you also must bear witness to? How is it that you are able to see what is bitter and not what it ought to be and yet be able to also witness the Beauty that is beyond it?

You are certainly right about the burdens and shadows, and right to say that a creative vocation seems to involve a particular kind of exposure and vulnerability to periods of darkness and depression. I think there are several important truths to notice here. The first is that sometimes tears and grief are the right, and indeed, only possible response to things. The Bible is full of tears and outpourings of grief, and there is no promise that we will not shed them, only that one day God himself will wipe the tears from our eyes. And He can only do that because as a human being He has shed them himself, and knows from the inside what the depth of our agony can be. So there is a proper place for the depiction of suffering and the expression of bitterness in Art as in life. We don’t need some anodyne sugary literature saying peace, peace, when there is none. But it is also true that the agony in the Garden and Good Friday are not the end of the story. ‘Love is come again like wheat that springeth green’, and Love has the last word.

Part 3 Poetry and the role of the poet

Why have you pursued poetry as your venue? Why poetry instead of great fiction like LOTR or The Chronicles of Narnia? Those genres draw on ancient theme, myths, metaphor and work to heal and to illuminate. What is the compelling call of poetry and song-lyrics for you?

Well your phrase ‘compelling call’ is just the right one. There is something in poetry itself, in the magic of rhythm and rhyme, which woke me up, and called me. Reading certain poems I would feel something quickening in me, ‘my heart in hiding stirred’ to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins. Poetry, for me, always carries a sense of chant, and it is from chant that we get both, enchantment and chanson, both magic and song.

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Where to find the Treasure, and A Piece of Chalk!

That Typewriter!

I promised last time to tell you a little more about how I came upon these treasures of Chestertoniana,and what is to become of them now. The treasures are the gift of the wonderful collector and enthusiast in whose house I first saw them when I was a young man. He was a bookseller in Bedford and I remember making the journey, past the great statue of Bunyan, to look for what I thought would be an ordinary bookshop. But the address I had been given proved to be a private house in a quiet back street. The book seller who opened the door  was an elderly man with a wonderfully warm countenance and a twinkle in his eye. He welcomed me in and let me browse amongst the books by Chesterton he had for sale, many rarities I had been looking for for years. And when he saw my enthusiasm and my exclamations of delight as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, he  said ‘step in here I have some things you might enjoy seeing.’ I stepped into another room and there was the Theatre! The hat! the walking stick,! the wonderful old typewriter! the chair in which he sat to write, the curiously shaped walking sticks! the drawings in coloured chalks on brown paper, and shelf after shelf of GKC’s own personal books full of his inimitable annotations!
I looked up to see Aidan Mackey  ( for it was he!) smiling with the pleasure of sharing things he loved with a fellow enthusiast. Over the years I came to know Aidan better and visited his magical house many times, gradually realising that I was in the presence of one of the greatest living authorities on GKC, full of a kind of tacit knowledge and familiarity which is not to be found in academia. When the time came for him to retire from book-selling there was a circle of friends, of whom I am one, who formed the Chesterton Library Trust to fulfill his three specific wishes for this collection; that it should be kept together, that it should remain in England, and that it should be made accessible to scholars and to the wider public. And now at last we are going to be able to do all these things. The Library Trust which is affiliated to the GK Chesterton Institute, has at last finished cataloguing the collection and will loan the whole collection to the Oxford Oratory who will display it and make its treasures accessible not only to scholars but to any Chesterton fans, and there will be many, who make the pilgrimage to Oxford to see these things. They are currently housed in the Oxford Centre for Faith and Culture, and available, by appointment for scholars to consult, but as of next year they will be housed, and displayed for all to see in the Chesterton room in the new study centre at the Oratory in Oxford.
A Piece of Chalk

That Piece of Chalk!

And now, as I review these treasures in my mind, my eyes light on a piece of chalk! When I first held it in my hand, and looked also on his chalk drawings on brown paper I remembered the opebing of GKC’ own ‘blog post’ on A Piece of Chalk in Tremendous Trifles:

 I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
Ah how often I also reluctantly tear myself away from that delicious task!  so we follow GKC downstairs where he asks someone for brown paper to draw on, she wants to give him nice crisp expensive white drawing paper but Chesterton just wants the stuff that parcels were wrapped in:
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
So off he goes with his paper, coloured chalks, a pocket-full of jingling oddments and a head-full of potential poems. But when he gets out on to the great wide Sussex Downs, he realises he has forgotten something!
 I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun
There is so much glorious truth in this reflection on goodness as a positive force and reality in the world, a ‘sun-clad power’ as Milton called it, and all springing from a reflection on chalk drawing, but then chalk drawing is maybe where all human art started. Then comes the wonderful ‘turn’ in this essay, the sudden realisation that he is sitting up there on the chalk downs, the very chalk that whitens the white cliffs of Dover!
 I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on; it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do; but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
I wonder, as I think of him ‘sitting on an immense warehouse of chalk’, how often we are sitting, unthinking on a vast warehouse of the very resources we need for any task. Desparately searching around in shops for prefab, pre-packed items, prefab, pre-packed ideas, when all we need do is dig a little deeper into the vast resource of our own mind and consciousness, our memory imagination, and maybe digging a little deeper right down into The Ground of our Being, who is God, the one in whom we are being ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ If we dug deep enough we might find what Chesterton called, in another place ‘the buried sunrise of wonder’. but that’s another tale for another time.

glorious things drawn with coloured chalks on good brown paper!

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