Monthly Archives: August 2013

‘Sing yourself to where the singing comes from’: Remembering Seamus Heaney

With Seamus Heaney at Little Gidding

With Seamus Heaney at Little Gidding

I dont know where to start, or how to say how much I owe this man. I have celebrated his verse extensively in my book Faith Hope and Poetry which concludes with a chapter setting out the way in which his poetry redresses a lost balance in our culture and enables a new vision of truth through the lens of imagination, but that was public academic discourse, just briefly today I want to be entirely personal.

I heard the news of his death at lunchtime today as I stood in a queue for coffee in a Cambridge Cafe, and found by the time I got to the front of the queue that I was blinded with tears. I thought he would live on to a long rich old age like his friend and fellow visionary Czeslaw Milosz, I looked forward to a rich harvest of that Late Ripeness he so praised in his friend Brian Friel, I didn’t know as I stood in line, shocked, that it would feel like such a personal bereavement.

But I should have known. I began to read his poetry in 1974 when  I was 17, a year of recovery from darkness, and a year self discovery for me, his words ‘I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ had become part of my own call as a poet, those phrases from ‘Exposure’: ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful’ and ‘feeling every wind that blows’ helped me understand who I was called to be. And from that day to this each new book has been taken deep down inside and formed part of the texture of my being, part of the music of what happens, the music I never would have known to listen for.

I heard him read in Cambridge many times, and in 1996 a reading of his poem ‘The Rainstick’ produced a sudden epiphany in me which crystallised what I had begun to feel about faith and poetry, about the relationship between theology and the arts, and slowly, in the midst of pressing parish life, I began to wonder if I could write something. Then in 2002 came a life-changing encounter. A friend had been asked to interview him for the Shropshire Star on the occasion of his being awarded the Wilfred Owen Memorial prize and asked if I would come over to Shrewsbury and give her a crash course in Heaney! I obliged, but when it came to it she asked if I would step into the breach and do the interview. We got to the hotel early and were sitting in the deserted bar when the man himself arrived, also early, and came over to join us. soon the interview, which was full of his rich phrasing and deep appreciation of Wilfred Owen, was lost in a wider, longer, deeper conversation about poetry itself, about the heart of things, about Dante, which really kindled him, as he saw it kindled me, and then, amazingly, he turned the conversation back on me. He became the questioner, wanted to know how poetry fitted with my vocation as priest, probed me about my deepest things, and I found myself opening things I scarcely admitted were there; the longing to spread wings, the desire to take the gospel, as I understood it, outside the confines of the church and religious language, the urge to write, to take risks, but could I? should I? how free was I really? After we’d wrapped things up, and there had been the dinner and the prize-giving and his speech, he took up my copy of ‘Opened Ground’ and signed it, but it wasn’t until I got home that I saw what he had written:

‘To Malcolm, with high regard: “Walk on air against your better judgement” Seamus Heaney’

It was a moment of confirmation and release into a new understanding of my vocation, and a new daring. That phrase he quoted (from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) has become a kind of watchword, and the unexpected spacewalk of this parish priest, the books, the songs, the poems, all owe something to a gift of wings that day.

his dedication in the flyleaf of my 'Opened Ground'

his dedication in the flyleaf of my ‘Opened Ground’

One consequence of my walking on air was that I somehow ended up helping to start and continue the TS Eliot Festival in Little Gidding and in 2002 Heaney came, not only to read Eliot’s poem aloud for us but also, to my intense delight, to read the gospel for me and when I preached on the text ‘ Why this is the very gate of heaven’ he embraced me afterwards and said, ‘Malcolm, that wasn’t just a sermon, it was an Action’. again a kind of confirmation. And I’m sure my story here is just one example amongst countless of his extraordinary humility, his keen ear, his discernment, his attention to others, the way he wore his fame and distinction so lightly, the way he homed in on and cared for always and only the particular and little spark, the kernel of truth in front of him.

In his poem ‘At The Wellhead’ he encourages a singer, saying ‘Sing yourself to where he singing comes from’.  Now this great soul, the greatest singer of our age, has come home to where the singing comes from.

 

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Oxford, Winnipeg, Houston, Westminster!

oxford-collegesI mentioned Greenbelt in my last post, but I thought I’d cast my eye a little further ahead, up to the end of the year and let you know what else I am doing, in case any of my readers might be able to get to any of these events!

First up is the CS Lewis Jubilee Festival based at Holy Trinity church Headington, in Oxford. Holy Trinity was CS Lewis’s local parish church, and amidst all the grand institutional celebrations of his Jubilee ots great that his local parish church is putting on events too, and particularly good that these will also inclyde games and explorations for children in ‘Lewis Reserve’ the nature reserve that was part of the grounds of Lewis’s Oxford Home The Kilns. I will be giving a talk at 7:30pm Celebrating Lewis’s Imaginative writing, during which I will also play some songs and read some sonnets that he has inspired

winnipegThe following week I am flying to Winnipeg to hang out with the amazing Steve Bell and maybe write some songs. We will do a concert together in Winnipeg on thursday 26th. Full details here.

This is followed by a retreat on poetry, prayer and imagination, on the 27th and 28th September at the St. Benedict’s retreat centre in Winnipeg. Here is their poster with all the details: Malcolm guite

Downtown-main-artThen from November 8-10th I will be at the CS Lewis Foundations Fall conference in Houston Texas where I will be leading a ‘writers track’ on both the spiritualities and the practicalities of creative writing, and also leading meditations and performing some of my songs and sonnets. I hoe this conference will also be the occasion for the American Launch of my new book of poems The Singing Bowl (US Amazon page here)

100_8915_westminsterThen I will be back in the UK getting ready for the big celebration of Lewis on 21-22nd November at Westminster Abbey and unveiling of his memorial in poets corner. I will be speaking at the conference on 21st. Full details here.

Finally I will be back in Cambridge for a day conference on the 23rd in Magdalene, his old college, where I shall give a paper on the contemporary relevance of Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man. Rowan Williams and Helen Cooper will also be speaking at the Cambridge conference. The web page for the conference is here

Please keep an eye on the website for information as it will be updated frequently in the coming weeks with details of registration, information about the speakers and their paper titles. In the meantime, if you have any queries, please feel free to contact lewisascritic@gmail.com

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See you at Greenbelt! (and a poem)

Greenbelt 2012 photo by Jonathon Watkins

Greenbelt 2012 photo by Jonathon Watkins

I’m delighted to announce that I have been invited to read from Sounding the Seasons, and also from my forthcoming book The Singing Bowl at Greenbelt, the excellent Christian Arts and Music Festival which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. I’ve attended and enjoyed Greenbelt many times over the years but this will be my first time there as a speaker. As well as doing a poetry reading I shall also be giving a talk entitled: ‘Upend the Rainstick: Poetry and the Music of the Unexpected.’

Greenbelt runs over the August Bank Holiday from 23rd to 26th August and my poetry reading is on Friday at 9:30pm and the talk is on Sunday at 1:30pm both events in the Hub. I know that some of my readers will be on the wrong side of the pond for this, but if you are in England and are coming to Greenbelt then do come and see me and say hello.

Meantime I leave you with a poem which was originally composed about the experience of listening to Mozart at Greenbelt in 2001, but now takes its place as the final poem in Sounding the Seasons:

Mozart at Greenbelt

We lie upon the grass on God’s good earth
and listen to the Requiem’s intense,
long, love-laden keening, calling forth
echoes of Eden, blessing every sense
with brimming blisses, every death with birth,
until all passion passes into praise.

I bless the winding paths that brought us here,
I bless this day, distinct amidst our days,
I bless the light, the music-laden air,
I bless the interweaving of our ways,
the lifting of the burdens that we bear,
I bless the broken body that we share

Sanctus the heart, Sanctus the spirit cries,
Sanctus the flesh in every touch replies

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St. Clare: a Sonnet

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

August the 11th is the day the church remembers St. Clare, friend and companion of Francis, founder of the Poor Clares, her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today. Here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on the meaning of her name, and life as light and clarity. This sonnet will appear in my next volume of poetry The Singing Bowl to be published this November by the Canterbury Press. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

Clare

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

 

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A Sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest, and sometimes in mid-Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.

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 also available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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