Monthly Archives: November 2015

The House of Christmas GK Chesterton

The sequence of my selection of poems for Advent, Waiting on the Word, resumes on the 1st December, but on this last day of November, a little pause between Advent Sunday and December the 1st, I am prompted by a lovely image from Lancia Smith, which Draws on GK Chesterton’s poem, The House of Christmas, a poem which contemplates the way that God made himself homeless that we might at last come home, to record that poem for you here, though it is not in the anthology. As always you can hear it by either clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

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Advent Sunday: Behold the Bridegroom Cometh

Today I begin my series of posts for Advent,  in which I read each day’s poem to accompany my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, alongside a series of reflective images kindly provided by Lancia Smith. You can enjoy these and more on her Excellent Website Cultivating the True the Good and the Beautiful.

Today’s poem, the first in our series, is Christina Rosetti’s ‘Advent Sunday’. You can click on the title or the ‘play’ button to hear me read it and you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle. Tomorrow, we have a pause for breath before the sequence in the book resumes on 1st December, but I shall still offer one of Lancia’s images here and an accompanying poem.

Advent Sunday

 

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Thanksgiving: a sonnet

thanksgivingThere is no feast of Thanksgiving in either the British national or church calendars, but it seems to me a good thing for any nation to set aside a day for the gratitude which is in truth the root of every other virtue. So on the eve of American Thanksgiving, I am re-posting here  an Englishman’s act of thanksgiving. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the play button if it appears or on the title.

I composed this as part of a friendly competition with some American poets to compose Petrarchan sonnets on the theme of Thanksgiving. Check out this Excellent Sonnet from my friend the academic and poet Holly Ordway. You will see that we have both been influenced by the ideas and language of CS Lewis’s fellow inkling Charles Williams.

This sonnet comes from my sequence Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press The book is available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here. Since we don’t keep thanksgiving I have made it part of a mini-sequence of three centred on the feast of All Saints, which we have recently celebrated. The image that follows the poem is by Margot Krebs Neale


Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life that embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
The warp and weft that no one can unravel.

So I give thanks for our deep coinherence
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for you all, with every breath.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

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CS Lewis: A Sonnet

Scribe of the Kingdom, Keeper of the Door

Scribe of the Kingdom, Keeper of the Door

As well as being the feast of Christ the King and St. Cecilia’s day, 22nd November is also the day CS Lewis died in 1963. I remember the great celebration of his life work and witness we had throughout 2013 and especially the honour and pleasure I had in Lecturing on him at St. Margaret’s Westminster and attending the ceremony whereby his memorial stone was installed in Poet’s corner. an event that would not have taken place without the hard work and forsight of Michael Ward amongst others. I wrote a  sonnet  for Lewis as part of that year of celebration., and so on the Anniversary of his death I am posting it again here. It has now been published in my volume of poems The Singing Bowl, with Canterbury Press.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title of the poem

CS Lewis

From ‘Beer and Beowulf’ to the seven heavens,

Whose music you conduct from sphere to sphere,

You are our portal to those hidden havens

Whence we return to bless our being here.

Scribe of the Kingdom, keeper of the door

Which opens on to all we might have lost,

Ward of a word-hoard in the deep hearts core

Telling the tale of Love from first to last.

Generous, capacious, open, free,

Your wardrobe-mind has furnished us with worlds

Through which to travel, whence we learn to see

Along the beam, and hear at last the heralds,

Sounding their summons, through the stars that sing,

Whose call at sunrise brings us to our King.

Your wardrobe mind has furnished us with worlds

Your wardrobe mind has furnished us with worlds

 

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Jazz Vespers: Walk with Me -The Third Fall

Jazz Vespers arranged by Dan Forshaw

Jazz Vespers arranged by Dan Forshaw

Here’s a thing for St. Cecilia’s Day (22nd November). Dan Forshaw, the great Jazz Saxophonist, has just sent this lovely recording from the Jazz Vespers at Westminster Central Hall. Its a fabulous setting of Jesus Walk With Me into which Dan set my sonnet ‘The Third Fall’, performed here by the actor Darren Raymond, who was also reading passages from Martin Luther King that evening as part of the celebration of Black History Month. I’m really honoured to have my poem included in this fabulous event, and to hear it so well set and rendered. You can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. I’ve given the words of the poem and there is a full list of all the musicians below

Walk with Me/Jesus Falls

 

IX Jesus falls the third time

 

He weeps with you and with you he will stay

When all your staying power has run out

You can’t go on, you go on anyway.

He stumbles just beside you when the doubt

That always haunts you, cuts you down at last

And takes away the hope that drove you on.

This is the third fall and it hurts the worst,

This long descent through darkness to depression

From which there seems no rising and no will

To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.

Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,

And you could almost wish for that defeat

Except that in the cold hell where you freeze

You find your God beside you on his knees.

Vocals Juliet Kelly

Sax Dan Forshaw
Piano Chris Grey
Bass Joel Humann
Drums Richard Morgan

Read by Darren Raymond

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For the Feast of Christ The King

20111119-111210.jpg
We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth.

This passage in Matthew is especially challenging to us now in the midst of a major refugee crisis triggered by the dreadful violence in Syria and Iraq. We can and should make a compassionate response, even though that response is shadowed by our fears of terrorist infiltration. It should be possible to be alert to and vet those malicious persons who might try to infiltrate themselves amongst genuine refugees. But it is clear that the huge numbers of widows and children in desperate need are no threat to anyone, but rather themselves threatened by the terrorists whom we oppose. There is no reason for a proper caution about infiltration to inhibit a genuine and generous response to crisis.I wrote this sonnet some years before the present Crisis, but Christ’s words, on which this poem reflects, seem more vital and more needed than ever.

Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.

This sonnet comes at the end of my sequence ‘Sounding the Seasons’ published by Canterbury Press.

The book is available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title.

Christ The King

Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

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Hilda and Caedmon

 

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

Thursday the 19th of November is the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby, a great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry, she also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day last year it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.

This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to highlight, to which I also allude in my poem. This is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known. Bede tells the story of how he came to his vocation as a poet:

According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, (account taken from this Wiki article )

So as I remember Hilda with thanksgiving I also give thanks for all the churches and church leaders who have been patrons of the arts and especially those who have found a space and place for poetry in liturgy. I give thanks too for all those churches who have chosen to weave my own poems into liturgy and sermons and pray that those words have been fruitful

The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup

The sonnet also appears in my second poetry book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button

Hilda of Whitby

 

Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,

Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,

You had the gift to find the gift in others,

A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.

You made a space and place for poetry

When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,

Was called by grace into community

And local language joined the Latin choir.

 

Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

Your exercise of true imagination.

Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,

That every fettered gift may find release.

 

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I Am the Resurrection and the Life

2105504I am returning, after various diversions, to the series of sermons and sonnets on the mysterious I Am sayings in John’s Gospel which I mentioned to you in a previous post. In the midst of so many crises, so much sudden carnage, so much grief and bereavement, perhaps its good to return to that poignant and painful moment in John’s Gospel when the desperately grieving Martha confronts Jesus with the loss of her brother Lazarus and asks him why he wasn’t there, why he didn’t prevent it. And she wins from Jesus, who weeps for Lazarus as much as his sisters, the declaration ‘I Am the Resurrection and the Life’. The new life, and the redemption of all things is already in our midst to inspire our hope, the true good ending, the ‘eucatastrophe’ as Tolkien calls it, has come to meet us in the midst. Below I have pasted part of the passage from St. John, then the poem I wrote in response, a kind of dialogue with Jesus, which you can hear by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button, And then the sermon I preached on this text at Girton on All Souls day. I hope you find some of this helpful. The Poem will be published in my next book Parable and Paradox which will come out with Canterbury Press in 2016

John 11:20-27:

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

 

I Am the Resurrection 

“I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25

 

How can you be the final resurrection?

That resurrection hasn’t happened yet.

Our broken world is still bent on destruction,

No sun can rise before that sun has set.

Our faith looks back to father Abraham

And toward to the one who is to come

How can you speak as though he knew your name?

How can you say: before he was I am?

 

Begin in me and I will read your riddle

And teach you truths my Spirit will defend

I am the End who meets you in the middle,

The new Beginning hidden in the End.

I am the victory, the end of strife

I am the resurrection and the life.

 

You can listen to my sermon on this passage, which also includes a reading on this poem, by clicking HERE

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An interview about my new book with Lancia Smith

image courtesy of Lancia E Smith

image courtesy of Lancia E Smith

The Photographer and astute interviewer Lancia Smith has kindly marked my birthday today by publishing an interview about my new book Waiting on the Word. You can read the full interview from her Website Cultivating the True the Good and the Beautiful by clicking HERE. Readers of the book who are going to read the selected poem each day may like to know that Lancia will generously be providing an image for each poem each day and I will be providing a recording. Both image and recording will be posted on both our sites.

Meantime to give you a flavour here are two snippets from the fuller interview interspersed with one or two of Lancia’s own pictures, with which her site is so liberally adorned:

What is the tie in observing rituals and the seasons of our lives? Why does it matter?

AMG: Well, we can’t think of everything at once! We are creatures who were made to inhabit time, though we also carry eternity in our hearts, and to be in time is to experience one thing at a time, one moment at a time, to have to lose one moment in order to experience the next. The danger is that we lose not only the moment, but the meaning of the moment. We become so eager for the next thing that we abandon the rich legacy of all that we have already been given.

The aim of observing regular times and celebrations, shared with a wider Christian community, is to stem that loss, and even reverse that flow.

By setting these celebrations in time, giving them each a recurring day in the year we can get Time, who takes things way to be Time who restores them. Time the thief becomes Time the provider! 

 

Image LanciaESmith poem Grevel Lindop

Image LanciaESmith poem Grevel Lindop

You have poets from a highly rich range of voices: men and women, people of faith and people not-yet-persuaded of faith, old poets and younger ones, black and white, widely known and some virtually never heard of, and a diverse range of styles from sonnets to free verse.  How did you choose which poems to use in this anthology and what are you using as the guiding principle in the order you placed them in the book?

AMG: Well, if I glance for a moment at my bookshelves, and perhaps if you glance at yours, or better still at the piles of opened books that are lying about sometimes on top of one another, I notice no apartheid, only a glad and free communion. On the desk in front of me Seamus Heaney happens to be leaning against Milton, the seventeenth century English protestant and the 20th century Catholic seem to be rubbing along fine, united by poetry. My Leonard Cohen, and my Dylan Thomas have somehow found themselves on either side of my George Herbert, and I can just imagine the conversation between these three poets, all haunted by a sense of the holy, all dogged by a melancholy undertow, all three of them wrestling with the heartbreaking alternations between ecstasy and routine. And if I turn from my outward and visible library to the bookshelves of my mind, where the books are not fixed but wander freely, where the pages and the very texts themselves are all alive and interleaved, where a line of Donne’s is suddenly harmonized with a line of Dylan’s, I find that magical things happen! I hope to make some of the same magic when I make an anthology like this. I know that academics have quartered and quarantined these poets into different categories, according to period, style, belief, world view etc. That has its place and purpose but it’s not what I’m doing here. In these anthologies I am not trying to impress the professors, I am breaking bread, sharing good things with my fellow pilgrims. Now because we are pilgrims, and there are staging posts along the way, special points in Advent to think about the antiphons, particular times in Epiphany to remember certain mysteries. I have ordered these poems to highlight those staging posts, but I have also tried to get some surprising conversations started, to put poems next to each other whose insights might highlight each other. For example I have put a poem of Donne’s and a poem of Scott Cairn’s next to each other, they are very different in period and style and yet both poets have something of the same heady mix of sensual attention, intellectual muscle, and rich spirituality.

But I also wanted a continuous thread of beauty, of something magical and numinous. Grevel’s poem, beautiful in itself, also speaks to the reader about looking out for beauty, threading beautiful glimpses together, which is very much what I hope will be happening in this anthology.

Image courtesy of Lancia Smith

Image courtesy of Lancia Smith

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Fire: A Sestina For Survivors

He waits in silence for his heart to break

He waits in silence for his heart to break

In this strange interlude between Remembrance Sunday on the 8th of November, and Remembrance Day itself on the 11th, I thought I would repost this sestina called ‘Fire’ which is about the trauma, the post traumatic stress, which so many soldiers have brought back with them from the theatre of war and have to deal with in civilian life.

There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.

As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.

Fire

 

He cannot stop these memories of fire

Crackling and flashing in his head.

Not just in fevered dreams; the fires break

Into the light of day. He burns with shame,

But still he screams and shakes, because the dead,

Are burning too and screaming out his name.

 

They told him his condition had a name,

But words can’t quench the memory of fire,

Nor can they ever resurrect the dead.

They told him it was ‘all inside his head’,

That post-traumatic stress need cause no shame.

The army gave him time for a short break.

 

But that’s what he’s afraid of. He will break

And break forever; lose his life and name,

Shake like a child who’s sickening with shame,

He who had been ‘courageous under fire’

Who always stemmed the panic, kept his head.

And now all night he wishes he were dead

 

And cannot die. Instead he sees the dead

In all their last contortions. Bodies break

Under his wheels, a child’s severed head

Amidst the rubble seems to call his name

Over the clattering of rifle fire,

Stuttering guns that shake with him in shame.

 

He’s left his family. ‘Oh its a shame’,

The neighbours said, ‘That marriage was long dead-

-You cant live with a man whose shouting ‘Fire!’

All night like that.- His kids needed a break

And in the end she had to change her Name.’

‘They’ll never fix what’s wrong inside his Head.’

 

‘Some people seem to cope and get ahead,

The army makes them better men, a shame

He couldn’t cope.’ Now he has lost his name

And his address. He only knows the dead.

He sleeps on benches but they come and break

His sleep. They keep him under constant fire.

 

And come November, when they name the dead,

He waits in silence for his heart to break

And every poppy burns with hopeless fire.

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