Category Archives: imagination

St. Francis drops in on my gig!

St. Francis Jongleur de Dieu

Here is another poem from my forthcoming collection After Prayer. I’m posting this one on St. Francis’s day as it’s a poem for Francis the poet, a song for Francis the singer. Indeed its a sonnet that started life as a song!

St.Francis loved the Jongleurs and  Troubadours who passed through Assisi. As a young man he played and sang for his friends. After his conversion and calling he carried through that joy of making verse and music, and his canticle of the sun, composed and sung towards the end of his life, is testimony to that. Years ago, when I was a novice in the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis (the Anglican Franciscans) it happened that I was offered a set of pub gigs that clashed with some of the Third Order prayer meetings. I asked what I should do, and without a moment’s hesitation my novice master said to me “Play the gigs Malcolm, that’s where Francis would be.”

So this poem started life as the song I sang years ago on that first St. Francis day Gig, but after a while I realised the song was asking to be a sonnet so that’s what it became.

I should mention that “Hard-Core Troubadour” is the title of a great song by Steve Earle (but it’s not about St. Francis!)

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears. Otherwise click on the title of the sonnet and it will take you to the player on the audioboo page.

St. Francis drops in on my gig

I didn’t think I’d find you in this place

I guess you must have slipped in at the back

I’m lifting my guitar out of its case

But seeing you I nearly put it back!

You smile and say that it’s your local too,

You know the ins and outs of inns like this,

The people here have hidden wounds like you,

And you have bidden them to hidden bliss.

‘Francis I’ve only straggled after you,

I’ve never really caught your melody,

The joy you bring when every note rings true…’

But you just laugh and say ‘play one for me!’

This one’s for you then, on the road once more,

The first, the last, the hard-core troubadour.

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A Spell for National Poetry Day

Here is a poem called Spell, which I re-post for  National Poetry Day, as it celebrates the magic powers of language itself. I have written in a previous post about the ‘daily miracle’ of our language and literacy, the magical way that words can summon up images, images that bring with them whole worlds, all the hidden correspondences between Word and World, a magic witnessed by the way a word like spell means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way chant is embedded in enchantment, the way even the dry word Grammar turns out to be cognate with Glamour in its oldest magical sense. But if all language is a kind of spell, it is a Good Spell (or Gospel as we later shortened that term). For Christian Faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.

Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the paralells between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be..” and each thing he summons springs into being, and the way, the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the sub-creations, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his Love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as ‘Makers’ (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.

Of course, because we are fallen we can abuse this gift of sub-creation, we can abuse language itself, making the very medium of creation a means of destruction. I have explored that shadow side of language in my poem “What IF…” But now I want to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, the summoning powers entrusted to us in the twenty-six letters of our alphabet., in a sonnet I have simply called “Spell”. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.

This poem is from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

Spell

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six

enchanters. Spelling silence into sound,

they bind and loose, they find and are not found.

Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,

summon the summoners, the shaping shapes

the grounds of sound, the generative gramma

signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana

runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,

leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,

shining, re-combining in their dance

the genesis of every utterance,

pattering the pattern of the Tree.

Summon the summoners, and let them sing.

The summoners will summon Everything.

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Angel’s Age: a new poem and a new book.

Whilst we are still keeping the feast of St. Michael And All Angels, I thought I’d share a new poem about angels and prayer, which will be in my next collection of poems After Prayer, to be published at the end of October. The title sequence of that book is a series of sonnets responding in turn to each of the images or emblems of prayer in George Herbert’s sonnet ‘Prayer’. One of those emblems is the mysterious phrase ‘Angels Age’. Scholars are divided as to what Herbert may have meant by this, but it seems he was suggesting that when we pray we are in some sense lifted out of our own ‘age’ or ‘seculum’, the time of our earthly pilgrimage, and participate, if only for a moment in the ‘angels age’, lifted from our earthly life to their heavenly life, given for a moment a glimpse of the heavenly perspective. Or perhaps it is the other way round: when we pray the angels join with us and give their wings to our prayers. My sonnet in response to Herbert’s phrase, plays with these different possibilities. After Prayer is available now for Pre-order on Amazon and from the Canterbury Press Website and you are very welcome to come to one of the November launch events and readings, all listed on my ‘Events and Gigs’ page which you can access on the tab above this page. You may also be interested in reading an interview about the new book from Lancia Smith’s excellent Cultivating Project. You can read the interview Here.

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

Angel’s Age

How might my prayer partake the angels’ age?

Theirs is no age at all, but all in one;

My moments pass, as steps in pilgrimage,

But they begin where my dark journey’s done.

They see all things at once: each point in time

For them is radiant with eternity.

Mine are the twists and turns, the long road home,

Theirs is the over-view, and flying free

They brush me with their feathers, with the rumour

Of their flight, and something in me sings

Into their passing light, till my prayer-murmur,

Circled in the slipstream of their wings,

Is lifted up in grace to join with theirs,

Who sing a Sanctus into all our prayers.

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Michaelmas; a sonnet for St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael at Mont St. Michell -photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The end of September brings us to the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term. The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose. He is celebrated and revered in all three Monotheistic religions. There is a good, full account of him here. And here is a bright and playful image of him by the Cambridge Artist Rebecca Merry, who has done a number of icons and other images of the Archangels. You can see more of her art here, and also in the Byard Art Gallery.

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright

And here is a response to the poem from photographer Margot Krebs Neale, weaving the words at the heart of the poem into the heart-shaped image. More of Margot’s work can be seen here.

This poem comes from my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title.

Michaelmas

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance. Draw near, help me discern,

And trace the hidden grace in change and chance.

Angel of fire, Love’s fierce radiance,

Drive through the deep until the steep waves part,

Undo the dragon’s sinuous influence

And pierce the clotted darkness in my heart.

Unchain the child you find there, break the spell

And overthrow the tyrannies of Hell.

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‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

The deeply disturbing exchanges in Parliament yesterday and particularly the Prime Minister’s dismissal of the real concern and fear of women MPs as ‘humbug’, together with his own deliberately inflammatory language, prompt me to repost this, which I posted at the beginning of this year. If it was true in January it is all the more true now.

For different reasons we have all, on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say. Here in the UK we are on the cusp of a vital debate and vote on our future relations with Europe, deep passions are engaged and tempers are running high. Like many people I have been disturbed by the metaphors of violence that MP’s carelessly deploy about one another (‘sharpening the knife’ etc) and by the sheer torrent of angry abuse the MPs themselves face outside parliament. The murder of Jo Cox in 2016, just before our Brexit referendum, showed us how violent language can generate and spill over into actual bloodshed. Back in 2011, before any of these events, I had already become uneasy about the coarsening of our discourse and particularly about hate speech, and I wrote this poem reflecting on Jesus’ warning to us about the consequences of the words we use, about the fact that we will be held accountable for them. I published that poem in 2013 in my book The Singing Bowl, but now at the beginning of 2019, it seems more urgent than ever.

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

What If…

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Mathew 12:36-37

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?

What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.

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The Word and the words: a sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes preacher and translator

September 25th is Lancelot Andrewes Day, when the Church remembers one of its greatest preachers and the man whose scholarship and gift for poetic phrasing was so central to the making of the King James Version of the Bible. My own Doctoral thesis was on Andrewes and he has exercised a huge influence on me. On the 400th anniverseary of the KJV I gave a lecture for the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature on Andrewes and translation which was published in this book The King James Version at 400. But I have also published a sonnet for Andrewes in my book for Canterbury Press  The Singing Bowl, so here it is. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button .

Lancelot Andrewes

Your mind is fixed upon the sacred page,
A candle lights your study through the night,
The choicest wit, the scholar of the age,
Seeking the light in which we see the light.
Grace concentrates in you, your hand is firm,
Tracing the line of truth in all its ways,
Through you the great translation finds its form,
‘And still there are not tongues enough to praise.’
Your day began with uttering his name
And when you close your eyes you rest in him,
His constant star still draws you to your home,
Our chosen stella praedicantium.
You set us with the Magi on the Way
And shine in Christ unto the rising day.

I also gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.

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A Sonnet for St. Matthew’s Day

St. Matthew by Rebbecca Merry

September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here, once more, is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.

Matthew

First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.

This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’

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