Category Archives: imagination

What The Tyrants Seek: A Response to Psalm 54

After a break for other lectionary posts I resume the thread of ‘David’s Crown’ my new poetic response to the Book of Psalms.

I’m happy to confirm that this series will definitely be published as a book next year under the title David’s Crown. I am just working on the proofs now and there is already an amazon page for the book if you wish to pre-order it Here

So, returning to our sequence, in psalm 54 the psalmist cries out for help against those tyrants who seek not simply to control the body but to dominate and corrupt the soul, a far more insidious tyranny, so he writes:

 

Hear my prayer, O God: and hearken unto the words of my mouth.

For strangers are risen up against me: and tyrants, which have not God before their eyes, seek after my soul.

Behold, God is my helper: the Lord is with them that uphold my soul.

In my response I wanted to explore the forces at work in the contemporary world which might seek to constrain our inner freedom, the freedom of the heart, and how we ourselves might become complicit with those forces. As usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button, which comes, this time, after the poem.

LIV Deus, in nomine

Let us rejoice to see your light prevail
Save us O God! For what the tyrants seek
Is not our bodies but our very soul!

The freedom of the heart is now at stake.
The enemies of freedom are within
Each one of us, for we have let them speak

With our own voices, magnified the din
Of blasphemous cacophony. We’ve used
Our own devices to embed our sin,

‘Distracted from distraction’, and confused
By false confusions of our own devising.
Each gift of yours has somehow been abused

To cast doubt on the giver, by revising
The tenets of our faith, till they’re half dead.
Oh rouse and raise us, in your Easter rising! 

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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 t 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 at which 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 waspublished 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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Silence: a Sonnet for Remembrance Day

As we approach Remembrance Sunday I am reposting this sonnet about the two minutes silence, which was first published in my book Sounding the Seasons.  I’m posting it a a day early so that any one who wishes to, can use it in services or events on this Remembrance Sunday.

So here is how it came to be written. On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th some years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’button if it appears.

The striking image above is ‘Poppy Day’ by Daliscar and the one below is ‘Silent Cross’ by Margot Krebs Neale

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Silent Cross by Margot Krebs Neale

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

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. Back in 2011 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, seven years later, 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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Behind Each Number, One Beloved Face: A Requiem for All Souls Day

Earlier this year I published a sequence called Quarantine Quatrains , whose seventh and final section was a requiem for those who have died during this pandemic and especially for the careworkers who gave their lives in looking after them. Today, as we keep All Souls Day, the day for remembering the dead with thanksgiving, I am posting this final part of my  poem again, and I am conscious that I do so at the beginning of a second lockdown and the rising wave of further illness, a wave which will once more call for heroism in the NHS and amongst careworkers. The Quarantine Quatrains was published in a limited edition to raise funds for The Careworker’s Charity. That edition is almost completely sold out, but if you find this post helpful perhaps you would like to donate to the Careworker’s charity via This Page, rather than buying me a coffee.

Once more we are confronted by mind-numbing numbers and only the exercise of compassionate imagination can give us even a glimpse of the harrowing personal stories behind each one. When I began to hear our statistics mount on our own evening radio news, I found myself again and again in prayer, knowing that even though I only heard the numbers, God knows and loves and died for the people behind those numbers.

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

VII

35

At close of day I hear the gentle rain

Whilst experts on the radio explain

Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,

Cyphers of unimaginable pain

36

Each evening they announce the deadly toll

And patient voices calmly call the roll

I hear the numbers, cannot know the names

Behind each number, mind and heart and soul

37

Behind each number one belovèd face

A light in life whom no-one can replace,

Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,

A gleaning and a memory of grace

38

All loved and loving, carried to the grave

The ones whom every effort could not save

Amongst them all those carers whose strong love

Bought life for others with the lives they gave.

39

The sun sets and I find myself in prayer

Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share

Feeling for words of hope amidst despair

I voice my vespers through the quiet air:

40

O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,

Deep in the secret garden of the rose,

Raise over us the banner of your love

And raise us up beyond our last repose.

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All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed

As we come towards Hallowe’en, its worth remembering that the word Hallowe’en itself simply means ‘the eve of all Hallows’, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Saints, or All Saints Day’, a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ!,  It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Souls Day. the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven.  It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Anyway, given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.

If your church is marking all saints or all souls day do feel free to print the words or use the recording.

The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

This sonnet are  from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press,

I am having trouble embedding the media player but if you click on the title it will take you to an audioboom page which on which you can play the recording

 

All Saints

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neale

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‘Undo Our Dark Confusion’: A Response To Psalm 53

Psalm 53 returns to the opening line of Psalm 14: ‘Dixit Insipiens:

  1. THE foolish body hath said in his heart: There is no God.

And if such perverse folly was the exception in the culture of Ancient Israel, it has become the rule in our own, and so for us this psalm has a contemporary ring. For me the folly is not so much in the moral failures which this psalm deals with as in the perverse materialist philosophy, the arrogant refusal of every intimation of immortality, the closed mind towards religion which one encounters everyday in the very people who make a boast of being open-minded, and as you will see that has formed the core of my poem in response to this psalm. But the poem, like the psalm which inspires it, is also a prayer, a prayer that God will undo our dark confusion, and, as he promised in Isaiah, take away the veil that covers the nations.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

LIII Dixit insipiens

Though we will flourish in God’s house forever,
We live within a world that counts him out
Of every calculation, one that never

Considers that it might be wrong. No doubt
Can pierce our presumption. We dismiss
The wisdom of the past, and yet we flout

The principle of open-mindedness,
Presuming from the start on our conclusion.
That cast of mind has cast a spell on us:

A spell of disenchantment, the illusion
That only matter matters. Break the spell
Lord Jesus and undo our dark confusion,

Deliver us again, remove the veil,
The thin familiar film that covers wonder,
Let us rejoice to see your light prevail.

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The Ballad of the White Horse: a complete reading for King Alfred’s Day

October 26th is the day the Church remembers Alfred, King and Scholar who founded places of learning, translated Boethius’ consolation of philosophy and strove to preserve the Christian faith in the midst of the pagan Danish invasions. He is also the subject of GK Chesterton’s wonderful poem The Ballad of the White Horse. I recorded a reading of the whole poem back in 2011, on its 100th anniversary, and I thought I would repost it here, with links to the readings, in honour of Alfred’s day.This great poem is as much about modern times as it is a ballad of the days of King Alfred. In 1911 Chesterton foresaw that the modern Nihilism and worship of the ‘superman’ embodied in the writings of Nietzsche together with false worship of race and a cult of violence, would likey wreak unimaginable damage in the new century, as proved to be the case. He also saw that a renewal of the vision of joy and humility that is at the heart of the Christian creed was the only way to resist the death-wish which is the shadow side of our fallen humanity. He wrote a poem at whose heart is a call to courage kindled not by probable chances of success but by what he called ‘the joy without a cause’. Many Englishmen called to combat in the two world wars, went out with this poem in their pockets and were greatly strengthened by it. The Times quoted it twice in leaders each at key points in the second world war; “nought for your comfort” was the leader headline after the disaster of Crete and Alfred’s great cry ‘The high tide’ and the turn’ was the headline after the D Day landings. And yet this poem, once so centrally part of the national consciousness, is now hardly known at all or read, but its time must suely come again.

Chesterton had a big influence on the Inklings, the writers who clustered around Tolkien and Lewis and there are a number of echoes between the Ballad of the White Horse and the Lord of the Rings. Especially the descriptions of Colan the Celt and his people, who, like the elves, are always haunted by the sound of the sea and have their hearts in an undying land. Likewise the detail of battle in which Alfred and his Celtic allies are sundered and the Celts, given up for lost, re-emerge as though they were the armies of the dead and put their foes to flight, that meeting on the field of battle against all odds is very like the events on the fields of the Pelanor. But perhaps the greatest similarity is in the ending of the two tales. In the final book of the Ballad, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’ Chesterton deals with the problem of the peace, the problem that after winning on the battle the wariors find corruption at home and have to confront evil in another form and in their own native place. Whilst Alfred leaves Wessex to confront the Danes in London the weeds are allowed to grow over the White Horse and at this point Chesterton gives Alfred a vision of the future and calls England to an eternal vigilance. I think the very namng, let alone the plot features, of Tolkien’s ‘Scouring of the Shire’ are derived from this.

Here’s a quick youtube video of me reading some verses from the first part and setting the scene, then below that are the links for you to download audio of my reading of the whole poem:

You can read and download the entire text of the poem here, though better still buy an old hardback copy. They are very cheap and still widely available.

My reading of each of the episodes can be found through the links below and you will find, on my podomatic page, that I have also given a brief introduction to each book. I have left the settings so that the episodes can be downloaded, so you can listen to them off line or even, if you wish, burn them to a cd and use them to while away the hours on long car journeys! I hope you enjoy them, let me know what you think.

The Ballad of the White Horse, read by Malcolm Guite:

The Dedication

Book I The Vision of the King

Book II The Gathering of the Chiefs

Book III The Harp of Alfred

Book IV The Woman in the Forest

Book V Ethandune: The First Stroke

Book VI Ethandune: The Slaying of the Chiefs

Book VII Ethandune: The Last Charge

Book VIII The Scouring of the Horse

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‘Like A Green Olive Tree’: A Response to Psalm 52

After the astringency, the release and restoration of Psalm 51 the Psalter returns us to the image with which the whole collection opens: a green and flourishing tree deeply rooted in the goodness of God himself, and this time it is specifically an Olive Tree, the sign of peace and healing, of God’s deepest Shalom. We arrive at this image of the tree at the end of psalm 52 by way of contrast with the vain boasting of the tyrant, whom, in the end, God will ‘laugh to scorn’. My poem also mentions the tyrant in passing (for he is passing!) but begins and ends with the beautiful tree.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

LII Quid gloriaris?

Of all your loving God has done for you,
Of all his many mercies on your soul,
Surely the greatest was his planting you

Like a green olive tree, secure and whole,
To grow within his holy house forever.
Be rooted once again in the rich soil

Of his deep love, and know that none can sever,
No power on earth can ever separate
You from the steadfast love of Christ your saviour.

So let the tyrants boast. Their desperate
Endeavours to maintain their Godless power
Will come to nothing soon, evaporate

Like morning mist before the sun. The hour
Is coming and has come. Their time is up,
But you will flourish in God’s house forever.

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‘He Mends Your Broken Bones’ a Response to Psalm 51

In our poetic journey through the psalms we come now to psalm 51, the great psalm of David’s repentance and renewal, and so also of ours. From the time these words helped David to confess his sin and come back to God to be cleansed, indeed, remade in his grace they have also provided very generation with the words of return, the courage of honesty, the promise and achievement of a new beginning. For those of us who encounter and pray the psalms in our liturgy, those of us for whom each psalm is still a song, the words of this psalm are inextricably linked with the astringent beauty of Allegri’s setting of the Miserere which we here sung always on Ash Wednesday but also on other occasions when we need it, and my poetic response is both to the psalm itself and to Allegri’s beautiful setting of it.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

LI Miserere mei, Deus

LI Miserere mei, Deus

 

He calls you to discern his time and season.

The sempiternal season of his mercy

Lifts like the sun above your dark horizon.

 

Expose your darkness, sing your miserere,

His light will judge, and judging, heal your sin.

Then bathe in sheer beauty, as Allegri

 

Sounds out your penitence, and let Christ clean

Your soul once more and scrub out every stain

Washing you thoroughly. For he has seen

 

What you confess and what you hide. Again

He mends your broken bones and makes for you

A clean heart, comes to comfort you again,

 

Comes with his Holy Spirit to renew

The spirit in you, calling you to sing

Of all your loving God has done for you.

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