I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I have been working on a new book called ‘After Prayer’ which will come out with Canterbury Press in late October, and you can see above a little preview of it’s lovely cover.
The title sequence is a series of sonnets written in response to Herbert’s poem Prayer, and as I say in the preface to the book:
I learnt many things by doing this, but perhaps the most telling was the discovery that Prayer is not a random compendium, but rather a soul-story, a spiritual journey. Usually the images flash by us so fast in such dazzling array that we have scarcely time to consider their order, their narrative arc. But by slowing the poem down and reflecting on each image both in itself and in its place in the sequence I found myself taken on a journey from the feasting and fecundity of the opening image of the Church’s Banquet, through mystery and variety and then, with the Christian plummet,down into unsounded depths and uncharted waters, into the painful battle fields and the wounded places of engine against the almightie, sinners tower, Christ-side-piercing spear, and then eventually up again through a kind of chastened recovery, a training of the ear to hear new music, a kind of tune,until one glimpsed the bird of paradise and caught the scent of the land of spices, until one was brought at least to the brink of something understood. The journey, I soon realised, was not just Herbert’s but had, necessarily, to be mine as well. And I found that, paradoxically, by following Herbert’s trajectory so closely I was also enabled to recognise and tell something of my own story too.
So every so often I will be posting some poems from the new collection to give you an idea of what’s in store. So here is the opening poem of the sequence, reflecting on Herbert’s opening image: ‘Prayer the church’s banquet’. As usual you can hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.
The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith
Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.
But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’e beautiful poem The Incarnate One
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.
In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.
So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.
This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.
You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice
On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today, on his Feast Day, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.
You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon
I will also take this opportunity to announce that earlier this year I signed the contract for my next poetry book with Canterbury Press and it should be out this October. It will be called ‘After Prayer’ and it’s centrepiece will be an entirely new sequence responding to George Herbert’s seminal poem ‘Prayer’. I have taken each of the 27 images in that poem as the seed or starting point for a new poem and written a sequence of 27 sonnets. In the next few weeks I shall be posting one or two of them on this blog as ‘tasters’ of the forthcoming book. Meanwhile here is the sonnet I wrote in appreciation of Herbert himself:
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
On New Year’s Eve groups of church bell ringers will gather all over the world to pray, and reflect, and to ring in the new year. They will be participating in a long tradition. George Herbert imagined Prayer itself as ‘Church Bells beyond the stars heard’ and the great turning point in In Memoriam, Tennyson’s great exploration of time and eternity, mortality and resurrection, doubt and faith, comes with the ringing of bells for the new year and his famous and beautiful lines beginning ‘Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,’ and concluding:
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.
(For more of this passage and my talks on Tennyson click Here)
I love to hear church bells ring in the New Year and so I have made my own small contribution to the poetry and meaning of bell ringing in the following sonnet, which is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’
Sounding the Seasons and my other poetry books are available from Amazon or on order from your local bookstore, or direct from the publisher here
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I am working on a new sonnet sequence responding to each I turn of the twenty-seven images in George Herbert’s glorious sonnet ‘Prayer’, and today I have come as far as ‘The Milky Way’, the twenty-second image. I have thought a little of what made the Milky Way an emblem of prayer for Herbert, but I have also availed myself of images he could never have seen, but would have loved: the glorious pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. So here, in a dark time of year, but as part of the glory of the twelve days of Christmas is something that might offer us all a little burst of light and colour. I hope you enjoy it. As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking the title or the ‘play’ button.
In my Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 30th, is Christmas (1) , a remarkable sonnet by George Herbert in which he imagines discovering Jesus in a local Inn. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:
If you are feeling over indulged and replete with food and drink, this is the poem for you. Once again we return to the truth that even while we are far off, perhaps like the prodigal son, eating, drinking and over indulging, there is always a summons to examine our conscience, to look beyond the ‘fling and bling’, as Malcolm often describes this aspect of Christmas. The image for today is a very simple watercolour: a lone figure walks towards a simple shelter from which a radiant light emanates. The light comes from above and radiates out of the shelter where Christ is born, towards the figure. The figure walks towards the light, leaving behind a long dark shadow.
The history of the people of the Bible and of Christianity is stained by the corrupt idea that God is like us, full of disapproval and ready to punish. This idea keeps us away from God and we might even think that we are so bad, we might as well be a little more bad because truly, we have blown it with God. This is our ego talking, and if we listen to it we will find only self blame, self punishment and self loathing. The image tells us that we can turn at any moment and walk into the mystery of love and presence. It is not for us to perfect ourselves before we turn, God is the one who redeems. ‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)
You can find 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 As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button