Tag Archives: literature

God Speed the Plough

As it is Plough Monday I thought I’d post a little piece from my new book ‘In Every Corner Sing’ about taking part in the blessing of a plough. This piece was originally published last year in my ChurchTimes ‘Poet’s Corner’ column, but now all those pieces have been gathered together in a nice little hardback book which you can get directly from Canterbury Press, from Amazon, or of course from your own local bookshop! I hope this little extract gives you a flavour of what’s in it.

God Speed the Plough

Last Sunday I was called on, in my capacity as poet, to assist at the blessing of a plough on an old hill farm in Essex. I had driven through winding and increasingly narrow and shadowed lanes, past quickset hedgerows, and up the steep farm track, admiring the rambling old farmhouse, which seemed pieced together from every period in the last four hundred years, yet still at home with itself. But this was no quaint exercise in picturesque nostalgia, blessing the rusted wings and single blade of some hand-guided horse-drawn plough that hadn’t seen service in years (though there was just such a plough in the barn). The plough we were blessing meant business! It was a great long apparatus of paired bright sharp circular blades, capable of churning through the earth as efficiently as the old ‘screw steamers’ churned the ocean, and yoked behind an enormous modern tractor.

Yes, there had been a sense of tradition and continuity in the service; I had read Heaney’s poem ‘The Follower’, with its lovely opening:

My Father worked with a horse plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow

and the farmer himself had a display in one of his barns of relics and artifacts from the continuous human flourishing on his acres since Roman times, but for now we all stood in the muddy farmyard in our wellies, ready to bless today’s hi-tech farm machinery, the present labour, the contemporary human flourishing. And just before she came to bless the plough itself the priest asked everyone gathered there to bring forward and hold beside it the implements of their own work; and gardeners came with trowels, a man who had been coppicing the woods and laying hedges that morning came forward with a bright-bladed axe and the other fascinating tools of his trade, children held out model tractors, and, taken by surprise, I held out my pen.

‘Let us each offer to God in our hearts our own work’ she said,

‘God Speed the Plough!’ and ‘God Speed the Plough!’ was our response.

Afterwards I read them my sonnet ‘Daily Bread’ which remembers

The ones who plough and sow

Who pick and plant and package as we sleep

With slow back-breaking labour, row by row

And send away to others all they reap,

We know that these unseen who meet our needs

Are all themselves the fingers of your hand…

What if we glimpsed you daily in their toil

And found and thanked and served you through them all?

I don’t know what the theologians and the philosophers would say had happened there, how they would discern the difference a blessing makes, but I do know that somehow that farmer would turn the soil of God’s good ground with a renewed sense of blessing, and the gardeners return to their gardens with a new awareness, for I felt it too.  When I had come home, washed the mud from my boots, and was sitting at my desk, that plough-blessed pen poised in hand, I had some sense of a difference made, some sense that with this pen, like Heaney before me, I might dig a little deeper.

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Patterns (Tree and Leaf) a poem about Tolkien

As today is Tolkien’s Birthday I thought I’d post this poem which was inspired by my memory of having once seen a grainy photograph of Tolkien leaning back into a tree contentedly and smoking his pipe, – something I quite often do myself. The memory of that image led me on to a reverie about life and leaves and Tolkien’s tree of tales. But when I came to look for the photo, to illustrate the poem here, I found that no single image answered to my remembered photo – but these two are closest – perhaps I had fused them together in my mind. At any rate here is the poem, which I included in my book ‘The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press

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


Patterns (Tree and Leaf)

Tolkien is leaning back into an oak
Old, gnarled, distinct in bole and burr
As, from the burr and bowl of his old pipe,
Packed with tightly patterned shreds of leaf,
The smoke ascends in rings and wreathes of air
To catch the autumn light and meet such leaves
As circle through its wreathes and patter down
In patterns of their own to the rich ground.

He contemplates again the tree of tales;
The roots of language and its rings of growth
‘The tongue and tale and teller all coeval’
And he becomes a pattern making patterns,
A tale telling tales and turning leaves,
From the print of thumb and finger on his pipe
To the print and press and pattern of his books
And all their prints and imprints in our minds
Out to this grainy patterned photograph
Of ‘Tolkien, leaning back into an oak’.

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Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For January 3rd in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc. I have chosen it for this run-up towards Epiphany because it is essentially a series of little epiphanies, or ‘showings’; in each of the three pictures themselves pictures of moments of ‘epiphanies’ or ‘showings forth’ of the glory of God in scripture.

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:

The poem we consider today is about ‘courtesy’, not a word that we attribute easily these days except if we are complaining that someone lacks ‘common courtesy’. As I reflected on this poem I was taken back to my childhood when I was at a convent boarding school. I loved going to the convent chapel and kneeling to pray. I remember thinking how inadequate I was to do this, unlike the professional nuns whose prayers I considered far more powerful than my own mute and rather unhappy attempts.

I have since learned that God will inhabit the tiniest space we make for Him. Even our most feeble turning towards Him will make the angels of heaven hold their breath in excitement. Recently I read the words of a Rabbi who said, when the child of God walks down the road a thousand angels go before her crying, ‘Make way for the image of God!

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

Courtesy   Hilaire Belloc

 

Of Courtesy, it is much less

Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,

Yet in my Walks it seems to me

That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

 

On Monks I did in Storrington fall,

They took me straight into their Hall;

I saw Three Pictures on a wall,

And Courtesy was in them all.

 

The first the Annunciation;

The second the Visitation;

The third the Consolation,

Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

 

The first was of St. Gabriel;

On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;

And as he went upon one knee

He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

 

Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –

It was Her month of heavy load;

Yet was her face both great and kind,

For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

 

The third it was our Little Lord,

Whom all the Kings in arms adored;

He was so small you could not see

His large intent of Courtesy.

 

Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,

Go bless you, People, one by one;

My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

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New Year’s Day Tennyson’s ‘Wild Bells’

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s Day in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read another section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the famous and beautiful section about ringing out the old and ringing in the new which finishes with a vision of the true Advent, ‘the Christ that is to be’.

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:

I have to confess that I don’t remember ever enjoying New Years Day. I always have the feeling that I am an unprepared host for this important guest, who, instead of finding my house with the bed made up and a roaring fire, discovers me amid the accumulated dross of previous revelry. The image I made does not reflect the hope of the poem, probably because I don’t believe in the great ringing in of the new – I don’t see it happening in the world.

What I can believe in, is that Christ can ring in me and in you. Annie Dillard, the American author and poet says, ‘I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.’ And so to the extent we ring for Christ, we also ring for the world.

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

You can also hear Alana Levandoski turning these verses into a lovely song on this youtube page:


In Memoriam CVI   Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

 

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

 

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

 

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

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.

 

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For Luci Shaw on her Birthday

Luci Shaw

Luci Shaw

Here is a sonnet I wrote for the wonderful American poet Luci Shaw, celebrating her birthday to day, December the 29th. Readers of my anthology Waiting on the Word will have read her brilliant poem Kenosis, and she also has poems in my book Love Remember. She is the author offer thirteen volumes of poetry highly prized for their lucid style, close observation of nature, and the beautiful way in which she evokes rich spiritual truth in and through her particular attention to earthly detail. She was very encouraging to me when I was first publishing my own poems and my first poem in an American Journal was one she chose for Radix, of which she is poetry editor. I hope the following sonnet will give you some idea of the qualities I most admire in her work, and, Luci, I hope you are pleased with it.

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

For Luci Shaw on her birthday

 

Luci I love the gift you have for green:

Green fingers in your garden, a green art

In writing too, a feel for life and growth,

Kindly encouragement and yet a keen

Eye for the form, for what needs weeding out

To give a poem room to breathe and grow.

I sense your patience when that growth is slow,

Knowing that slow growth bears a fuller fruit.

 

I love your eye for detail too, the rich

Particularity of earthy things,

The way you strike the right note till it sings,

And all you have withheld is within reach;

The poem opens for us, and makes room

For fleeting apprehensions to come home.

Hellebores, in Luci's front garden

Hellebores, in Luci’s front garden

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For Our Lady of Guadelupe by Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe - given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe – given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

For today’s poem in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word we return to the poet Grevel Lindop with an honest meditation on a visit to Mexico entitled ‘For our Lady of Guadelupe’. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. After the Waiting on the Word anthology was published, for which Grevel had kindly given me permission to include this poem,  we met up and he actually gave me  the image he had bought on his visit and which is part of the subject of the poem and of my reflections on it. I was very moved by the gift and the little statue sits on my desk, so as Linda had not done an image for today I have included a photo of it here.  As I wrote about that statue in the commentary:

We know too, from this first verse, that this mind-changing journey is one the poet himself has to make himself. Those lines,

where I will buy her plastic image later

garish, I hope, and cheap,

 

are highly significant, implying that when he first arrived he might have disdained the stalls of plastic images. It is only after his actual encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe that he understands their value and comes back to buy one….What we learn on the journey of this poem is that the devotion of the poor may transfigure cracked and broken, even poor and shoddy material more effectively than the finesse and fine taste of the sceptical rich

You can find the whole of my 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

For Our Lady of Guadelupe

 

The taxi windscreen’s broken,

lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:

signature of a stone from the Oaxaca road.

It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls

where I will buy her plastic image later –

garish, I hope, and cheap,

for kitsch is authenticity.

 

A jagged rift of space

splits the old basilica’s perfect Baroque,

an intricately-cracked stone egg

atilt on sliding subsoil where the Aztec

city’s lake was carelessly filled in.

Crowds pass its listing shell without a glance,

heading for the concrete-and-stained-glass

 

swirl that mimics

Juan Diego’s cloak, where she appeared

and painted her own image on the fabric

to show sceptical bishops

how perfect love could visit a poor Indian

after the wars, and fill his cloak with roses.

Now the cloak’s under glass behind the altar.

 

A priest celebrates Mass,

but we walk round the side

to queue for the moving pavement that will take us closer,

its mechanical glide into the dark

floating us past the sacred cloth

and her miraculous, soft, downcast gaze:

not Spanish and not Indian but both,

 

lovely mestiza Virgin, reconciler

who stands against the flashbulbs’ irregular

pizzicato of exploding stars,

and while we slide on interlocking steel

opens for us her mantle, from which roses

pour and pour in torrents, like blood

from a wound that may never be healed.

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Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

image by Linda richardson

image by Linda richardson

Merry Christmas! In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Day is a substantial extract from ‘Ode on the Moring of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created byLinda Richardson.Linda writes:

It is Christmas day and the poem recalls to my mind, all the beautiful images we have of Christmas. One of my favourites is the Magi. Perhaps it is because, of all the Christmas characters, they are very aware of what they are doing. They have travelled a long way and a great distance to worship a King. These are the Christmas ‘professionals’, the seers and Wise Men who have come prepared with gifts and acts of worship. As they reach their goal their faces are lit up with the light of the Holy Family.

I wonder where you would place yourself among the Christmas characters? Are you a prepared, professional with a worshipping heart? Perhaps you are like the shepherds and Christmas rolls right over you leaving you rather baffled and scratching your head. Perhaps you are an angel…perhaps you are a sheep. Whatever you feel you are, there is a place for all of us at the manger.

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

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

This is the month, and this the happy morn,

Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King,

Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

 

That glorious form, that light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,

Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table

To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,

He laid aside; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the courts of everlasting day,

And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

 

Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein

Afford a present to the Infant God?

Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,

To welcome him to this his new abode,

Now while the heaven, by the sun’s team untrod,

Hath took no print of the approaching light,

And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

 

See, how from far, upon the eastern road,

The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet:

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,

And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,

From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

 

THE HYMN.

It was the winter wild,

While the heaven-born child

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature, in awe to him,

Had doff’d her gaudy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize:

It was no season then for her

To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

 

Only with speeches fair

She wooes the gentle air

To hide her guilty front with innocent snow;

And on her naked shame,

Pollute with sinful blame,

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;

Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes

Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

 

But he, her fears to cease,

Sent down the meek-ey’d Peace;

She, crown’d with olives green, came softly sliding

Down through the turning sphere,

His ready harbinger,

With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;

And, waving wide her myrtle wand,

She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.

 

Nor war, or battle’s sound,

Was heard the world around:

The idle spear and shield were high up hung;

The hooked chariot stood

Unstain’d with hostile blood;

The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;

And kings sat still with awful eye,

As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

 

But peaceful was the night,

Wherein the Prince of light

His reign of Peace upon the earth began:

The winds, with wonder whist,

Smoothly the waters kiss,

Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,

Who now hath quite forgot to rave,

While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

 

The stars, with deep amaze,

Stand fix’d in steadfast gaze,

Bending one way their precious influence;

And will not take their flight,

For all the morning light,

Or Lucifer, that often warn’d them thence;

But in their glimmering orbs did glow,

Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

 

And, though the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

As his inferiour flame

The new-enlighten’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater sun appear

Than his bright throne, or burning axletree, could bear.

 

The shepherds on the lawn,

Or e’er the point of dawn,

Sat simply chatting in a rustick row;

Full little thought they then,

That the mighty Pan

Was kindly come to live with them below;

Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,

Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.

 

When such musick sweet

Their hearts and ears did greet,

As never was by mortal finger strook;

Divinely-warbled voice

Answering the stringed noise,

As all their souls in blissful rapture took:

The air, such pleasure loth to lose,

With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

 

Nature that heard such sound,

Beneath the hollow round

Of Cynthia’s seat, the aery region thrilling,

Now was almost won

To think her part was done,

And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;

She knew such harmony alone

Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.

 

At last surrounds their sight

A globe of circular light,

That with long beams the shamefac’d night array’d;

The helmed Cherubim,

And sworded Seraphim,

Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d,

Harping in loud and solemn quire,

With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s new-born Heir.

 

Such musick (as ‘tis said)

Before was never made,

But when of old the sons of morning sung,

While the Creator Great

His constellations set,

And the well-balanc’d world on hinges hung;

And cast the dark foundations deep,

And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

 

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,

Once bless our human ears,

If ye have power to touch our senses so;

And let your silver chime Move in melodious time;

And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow;

And, with your ninefold harmony,

Make up full consort to the angelick symphony.

 

For, if such holy song

Enwrap our fancy long,

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;

And speckled Vanity

Will sicken soon and die,

And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;

And Hell itself will pass away,

And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

 

Yea, Truth and Justice then

Will down return to men,

Orb’d in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,

Mercy will sit between,

Thron’d in celestial sheen,

With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;

And Heaven, as at some festival,

Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall …

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