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.
It is St. George’s Day and as the feast day comes up my thoughts turn again to Hatley St. George. If St. George, as our patron saint, inspires English patriotism, then I’d say my own patriotism is not about wrapping one political party or another in the flag,it is certainly not about ‘Brexit, whichever way that goes, but rather it is about loving the little particularites of my native land. Not the big nationalist rhetoric or the aggrandising imperial history, but the patchwork of little parishes and quiet shires. That’s one of the reasons why I love little mediaeval church dedicated to St. George in the village of Hatley St. George, not far from here.
Though the church goes back to the fourteenth century , in the late sixties it suffered the apparent misfortune of a collapse in its sanctuary which was declared unsafe and taken down. A new east wall was built but the architects had the wisdom to set in the new east window an arch of clear glass. For beyond that window, across the still sacred space of what had been choir and sanctuary, stands the most beautiful beech tree, which church-goers can see now in all its glory , through the changing seasons, simmering above their altar.
It’s a magical place, but like many such, struggling for survival and recognition. I originally wrote this poem both to celebrate the church and to help raise funds for its mantenance. Do visit it if you can and support those who are working for its upkeep. One of the congregation has written this poem out in beautiful calligraphy and it is hanging on the wall there, and each summer I go and read it aloud for them as part of their summer fete. This poem is in my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop.
You can listen to me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. As you listen you will also hear the scatter of bright birdsong which lifted the early April morning where I read the poem in my little writing hut ‘The Temple of Peace’
Stand here a while and drink the silence in.
Where clear glass lets in living light to touch
And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green
Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.
You look across an absent sanctuary;
No walls or roof, just holy, open space,
Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech
God planted here before you first drew breath.
Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
You cannot stand as long and still as these;
This ancient beech and still more ancient church.
So let them stand, as they have stood, for you.
Let them disclose their gifts of time and place,
A secret kept for you through all these years.
Open your eyes. This empty church is full,
Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.
Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
Shields of forgotten chivalry, and rolls
Of honour for the young men gunned at Ypres,
And other monuments of our brief lives
Stand for the presence here of saints and souls
Who stood where you stand, to be blessed like you;
Clouds of witness to unclouded light
Shining this moment, in this place for you.
Stand here awhile and drink their silence in.
Annealed in glass, the twelve Apostles stand
And each of them is keeping faith for you.
This roof is held aloft, to give you space,
By graceful angels praying night and day
That you might hear some rumour of their flight
That you might feel the flicker of a wing
And let your heart fly free at last in prayer.
Here is another week’s worth of recordings in which I read the poems I selected in my anthology for Lent The Word in the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy these recordings, just click on the title of the poem or the ‘play’ button if it appears. Once again I am grateful to Lancia Smith for providing the two lovely images to go with this week’s readings.
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.
A Stone Cold Jonah Image by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo taken from the Tablet
In my last post I mentioned a new sequence of poems written in response to George Herbert’s beautiful poem Prayer. , saying ‘I have long felt that each of the twenty-seven images and metaphor for prayer in that exquisite sonnet could itself be the seed and beginning of a new poem and so I have decided to make my own twenty-seven sonnet response to his masterpiece’. Prompted by the fact that it is World Mental Health Day I thought I would post another these sonnets. This time responding to Herbert’s line ‘The Christian Plummet, sounding heaven and earth’. Herbert is referring to the plummet or sounding line used on ships to measure the depth below the keel, lowered into the waves on a marked line and then hauled up so that the linesman could tell the helmsman what depth he had below his keel. In my own poem thought I delft moved to imagine things from the point of view of the plummet and to see my own and other people’s experience of what it is suddenly to plummet down in the light of prayer. I especially responded to seeing the words ‘Christian’ and ‘plummet’ together. Some Christians can give you the impression that unless your constantly cheerful you’re not a true believer or haven’t ‘heard the gospel’, as though Jesus had never endured the agony in the garden. But it’s my conviction that a person is just as much a Christian when they are plummeting down and sounding depths others may not know than when they are cheerful.I hope this poem may help those who have had similar experiences of plummeting. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’button.
August the 11th is the day the church remembers with thanksgiving the life and witness of St. Clare. She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.
Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”
So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on how the meaning of her name, ‘light and clarity’, was also the meaning of her life. This sonnet is taken from The Singing Bowl , which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.