Tag Archives: writing

Entertaining Words: a sonnet about writing

What happens when I'm writing

What happens when I’m writing

As I make changes in my life to make more room for writing I have been reflecting on the process of writing itself, and particularly on what is happening when I write poetry. I want to resist the popular image of the writer as a lonely isolated ‘creative’  somehow making it all up and achieving it by themselves. It seems to me we all receive an inheritance of language, insights, images and ideas, which we in our turn, take and shape and pass on, that all writing is part of a collaboration, a collective human effort to articulate, explore and celebrate the miracle and mystery of our being here. This is especially true of language itself: every word we use has been used, enriched and nuanced by someone else before us. I take great comfort from the fact that all the words I use are older and wiser than I am, and I sometimes think it’s my task not so much to impose myself on the words that come to me as I start writing, as to welcome them, make them comfortable, listen to what they have to say, and ask them if there are other words,friends of theirs, who might like to join the party. My task as a poet, thinking of form and arranging lines and rhymes, is not so much that of a general imposing order as that of a genial host, arranging the places at a dinner party with a view to eliciting the best conversation from his guests. As usual I found that these thoughts and the words that went with them began to arrange themselves in the form of a poem, which I have called Hospitality. As this is a season in which many of us will be extending hospitality to friends and family, I thought it might be a good time to post it.

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

Hospitality

 

I turn a certain key within its wards,

Unlock my doors and set them open wide

To entertain a company of words.

Whilst some come early and with eager stride

Others must be enticed and coaxed a little,

The shy and rare, unused to company,

Who’ll need some time to feel at home and settle.

I bid them welcome all, I make them free

Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me,

I set them in the order they like best

And listen for their wisdom, try to learn

As each unfolds the other’s mystery.

And though we know each word is my free guest,

They sometimes leave a poem in return.

 

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‘Sing yourself to where the singing comes from’: Remembering Seamus Heaney

With Seamus Heaney at Little Gidding

With Seamus Heaney at Little Gidding

I dont know where to start, or how to say how much I owe this man. I have celebrated his verse extensively in my book Faith Hope and Poetry which concludes with a chapter setting out the way in which his poetry redresses a lost balance in our culture and enables a new vision of truth through the lens of imagination, but that was public academic discourse, just briefly today I want to be entirely personal.

I heard the news of his death at lunchtime today as I stood in a queue for coffee in a Cambridge Cafe, and found by the time I got to the front of the queue that I was blinded with tears. I thought he would live on to a long rich old age like his friend and fellow visionary Czeslaw Milosz, I looked forward to a rich harvest of that Late Ripeness he so praised in his friend Brian Friel, I didn’t know as I stood in line, shocked, that it would feel like such a personal bereavement.

But I should have known. I began to read his poetry in 1974 when  I was 17, a year of recovery from darkness, and a year self discovery for me, his words ‘I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’ had become part of my own call as a poet, those phrases from ‘Exposure’: ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful’ and ‘feeling every wind that blows’ helped me understand who I was called to be. And from that day to this each new book has been taken deep down inside and formed part of the texture of my being, part of the music of what happens, the music I never would have known to listen for.

I heard him read in Cambridge many times, and in 1996 a reading of his poem ‘The Rainstick’ produced a sudden epiphany in me which crystallised what I had begun to feel about faith and poetry, about the relationship between theology and the arts, and slowly, in the midst of pressing parish life, I began to wonder if I could write something. Then in 2002 came a life-changing encounter. A friend had been asked to interview him for the Shropshire Star on the occasion of his being awarded the Wilfred Owen Memorial prize and asked if I would come over to Shrewsbury and give her a crash course in Heaney! I obliged, but when it came to it she asked if I would step into the breach and do the interview. We got to the hotel early and were sitting in the deserted bar when the man himself arrived, also early, and came over to join us. soon the interview, which was full of his rich phrasing and deep appreciation of Wilfred Owen, was lost in a wider, longer, deeper conversation about poetry itself, about the heart of things, about Dante, which really kindled him, as he saw it kindled me, and then, amazingly, he turned the conversation back on me. He became the questioner, wanted to know how poetry fitted with my vocation as priest, probed me about my deepest things, and I found myself opening things I scarcely admitted were there; the longing to spread wings, the desire to take the gospel, as I understood it, outside the confines of the church and religious language, the urge to write, to take risks, but could I? should I? how free was I really? After we’d wrapped things up, and there had been the dinner and the prize-giving and his speech, he took up my copy of ‘Opened Ground’ and signed it, but it wasn’t until I got home that I saw what he had written:

‘To Malcolm, with high regard: “Walk on air against your better judgement” Seamus Heaney’

It was a moment of confirmation and release into a new understanding of my vocation, and a new daring. That phrase he quoted (from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech) has become a kind of watchword, and the unexpected spacewalk of this parish priest, the books, the songs, the poems, all owe something to a gift of wings that day.

his dedication in the flyleaf of my 'Opened Ground'

his dedication in the flyleaf of my ‘Opened Ground’

One consequence of my walking on air was that I somehow ended up helping to start and continue the TS Eliot Festival in Little Gidding and in 2002 Heaney came, not only to read Eliot’s poem aloud for us but also, to my intense delight, to read the gospel for me and when I preached on the text ‘ Why this is the very gate of heaven’ he embraced me afterwards and said, ‘Malcolm, that wasn’t just a sermon, it was an Action’. again a kind of confirmation. And I’m sure my story here is just one example amongst countless of his extraordinary humility, his keen ear, his discernment, his attention to others, the way he wore his fame and distinction so lightly, the way he homed in on and cared for always and only the particular and little spark, the kernel of truth in front of him.

In his poem ‘At The Wellhead’ he encourages a singer, saying ‘Sing yourself to where he singing comes from’.  Now this great soul, the greatest singer of our age, has come home to where the singing comes from.

 

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On Writing poetry

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A Note to my self and my fellow writers:

On writing poetry

To begin a poem you must know that everything is possible, all images are available, metaphor is everywhere, every word, known or unknown, is at your disposal. To finish a poem you must discover that only one form is possible, and at each moment, one metaphor, one image, one particular word, and one only will do. You begin in absolute and passive openness, you end in absolute and particular concentration. You open with availability, You finish with fidelity.

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GK Chesterton; Natural-Born Blogger!

GKC wearing that hat!

If GK Chesterton had been born in my generation he would have been a natural-born blogger! As it is, he invented blogging before his time and used the best technology availabe to get his brief, pithy, brilliant posts out there.

Let me explain. Chesterton published a regular series of short, topical thought-provoking essays  in all kinds of journals and newspapers, and towards the end of his life, when he was too hot for some big publishing house to handle, in his own paper GK’s Weekly.  But what makes him  a natural born blogger is the ways he approached the task.  In the preface to Tremendous Trifles, a collection of some of his very best, he says something that will ring bells with many bloggers about the way what he writes has to be both personal and public. He calls his writing:

“a sort of sporadic diary—a diary recording one day in twenty which happened to stick in the fancy—the only kind of diary the author has ever been able to keep. Even that diary he could only keep by keeping it in public, for bread and cheese.”
Now what’happens to stick in his fancy’ is always a particular thing, an object, an image, a visual clue, something that catches the eye and opens the mind’s eye. He explains his approach like this:
“As the reader’s eye strays, with hearty relief, from these pages, it probably alights on something, a bed-post or a lamp-post, a window blind or a wall. It is a thousand to one that the reader is looking at something that he has never seen: that is, never realised.”
Chesterton wonders whether by writing he might help us to see, whether he
“could not write an essay on such a post or wall… even write the synopsis of an essay; as “The Bed-Post; Its Significance—Security Essential to Idea of Sleep—Night Felt as Infinite—Need of Monumental Architecture,” and so on…. [or] sketch in outline his theoretic attitude towards window-blinds, even in the form of a summary. “The Window-Blind—Its Analogy to the Curtain and Veil—Is Modesty Natural?—Worship of and Avoidance of the Sun, etc., etc.”
Then he addresses his readers in an inspiring call to work at seeing, in a passage which I think should be written in gold letters above every blogger’s desk ( or on the wallpaper of their iPad!):
“None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests. But don’t let us let the eye rest. Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud. I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.”
Well in what follows I am going to try! GKC keeps his promise in Tremendous Trifles and ‘blogs’ about stray cats and coloured clouds, about a piece of chalk, the contents of his pockets,  a man running after his hat, a magical toy theatre. These  were all glorious starting places, all portals and gateways into wider realms.
And with his help I am going to do the same.
A Secret Revealed
For now it is time for me to reveal a wonderful secret. These treasures, these starting places, these tactile little nuggets of his life, have not been lost. I have held in my hand the piece of chalk he picked up from white horse down:

The chalk he picked up from White Horse Vale, the pen with which he wrote the poem!

 and the pen with which he wrote the Ballad of the White Horse! I have worn the hat that so often blew and flew from a head so full of ideas!

Yours truly wearing that hat!

I have played with the magical toy theatre of which he said:

‘All the essential morals which modern men need to learn could be deduced from this toy’

The Magical Toy Theatre!

 I am one of the stewards and guardians of these treasures for the Chesterton Library Trust, and at last  we have the good news that these wonderful things, together with a library of Chesterton’s personal books, full of his annotations,will soon be properly housed, displayed and available for people to see! In my next post I will tell you the story of these treasures, the trust we have formed to  look after them, and where they will soon be housed and displayed.
 In the meantime, by way of anticipating that display, I am going to do a series of blog posts on the very things GKC had in front of him on his desk, and about which he himself ‘blogged’, so coming soon:
A Piece Of Chalk,  A Hat To Run After, A Tale Of Two Sticks! And of course A Toy Theatre!

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Faith Hope and Poetry is out in Paperback!

Since my book Faith Hope and Poetry was published by Ashgate in the Autumn of 2010 a number of people have been asking me when, if ever, there would be a paperback version. This was both because the hardback was very expensive(£55 -their policy not mine!) and also because even the hardback sold out by the middle of last year! Well the good news is Ashgate agreed to a new paperback edition, which costs a lot less (£16.19 from their site!) and it is out now! Official publication date is March the 21st but it is actually available now both from Ashgate and from Amazon. Here is Ashgate’s own ‘flyer’ for the book, which gathers up some of the kinder things that have been said in the various reviews and also gives a link to their page. If you get to the site and the price is in the wrong currency for you then there is a button in the top right hand corner you can click to toggle between Europe and America (wouldn’t it be great if one could also toggle oneself between europe and North america at the touch of a button!) so here’s the flyer:

Faith Hope & Poetry Pbk March 2010

Faith Hope and Poetry takes you through an exploration and celebration of some of the greatest poetry in the English language, its really just me sharing my enthusiasm for these poems. But I had another purpose too. At its heart this book is a defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential but sadly under-used way of apprehending the truths we need to know to flourish as human beings I tried to sum it all up, at the end of the book, in a two paragraph conclusion and I am going to paste that in here, the final words of the whole book, to give you an idea of what you might be in for if you decide to read it:

Conclusion

This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears.  In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it.  We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity.  For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God.  Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’.  Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown.  Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.

This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.

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