Online Conversation | A New Year With The Word with Malcolm Guite

We started the new year with an exploration of the word — the Word made flesh, and the words we use each day. Why are words so central for God’s design for our world? Can the creative acts of speaking and writing provide a window into what it means to be created in the image of God? And in these times, in which words often seem to be devalued, is there a place for the slow, deep language of poetry?

Malcolm Guite, poet, Anglican priest, and scholar, joined us for our 100th Online Conversation on January 5, to begin our new year of conversation together.

See Malcolm’s guide: Five Ways into Reading Poetry  

Online Conversation | Malcolm Guite | January 5, 2024

Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Campbell, and I’ll just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Malcolm Guite on “A New Year with the Word.” On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, happy new year to you, and we’re so glad that you’re joining us. I’ll just add my own thanks to Scott and Patti Hardman for your generous sponsorship of today’s program, and we’re delighted that so many of you—over 1,800—have registered for today’s Online Conversation. I’ll add a special welcome to our more than 200 first-time guests and 266 international registrants from at least 34 different countries that we know of, ranging from Gibraltar and Grenada to Romania and Rwanda. And I understand that we have an especially large and lively crew joining us from our guest’s home country of England with several watch parties that we know of going on in both York and Oxford. So thank you to all of you for tuning in across the miles and across the time zones.

Today’s Online Conversation is a bit of a milestone for us. It is our 100th Online Conversation, and for those of you who have been with us from the very beginning, you’ll know that we started these at the very outset of the pandemic as a way to try to find ways to continue our mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought at a time when our office was shut down and in-person gathering was impossible. Since then, we’ve hosted these Online Conversations ranging on topics from hospitality to strangers and refugees, to reading for regeneration, to the Christian case for democracy. We’ve covered everything from living a tech-wise life to dying well, practicing gratitude, and pursuing humility. And since we’ve started, more than 150,000 of you from over 100 different countries have registered for these conversations, and more than double that have tuned in and listened to these in podcast form. So as we start this new year and on the occasion of this 100th Online Conversation, we want to say a big thank you to all of you joining us for your interest, your encouragement, and your support.

So we are at the beginning of a new year that seems likely, at least here in the States, to be noisy and even nasty, awash in put-downs and propaganda, conflict and conspiracy. And so it seemed fitting, even urgent, to begin the new year in the Word, not only to reflect upon the creative and renewing power of the word made flesh, but also on the power of the words that we use. And to help us do that I am delighted to introduce our guest today, a poet, priest, and songwriter who has written beautifully of the mystery, beauty, and imaginative force of language and the ways in which the love and care for words can help us better to know and love their source and each other.

Malcolm Gate is a renowned and beloved English poet, priest, songwriter, and scholar who has been described as what you might get if John Donne journeyed to Middle Earth, taking musical cues from Jerry Garcia and fashion tips from Bilbo Baggins. He is the life-fellow at Girton College at Cambridge University, and has served more than 20 years as chaplain there, as well as teaching at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and lecturing widely across England and North America. He is the 2023 winner of the Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship, a singer-songwriter with a band Mystery Train, and a remarkably prolific poet and author who writes the weekly column Poet’s Corner, as well as producing more than a dozen books spanning works of poetry, criticism, and anthologies, including Love, Remember, Parable and Paradox, Theology and the Poetic Imagination, The Singing Bowl, Waiting on the Word, Lifting the Veil, Sounding the Seasons, and his most recent work, The Word Within the Words, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

Malcolm, welcome.

Malcolm Guite: Thank you very much for that very kind introduction. Yes. I always get the fashion tips from Bilbo Baggins. I think I’ve just been wearing sort of waistcoats all my life really. Anyway, I’m delighted to be with you again. I very much enjoyed the conversation we had some years ago. And I watch and follow the work of Trinity Forum. And it’s good to see these enclaves, as it were, in the midst of the vituperativeness and spite and slander to which you referred, that there should be enclaves of civility, of cordiality, of intellectual hospitality, where Christians actually with different views can disagree in order to find truth and in order to share it, rather than simply to score points. So it’s kind of you to have me on and to give a space and a place for poetry in the midst of your discourse.

Cherie Harder: Well, it’s always a delight to get to talk with you, Malcolm. So welcome back. We’re really glad you’re here. And as we start off, I wanted to ask you about the fact that there seem to be a number of quite famous English poets who were also priests. I’m thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne, and others. And as one who is now carrying on that tradition of being both a priest and a poet, what do you see as the connection between the two professions? And how does your work as a poet affect your understanding as a priest? And vice versa?

Malcolm Guite: Thank you. That’s a very good question. The first thing to say is I’m very relieved that I’m not the only one, as it were, that there is a tradition for me to look back to. Perhaps the most significant figure for me in that tradition is George Herbert. But you’re right. John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, more recently the Welsh priest-poet R. S. Thomas. So there is a tradition, and it makes me at least feel that this can be done. I’ve come really to feel that my priestly and poetic vocations are two sides of the same coin. But I have to say, I didn’t always think that. They were both very strong vocations. I had the vocation, as it were, the deep sense that I was called to be and wanted to be a poet—a lover and a crafter of words—before I had any sense of being called to be a priest.

In fact, the poetry came before I returned to the Christianity which I’d abandoned earlier on, in which I’d been brought up. But I did the moody, teenage rebellious thing and sort of walked away from it. And I was trying to walk into completely bleak atheism and a reductive scientific materialism. But poetry saved me from that. Poetry always breathed something beyond it. A kind of mystery which was transcendent, glimmered through poetry. And it was a mystery which I couldn’t deny. It seemed to be there even in poetry that wasn’t apparently religious. So in a sense, poetry saved me. Somebody once said that romanticism spilt religion, you know? So I was gathering up the few drops, if you like, fallen from the altar I’d abandoned, you know, in the works of the poets. And eventually, thanks be to God, I came back to that fullness of faith.

But the poetic vocation and the desire to be a poet came first. Then came the conversion to Christianity. Then a little bit after that, this nagging feeling that I might be called also to be a priest, and that took some time to discern and to realize was a true vocation. And at first I was afraid— I wondered if there was a development. I mean, I hadn’t had huge success with poetry. I’d published one or two little poems. I was finding the writing difficult, and my first thought was that perhaps what I thought of as the vocation to poetry was really a misinterpretation of the vocation to priesthood. And I set poetry aside for a while, actually, as did Hopkins, interestingly, in his priesthood, and I concentrated fully on this new vocation, and I found it deeply demanding, but deeply fulfilling. 

But I began to realize that I was doing as a priest some of the things that I wanted to do as a poet—that, if you think of a poem as a shaped pattern of words, a beautiful kind of journey from the first verse to the last that takes you through different stages and reflections and hopefully brings you out at the other end of the poem with some kind of transformation or transfigured vision or deeper wisdom or knowledge, I thought to myself, I’m doing that every week with the liturgy, especially the liturgy of the sacrament. We gather, we hear these words. It’s shaped, it’s beautiful. It has poetry in it, of course, because it has the Psalms and hymns, but it also has something that poetry longs to do but never quite does completely, which is the Word made flesh. It has God giving himself in the sacraments of bread and wine.

So for a while I thought maybe this is what I was always after. And that just to be the celebrant of a deeply poetic liturgy was itself fulfilling a kind of poetic vocation. And there was an element of that that was true. But I also, I think, like a lot of priests, perhaps particularly new in their vocations, I was working not only every hour God sent, but some several hours that God didn’t send for work, but I used for work anyway. And I was getting close to burnout. And my bishop said, “Have a break. Have three months off, do what you want. You know, pretend it’s research, write me a report, but just have a break.” And I thought, “Golly, I need poetry, I really need poetry.” And I reread huge amounts of poetry, not just Christian poetry, but all kinds of poetry. And it was like a well filling up again. I was deeply refreshed. Not only in myself, but in my faith. And I began to see how poetry—.

And around about that time I read a poem of Seamus Heaney’s, which had the line, “Read poems as prayers.” Which is a blindingly simple thing to say, but it never really occurred to me that when I was reading a poem by Keats or something, I could still feel that God the Spirit and Christ my Savior were standing beside me, as it were, reading it with me. I felt that he is the Word beneath all words anyway. So to enjoy poetry, as it were, in the divine presence, consciously in the divine presence—. And then, of course, in the case of the poems, like the Psalms or other devotional poetry, to say them to Christ suddenly brought this very beautiful dimension to the poetry. And I began to see— I mean, my fear had been, because poetry is very absorbing and time-absorbing and attention-absorbing, that if I spent time on poetry as opposed to, you know, all the work of pastoral visiting and everything—you can fill up 24 hours—that I might be, to borrow an old phrase, robbing Peter to pay Paul. That I might— I didn’t want to shortchange. You know, if I was going to shortchange anybody, I’d rather shortchange my muse than my Savior. But gradually it was borne in upon me that these things, and that a particular aspect of my priestly vocation, might be my poetic vocation. And a particular aspect of my poetry vocation might be my priestly one, that there might be something priestly or sacramental or pastoral that was distinctive about the kind of poetry that I would choose to write.

So gradually, from a little bit around the turn of the millennium, I began to bring these two halves of my vocation together. And thanks to the examples of George Herbert and John Donne and others, I began to see that these two were one, really, and that they were mutually enfolded.

And when I was making that transition, I decided to teach a little course, not at a university, but just at the local community education. And I called it “Faith, Hope, and Poetry.” And I was really interested to discover that half the people who came were dried-up and burnt-out Christians who just wanted something to feed their imagination and renew their faith. And they were interested that this was a priest doing it. But the other half were agnostics or nonbelievers who love poetry, but had always felt there was something spiritual going on there but that was never mentioned at school, and they were intrigued that there was a priest teaching a poetry course. So I had a very interesting mix. And just that, just that in itself, made me think, “Okay, I’m on to something here. I must be unashamedly a poet and unashamedly a priest, and I must be both at the same time. And that will be something I can offer.” And, you know, eventually that “Faith, Hope, and Poetry” became a book and so on. So that’s how it got going.

So now I don’t say to God, “Sorry, can I have some time off to write a sonnet?” But then I don’t say to the muse, “Okay, God’s got nothing to do with this. This is just a piece of—”. There’s a complete flow-through in both.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. You wrote it someplace, I think it was Lifting the Veil, that the way you had seen it, the whole purpose of poetry—and you can correct me if I’m wrong, I think you were paraphrasing Coleridge here—was to, I think you put it, “awaken the mind’s attention—”

Malcolm Guite: Yes.

Cherie Harder: “—and remove the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude,” which struck me in reading that, that in many ways, of course, that’s what the spiritual disciplines aim to do, is to refocus our attention and help us see more deeply. And so would love to kind of hear your further thoughts on that, the ways that you see the purpose of poetry is really perhaps even [inaudible].

Malcolm Guite: I must say immediately that those fine words which you quoted are exactly the words of Coleridge. Coleridge said that what he and Wordsworth wanted to do was to remove the film of familiarity which our selfishness and solicitude has cast over the world, and help us see, as it were, afresh the wonders in front of us, the inexhaustible depths and beauty for which we have eyes that see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand. So there’s almost clearly a spiritual purpose there. So I think Coleridge was proposing poetry as a spiritual discipline.

But I think the really interesting thing about what he says there is that the poetry is awakening the mind’s attention to the loveliness and wonders of the world before it. It’s not some merely subjective thing that’s a little private compensation for the grimness of the world. True to me, but, you know, not telling me anything about what’s out there—which is the way poetry has often been portrayed in our age, because we split everything between subjective and objective, don’t we? And subjective is all wonderful and beautiful, but doesn’t actually make any difference to the world. And objective is all the dry, hard facts, but has no values. That’s a false division and poetry is there to heal it. So Coleridge says poetry actually clarifies the way you see the world. In that sense, it’s just as important as the polished curved lens, the mirror in a telescope that lets you see the stars more clearly, that awakens your mind’s attention. You know, the Hubble telescope is itself a paradigm of poetry, puts you in a new perspective and lets you see the familiar. I don’t think there’s any quarrel between the science and the arts here, or not the sciences done really well, because both awaken a sense of wonder. So that was a really important thing for me, that you’re not going to see the whole picture.

Actually, Coleridge says that the imagination, not just the poetic imagination, but what he calls the primary imagination, is the living power and prime agent of all perception. Now, if that’s true, that if reason, if you like, analytic reason, is only one of our eyes, and a sort of synthesizing imagination that takes all the hints and joins all the dots and sees the beautiful whole and intuits what’s beyond it is the other eye, then, in a sense, the purely rationalistic, scientific world that has believed it could crush religion has only ever really been squinting at the world. And we need to open the other eye and see things whole.

And if that’s true of the way we see the world, then—and this is something very [inaudible]—it’s also true of how we come to God. God is always going to be both beyond our imagination and beyond our reason. And it’s clear that we can have vain imaginations and false imaginations, and we could make false images. And if we do, then God will break those false images and come through. You know, God is in that sense the great iconoclast. But it is equally true that Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind.” And somewhere in all those alls is all your imagination. And, in fact, when we look at the teaching of Jesus, it’s mostly an appeal to the imagination as a way of perceiving truth in a fresh way. He tells stories and parables. He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and says, “Which of these was—”, you know, in answer to the question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ which is the question that provokes the parable. He doesn’t go, “well, these people are your neighbor, but those people are beyond the pale.” He tells a story in which the person beyond the pale turns out to be the true neighbor. “Who is my neighbor?” And then he says to the lawyer, “Go and do thou likewise.” And so he tells a story not to entertain on a cozy fireside night—it may do that—but he tells it in order to transform somebody’s understanding and teach them what is actually the case.

So I think the imagination is one of the ways we come to truth. Now, that’s a paradox, because of course we think of the imagination as making stuff up and we can make stuff up. But even when we make stuff up and tell imaginary stories like Shakespeare does, lo and behold, in the midst of those imaginary stories, all kinds of true things are said. And of course, the classic example of that in Scripture is where Nathan the prophet is trying to get David to stop seeing everything as if only he counted, and he’s trying to awaken David’s moribund moral imagination. So he tells, he makes up a story, he uses his imagination, and he kindles David’s imagination. And he tells him the story about the man with the one little lamb and the neighbor with all the sheep, and how the neighbor who had all the sheep took the man’s little lamb. And David is morally outraged. He says, “Whoever that man is, we need to bring justice to him.” And of course, Nathan has the killer final line. He says, “You are the man.” Now there’s a moment of actual apprehension of moral truth, transformative apprehension of moral truth, and repentance that comes to David only as a result of an appeal to his imagination. He could have probably used reason to justify himself forever: “Well, I’m the king. I’m an exception.” But since a story is told—.

So I think the imagination, as much as reason, is there to help us get at the truth and certainly get at the meaning of things. I mean, C.S. Lewis once said that if reason is the natural organ of truth, then imagination is the organ of meaning. And there’s no point in having truth if you don’t know what it means. So I’m very much trying in some of my academic writing, but also in my poetry, to heal that breach between those two ways of knowing. And my poems sometimes are quite philosophical and appeal to reason, but they’re obviously all always works of poetic imagination. 

Cherie Harder: You know, I’m curious, as a priest, I’m sure you’ve gotten these objections because, you know, it’s not just the world out there—and certainly that’s true within the scientific community, technologically, even the world of commerce. It seems like there’s a devalued sense of knowledge that’s non-literal, non-empirical, not easily pinned down. But frankly, there’s also a strain of that within Christianity, a distrust of that which is not literal, almost like if it’s not taken literally, it’s not taken seriously. Or a distrust of nonrepresentational art or the novel and the like. As a priest, what’s lost when we discount paradox and metaphor?

Malcolm Guite: Well, I think, the first thing, I think if we happen to be in conversation with somebody who has this distrust, we should take their distrust seriously. And we should begin by saying, yes, there are dangers, but of course, there are dangers of any good thing. You know, if I give my children a spade to dig the garden with, it is possible that one of them might use the spade to bash the other over the head in a quarrel. That’s not what the spade was made for. It doesn’t mean we never do any gardening in case a spade is misused, you know? So I have to show them the right use of the spade, you know, and a better way of resolving conflict. But I’m still going to give them the spade and teach them to garden.

So God has given us this extraordinary gift of imagination. And we have to bring it to him. I mean, C.S. Lewis introduced a really interesting idea, which was a “baptized imagination,” that, like everything else, there has to be a death and a resurrection. That’s what baptism is. It’s dying to the old self and rising to the new, going down into the waters with the death of Christ and rising from them newly born. The font is the womb of the Church, as [inaudible] said. So I think imagination, like everything else, has to be let go of, given to God and then received back again. But I believe that working prayerfully and openly with the Spirit, the imagination can achieve wonderful things and help us. 

Now, the Scripture, in the old version of the Authorized Version, inveighs against “vain imaginations.” Now “vain” in that early 16th-century sense meant empty. Vanity meant emptiness. So, yeah, there is plenty of vain imaginations. You know, you don’t have to walk far from Hollywood or, you know—there’s great art out there, but there’s also completely empty, just full of hot air and leaves you completely unnourished at the end of it or, as it were, divinely disenchanted. But we all know great stories, great films, great music that suddenly open us up to the soul’s depth and height, make us realize how deep being human goes, how high it might aspire, how broad love is. And that’s what Paul is asking us to have when he prays for the Ephesians, that you may know the length and breadth and height and depth, and know the love of God which passes knowledge. We have to bring the imagination to that.

So I would say to the person, try it, trust it, bring it to God prayerfully. And don’t waste your time with artistic middle management. All the great works of the greatest minds are freely available to you. You can sit down and read Shakespeare any day you like. You can go and look at a Monet painting. You can listen to Mozart and you don’t even have to pay money or travel to a concert house. You know, it’s just streaming. You can have it. Immerse yourself in it. And, I think, once people have felt a little bit of that, then actually they can be very hungry for it because I think that at that rather narrow, fearful, mistrustful attitude in some churches—I mean, particularly at the more Protestant end—has left people with a starved imagination. And one of the things that I think Lewis has done, C.S. Lewis—because C.S. Lewis had written a great book of sound, biblically based, beautifully philosophically grounded, rational apologetics in the book Mere Christianity—lots of people in the American evangelical world rightly said, “This is a great book. Lewis is okay.” As it were. They gave him his imprimatur. And that meant that children had the joy of reading Narnia, which they might not have otherwise had the pleasure of. And then if they grew up, as I did, and ended up reading C.S. Lewis’s book about Milton, you know, or Spenser, they thought, wow, he becomes, as it were—you know, you go into his wardrobe and you find not only Narnia, but an entire library of classics that he’s written about and helped you to come to.

So I feel, in a way, or perhaps to mix metaphors, he’s a sort of Trojan horse that somehow, through Lewis, a really baptized imagination was made available to the evangelical mind—and not a moment too soon. I think the thing was drying itself out and sort of rattling like dead twigs, really. And it needed that. And I think Lewis and others provided that.

Cherie Harder: Speaking of a baptized imagination, there is a passage early in your work that I thought was lovely and wanted to ask you about, where you said it was a transformative idea for both you and your sense of theology, the idea that “we ourselves are a poem,” is the way you put it. And you said, “There’s a poet behind the world who not only speaks the world into being, but speaks us into it, and part of being made in his image is that our words too have weight and meaning and creative power.” So essentially we are poems who speak poetry, and that is also a part of the Creator. I’d just like you to talk more about that and how it affected your theology.

Malcolm Guite: That idea of being spoken into being is not some novelty. I mean, it’s right there. If you read the beginning of John and say, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Nothing was made without him. Through him all things were made.” So everything is made in something that has to be called Word or logos. Now, because that book, John’s book, begins with the words “in the beginning,” you know immediately that he’s referring you back to the beginning of Genesis, the other “in the beginning” in the Bible. And when you look at that, you see, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. Spirit of God moved.” And God said, he spoke, “Let there be light,” and there was light. You know, fiat lux. And what you see, verse by verse, is God saying something, speaking it, almost as it were, singing it, and it becomes. So, whereas when I’m writing poetry, I say some words and I hope that in your mind the words I say summon an image and the image becomes important for you as it’s important for me and filled with meaning for you, but in the end, it’s only in your mind because I can only use words. But God, who is the Word, can write poetry with things. And, in fact, the universe is one of his poems.

Now, the poet who really got that—but it’s a very biblical idea—but the poet who put it into poetry, in English poetry, particularly well was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote a poem called “Frost at Midnight” about how he would like his son grown up and who should teach his son. And he didn’t want him to be stuck in some dull school in the middle of London, you know, and just doing arithmetic. He wanted him to have a bit more than that. So he said, “Thou, my child, shall wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountains, which mirror in their bulk both clouds” and so on. A beautiful description of nature. He doesn’t say, “So shalt thou see and hear some interesting geological formations or some weather.” He says this. He says, “So shalt thou see and hear the lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language which thy God utters, who doth teach himself in all and all things in himself. Great universal teacher! He shall mold thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.” So he says these aren’t just physical phenomena to study. They are that—just as you could study the words on a page and you could, you know, do a chemical analysis of the ink my poem was written in, but you wouldn’t know it was a poem. If you then discovered it was actually a poem as well, that would add to your pleasure. It wouldn’t take away any of the scientific facts you found out about the ink, but you’d know a bit more about it. So Coleridge is saying, come on, don’t just study the world, hear the poem. And you notice he uses the present tense. He says “that eternal language which thy God utters.” God is speaking us in present because God is eternal. There’s no time that’s not present to him. So therefore right now he breathes us into being.

Now you mention I put it at the beginning of the book The Word within the Words, partly to ground the whole. My theology is grounded, if you like, in a sense, in a theology of the Word. It springs from the opening of John’s Gospel really. That’s the sort of touchpoint for me. But it also was transformative for me personally. I use a poem in there, and perhaps I can read it to you, I have a little poem called “O Sapientia,” which was a riff on— there’s a very ancient prayer, one of the so-called O antiphons, which speaks about Christ as wisdom, as the coming of wisdom into the world. And he says, “O wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things, come and teach us the way of prudence.” Now that idea of Christ, mightily and sweetly ordering all things, the writer of that, probably in the fifth or sixth century, was almost certainly thinking of the Christ hymn in Colossians, where “He is before all things. He is in the beginning. All things—.” Then he says, “In him all things hold together.” You know, that’s crucial. So I think that includes us. I think he utters us. God utters us as a poem. And I put this in this little poem called “O Sapientia.” Wisdom. A little sonnet: 

I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.

So that kind of reversing the flow, as it were, thinking, I don’t have to— there’s no point in trying to do some kind of theology where I make God up out of my own mind. That way madness lies. But what if God is speaking me? What if I’m, you know, God is making me be who I am.

Now, I came across another essentially coleridgean idea, as I say, but it’s a Johannine idea, but Coleridge gets hold of it. But there’s a wonderful story that I came across about Coleridge, where he bumped into Thomas Clarkson, who was, in fact, the founder of the Great Movement for the Abolition of Slavery. He’s the guy that recruited the more famous William Wilberforce into it. Wilberforce was more famous because he did the speeches in Parliament, because he was an MP. But it was a long struggle to change an unjust economics and law. And many times it was voted down and scandalously actually voted down by all the bishops in the House of Lords. Appalling. So at one point it’s just the sheer weariness in well-doing, if you like, you know, not compassion fatigue but this happens to a lot of people who are campaigning. They can just be exhausted by the apparent impossibility of the task. And he fell into a depression and he was up in the Lake District. He bumped into Coleridge and made friends with him. And he wrote a letter to Coleridge and said, “You’ve got to help me. I’m not just losing my faith in whether we can achieve this justice for enslaved people, but I’m losing my faith. I have no idea anymore of the divine.” And Coleridge writes back, he says, “My dear Clarkson, don’t worry about that for now, that’ll solve itself. You may have no idea of the divine, but the important thing to remember is that you yourself are a divine idea. That God is thinking of you right now, and you were in the mind of Christ before the beginning of creation where he’d say, I’m going to make Thomas Clarkson. And now he’s speaking this eternal one of who you are into time. And he has not finished saying into the world what he means by Thomas Clarkson and what Thomas Clarkson will do. He’s not finished yet. Let him finish what he has to say through you. Let him speak you. Renew yourself in him and try not to become an impediment in the speech of Christ.”

You know, that’s wonderful, you know. And that transformed me. I thought, gosh, I don’t have to lift up the world and have the weight of it on my shoulders. I don’t have to achieve anything. I just have to let God speak clearly his idea of who I am and what I’m meant to do distinctively into the world. And one of the things I think he meant for me to do was to be both a priest and a poet. And so I tried to let him do that. You know, he is the Word beneath the words with which I speak. He’s doing it. I have to let him do it and try not to get too much in the way with my moodiness and my little temper tantrums and all that stuff.

Cherie Harder: In just a moment, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. But before that I want to ask, if our words have generative power, presumably they also have degenerative power.

Malcolm Guite: Oh, yeah.

Cherie Harder: And we are certainly at a time and, well, here in the States, we’re about to embark on an election season. There is a lot of really ugly rhetoric. We’ve had national leaders refer to other people as vermin or poisoning the blood and, you know, overtly dehumanizing language. And there’s a market for that kind of thing.

Malcolm Guite: I know. It’s awful. Yeah.

Cherie Harder: And would love to hear your thoughts about, if we are ourselves poems, what is our responsibility to care for language? And how do we learn to both care for language and, as part of that, love it?

Malcolm Guite: Yeah. Well, I think we have a deep responsibility for language, because language is a distinctive thing that God has given us. God is really interested in what we do with language. It’s a very interesting moment in Genesis when he brings the animals to Adam to see what he would name them, not what God would name them, but what we would name them. You know, he’s giving us this naming power. And we can use names to bless and liberate, or we can use them to curse. And Jesus is really clear about the importance of this. He would be; he’s the Word incarnate. He’s now telling us about what words are. And, you know, famously in Matthew 12, he says, “I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof on the day of judgment. For by thy words shalt thou be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned.” You know that should be written on the top of everybody’s computer before they press send.

Now, I wonder, I don’t know, maybe time for another poem here. It was actually sparked by some really bad political rhetoric where one side was talking about targeting the other side and actually used a rifle target on the poster. Which was just wicked. I mean, there’s no other word for it. And I was spurred on to think, you know, what if we—let’s just go back to that same Jesus—what if we actually took that seriously? What if? And it was my go—it’s the nearest I get to rap, I might say—it was me really having a go at rhyming. But it went like this:

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?

I won’t do the whole poem. I go on like that for some [time] because there’s so many examples. Imagine having to give an account of all those words to Jesus, the Word himself, who gave you the grace and gift of language. But I’ll read you the end of my poem.

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.

That last one line is from Hamlet, of course. But at that point I thought, let’s just lay off for a bit. I think I’d go further now, and I think I’d say, let’s pray before we preach. We always do that. What about praying before we tweet? You know, what about praying? What about just offering it up to Christ and saying, can I say this in your name? You know? I mean, I’m very— I mean, in one way, I understand that people want to go out there and be valiant for truth. But part of the truth is the gentleness and meekness of Jesus. And part of the truth is his commandment to love even your enemies. So I think if you feel that some really important truth is being traduced, it’s not unreasonable for you to enter into debate about it and try and change somebody’s mind. That’s a very proper thing to do. And you see it going on in the first councils of the Church and in the Council of Jerusalem as reported in Acts, you know. Different opinions, we come to a common mind because we value each other and we believe we serve the same Lord.

But I just think that certain social media platforms are not the places to have that conversation. That really a place where you’re sitting genuinely face-to-face with someone, you can hear them and see them and they can hear and see you, and you have the vulnerability of presence and names—that enables a conversation. I’m not saying that the conversation shouldn’t take place. I’m not saying we should agree to disagree when we think that the thing we disagree about is of vital importance to the very survival of civilization, as we may see it. But I think that being valiant for truth is not the same thing as being cruel or sneering or dismissive for truth. You know that Valiant for Truth is the name of a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. So, you know, it’s an important thing to me.

So yeah, I do think we need— I think obviously in this year, both in the election year that you are having in America and the election year that we now know we’re having in England, there will be all the temptations to denigrate. There’ll be all the temptations to speak ad hominem, not to meet our opponent’s argument—not enemy but opponent—our opponent’s argument in its strength but to find the worst possible trashy version of what they are alleged to have said and then diss that.

I mean, for example, I notice this word “woke” being thrown around all over the place, and the people who are supposed to be woke often don’t use that word at all. But, obviously I’m a chaplain in a modern university, I meet lots of people that are quote-unquote, other people might call “woke,” but they don’t fit into half the sneering categories that, you know— and they’re often much more thoughtful. And there is for some of them, it’s a ridiculous, ideologically driven piece of nonsense. But for others, what they’re trying to aim at is a form of courtesy. I want to address you by the terms by which you’d like to be addressed, and I should at least see the good—even if I disagree with, you know, all the stuff about pronouns or whatever it might be—I should see the good intent that’s behind that, rather than assuming it’s some sort of hideous communist plot, you know?

So I think we call for charity. I’ll tell you who’s written about this brilliantly. And that’s Diana Glyer, who also wrote one of the great books on the Inklings. But she gave a lecture which I think is fairly [inaudible] on intellectual hospitality. She coined that phrase, I think, and I think that’s been a very influential lecture. And I think she sets out how we might have a civil discourse—and not a moment too soon.

Cherie Harder: Well, Malcolm, the questions are piling up. So we’ll turn to some of the questions from our viewers. And I’m going to combine a couple that are at least on the same general topic. So Nate Woodall asked, “What sources would you recommend to help those new to poetry learn how to properly read poetry in all of its forms?” And somewhat relatedly, Craig Higgins asked, “Would you kindly recommend some other contemporary poets, perhaps those less well known?” So, your recommendations on people to read, to understand poetry?

Malcolm Guite: Right. So, reading poetry, I mean, just a piece of my own advice. The best way to read a poem is to read it out loud. Often something that looks puzzling on the page actually comes clear when you find a way of saying it out loud and you find your way through the poem by speaking it. I think poetry is all about the sound. It’s about language slowed down. In my book Faith, Hope, and Poetry, at the end of the introduction I’ve got a section called “Five Ways into Poetry,” in which I set out five different things to look out for. Now, I think probably it wouldn’t be an infringement—I hope it wouldn’t be an infringement—of the copyright of that book, because I’ve often used it as a handout, I could probably send you [that], Cherie, to make available to others. Just a little Word document with those five things on it, and that might be helpful. 

Cherie Harder: We’ll post it in the show notes. 

Malcolm Guite: So, the second part of that question, contemporary poets. Yes. Do not despair. I mean, I think there’s a bit of a turn. It’s happened more in America than here, where poets are starting to have the beauty of form and rhyme and rhythm again. And that’s coming out in different ways. So, yeah. Well, on your side, I mean, some of them will be well-known. Some of them— I mean, on your side of the pond, Lucy Shaw is in her 90s, still writing amazingly good poetry. Very vivid. She’s kind of a green-fingered poet. She talks about the earth and the soil and plants in the most wonderful way. And a more kind of, if you like, intellectually piercing, but I think still very, very, extremely helpful way, there’s Scott Cairns, who’s an Orthodox. And he’s got a collection of his, you know, his poems have been collected in a volume called Slow Pilgrim, which I think is very good. It’s at the opposite end of the tone spectrum from Lucy Shaw. But they’re both, you know, strongly Christian poets.

I’m meeting some young poets now, coming up through the conferences and things like [that]. There’s a poet who writes, if you like, quite light verse, but then you read it again and it’s quite deep. There’s a young woman called Sarah Emtage. I’ve got one of her volumes here. But anyway, she’s worth looking out for. She posts quite a lot of her poetry on Facebook and that kind of thing. She’s just posted a really beautiful kind of little New Year’s lyric. 

On this side of the pond, one of the poets who’s very much valued at the sort of high-end literary spectrum of poetry and yet is a Christian, is somehow allowed to be, is Gwyneth Lewis, who was a national poet of Wales for a while. I’ve included some of her poems in anthologies that I’ve written. There’s a very, very fine— I mean, obviously we’ve lost the great Seamus Heaney, but you can still read all his poetry. And everything by Heaney is good. But there’s a living Irish poet, Michael O’Siadhail, who’s just written his masterwork called Five Quintets. But there’s a little collection of his poetry called Hail, Madame Jazz, which is really beautiful. And, again, it deserves to be read out loud. I have to say, Michael O’Siadhail, you know, being an Irish name, it’s not written anything like its sounds. Somebody perhaps can bung that up on the notes. So he’s good.

There’s a poet who also writes for children really well called Rob Jones, over in the States, I think he’s in Texas. Anyway, that was where I met him. So I think there’s a bit of a flourish there, you know, a bit of a kind of bubbling up from the grassroots rather than a top down, you know, with cliquey coterie literary poets writing for each other in universities. I think that’s painted itself into a corner. I think there’s more of a grassroots revival going on of ballads and sonnets and villanelles and poems that, as it were, give you the gift of beauty by form, even before you’ve got hold of the meaning.

Cherie Harder: So I’ll do another kind of dyad of questions. Martin Kramer asked, “What is it that makes poetry a truth-bearing facility?” And Paul Castor asked, “Can you talk for a moment about the relationship of form to poetry and the spiritual life? What does rhyme and meter have to do with the inner life?” So rhyme and meter and truth-bearing facility.

Malcolm Guite: Okay, so on what basis do we claim—and I certainly claim—that poetry is a truth-bearing faculty, that it’s a poetic image. The poetic imagination is not [in] all poetry, but the act of poetic imagination itself. Well, the place I would sort of locate that is in Shakespeare’s account, a fairly early account of poetry, which he puts into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where he says, famously, “the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” So that’s comprehensive. It’s dealing with both the earthly and heavenly. But then he goes, “doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” And then he goes on to say, “and as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown”—that’s really interesting. Okay, so something is the real but unknown, and it’s unknown because you can’t get a handle on it. You can’t see it. It hasn’t got a form. So a poet comes along, glimpses this thing, and gives it a body and a form, and it gives it an image. And in the image you find the truth. That’s what metaphor is.

So, “as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.” So, earlier in the scene in that speech, he says that “imagination apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends.” And later he says, “if it would but apprehend some joy, it comprehends some bringer of the joy.” So that’s actually quite a, you know, I say “truth-bearing faculty,” a means of knowing something. Apprehend and comprehend are at two ends of the spectrum of knowing. If you apprehend, you know it’s there. You can reach out and just about touch it, but you can’t get your mind around it. If you comprehend something, you literally understand it comprehensively. You get your mind around it. And I think art and poetry are in the business of wooing apprehension into comprehension, building the form and the shape in which the thing becomes comprehensible. 

And sometimes it’s because the mind can’t take it all in at once. I mean, your own poet, your great poet, Emily Dickinson, puts it well when she says, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.” Well, everybody quotes just “tell it slant.” But listen to the rest of the poem: “Success in circuit lies. Too bright for our infirm delight the truth’s superb surprise. As lightning to the children eased by explanation kind, the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.” So something we could never really look at directly, but we need to know is given this gradual form. 

And, of course, poetry sometimes works the other way. It takes something we thought we knew, but we’ve not really seen at all, that we thought was firmly in the realm of comprehension, and it opens it up and we suddenly think, “Oh my goodness, there’s much more to this than I thought.” So that, if you like, is the glance from earth to heaven. The other ones are the glance from heaven to earth. So I think Shakespeare’s account of poetry is a good account. I think it’s true, and it’s essentially a presentation of poetry as one of the ways in which we can know things that we might not otherwise get hold of.

So the second question about form, this is really important. I used to think that I liked form simply aesthetically, that I thought the sonnet is a beautiful form. The villanelle is very satisfying in the way it teases more and more meaning out of the same two lines as they come round and round again. And all of those things are true. But I’ve come to think much more now that there’s a fundamental, a kind of radical spiritual element to here. The thing I dislike most about the clichés of modern art is [that it’s] all about pushing the envelope, or breaking the bounds, or breaking the mold, or it’s got to be transgressive. Or there’s this assumption that if there’s any kind of boundary, the really artistic thing is to break it. If there’s any taboo—. And, of course, this has produced dreadful art and, you know, sometimes irredeemably obscene art, calling itself art simply because it was transgressive. And I feel, well, I mean, anybody who’s read the book of Genesis knows where that comes from. 

But I reject the idea that artistic genius consists of resisting or breaking form. If we take the parallel of another beautiful art form, the game of soccer or football, the skill and genius of the players is precisely displayed because there are two lines which you can’t put the ball out of on either side, and the goal is only a certain width, and there’s an offside rule. And, you know, the genius then is within those limitations great art arises, precisely because of the skillful way it plays with the limitations. And that’s exactly the way poetry works. Poetry works—or the kind of poetry I write works—where I push against the form, but the form then pushes back at me, and I do something better than I would have done if I’d just been splurging away on free verse.

But I think there’s a deeper moral dimension. That thing about— I think— this goes back to my belief that we are God’s poems, and that God speaks us into a particular form. I reject the whole entire post-enlightenment enterprise of so-called autonomy. Literally, auto (self), nomos (law). I don’t think we make our own laws. I don’t think we’re free to decide these things. I think God has made the world a certain shape, made us a certain moral shape, given us these boundaries which are actually very generous boundaries. There’s all kinds— we still have in most respects the glorious liberty of the children of God. But he’s set certain boundaries, not only for our own good so we don’t, you know—and in spite of the fact that he’s told us, we still do it—not to kill each other and so on. That, basically, he’s decided a human being is one thing, and a star is another thing, and an elephant is a third thing. And there’s no point in human beings pretending to be elephants or stars.

So that poem I read earlier in our conversation, “O Sapientia”—”I cannot think unless I have been thought, nor can I speak”—I say of God, of Christ, of wisdom, “my maker’s bounding line defining me.” I am who I am because he’s made me in a certain way. Now I’ll tell you the history of that poem. I wrote that poem on a train down from Edinburgh to London one December. And I was coming back from the memorial service for a very good friend of mine who died of a brain tumor, and there was only a couple of months between the diagnosis and his death. And the last time I saw him alive, I took him the sacraments at his request. And we also shared thoughts about poetry because he loved poetry. And we talked about this very idea that we were poems of God’s. And he looked at me with his wonderful, wry smile, you know, emaciated with his cancer, and with a bit of a twinkle in his eye he said, “Do you know, I always thought I was going to be an epic. It turns out I’m a sonnet.” And that was a moment of wit and courage and genius. But, in fact, he meant it absolutely. The point about a sonnet is you’ve only got 14 lines. And if you’re a writer of a sonnet, the closer you get to the last line, the more concentrated it becomes. The last line has to deliver everything. It’s got to make you reread the whole sonnet. And he died a beautiful death in terms of being reconciled with people, in terms of leaving really meaningful messages for his family, like he could see the last line of the sonnet coming up. And he did something poetically beautiful with it. And that’s why the first poem I wrote thinking about that was a sonnet.

And, you know, in fact, of course, I think once we finished the sonnet of this life, Jesus has got some good news for us. It turns out we are also going to be an epic in heaven. But we need to finish the sonnet here, you know? And so I think there is at least an analogy between the discipline which produces beauty in work, in words, of writing to a form, and the discipline of keeping the form of our humanity as God has given it, which also needs skillful creativity not to go over the lines and produces beauty. Whereas when we completely scribble out God’s lines and break every boundary that he’s given us, we just end up with a rather splurgy mess. Because he had the idea of a good form in the first place. So I do think there’s a parallel. It’s not exactly the same, but there is a parallel.

Cherie Harder: Well, Malcolm, there are so many great questions left. We are unfortunately running out of time, so we’ll just have to have you back at some point to talk a little bit more on cultivating a healthy imagination. But in just a moment, I’m going to give you the last word, and perhaps you can even leave us with the last poem. But before that, just a few things to share with each of you who are watching today. Immediately after we conclude we will be sending around an online feedback form. We encourage you to fill it out. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable, and we really appreciate those of you who take the time to do this. And as a small token of appreciation and as an incentive to do so, we will offer a free download of the Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There are several that we would recommend that would be useful resources to kind of give further depth to this conversation, and top of that list would be “Spirit and Imagination,” some of the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge that Malcolm wrote the introduction to. In addition, some of the poets that we have featured in our Trinity Forum Readings that Malcolm has mentioned include, “Bulletins from Immortality,” which includes the only collection that we know of of just the spiritual poems of Emily Dickinson, as well as “God’s Grandeur,” featuring the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and “Sacred and Profane Love,” featuring the poetry of John Donne.

In addition, tomorrow to everyone who registered we will be sending around an email which includes the link to the lightly edited for clarity and time version of today’s Online Conversation, as well as additional resources. And we encourage you to share this with others and start a conversation of your own around some of the ideas mentioned here.

In addition, we’d love to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people dedicated to furthering Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. In addition to being part of that mission and that community, there’s a number of benefits of being a Trinity Forum Society member as well, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special gift and incentive, we will send you a signed copy of Malcolm’s latest work, The Word Within the Words, with your new membership or your gift of $100 or more. So we encourage you to take advantage of that.

In addition, if you would like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, let us know. We are always on the lookout for sponsors. Also just want to let you know about some upcoming Online Conversations. Our next one will be held on January 26th, where we’ll be hosting Michael Wear on the topic of connecting spiritual formation and public life. You will not want to miss this. And we also are looking ahead to hosting Miroslav Volf, John Inazu, Amy Julia Becker, John Mark Comer, and many more this spring. So tune in and join us for the next 100 Online Conversations. All of our past ones you can access on our website at and look forward to seeing you for a new year of programing.

And with that, as promised, Malcolm, the last word is yours.

Malcolm Guite: Well, thank you. I think because we talked about the kind of uncharitable cacophony and the hate speech that’s flying around and the need to be preserved from that, and to speak with a different voice, I think I might read you my take on Psalm 31 from my book, David’s Crown. I would commend you, if you want to look it up sometime, to read Psalm 31 and then read this poem again. It’s on my blog. I tend to some of the images in the psalm. But I want to read this as a testimony to the fact that God is still our refuge and a very present help in trouble. So, my take on Psalm 31, In te, Domine, speravi

The night withdrew and joy came in the morning,

When I remembered that I was remembered,

That even through the bitter tears of mourning


I was sustained, the darkest powers were hindered

In their insidious work within my soul

And I was held together and re-membered


By your unceasing love. You made me whole

When all the world was tearing me apart.

When there was fear on every side, you stole


Into the secret garden of my heart

A good thief in the night, and hid with me

In your strong tabernacle, held apart


From all that strife of tongues, cacophony

Of condemnations, so you kept me safe

In your deep silence and your mystery.

Cherie Harder: Malcolm, thank you so much.

Malcolm Guite: My pleasure. It’s very good to be with you on this. And my New Year’s greetings to all the folk that have joined us on this call.

Cherie Harder: Thank you. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.