Online Conversation | Waiting on the Word
with Malcolm Guite
On Friday, December 18th, in partnership with Regent College, The Rabbit Room, and The C.S. Lewis Foundation we were delighted to host the renowned poet, singer-songwriter, and Anglican priest Malcom Guite. We hope you enjoy this final Online Conversation of 2020!
Special thanks to our sponsors:
The painting is Landscape with Cottage and Church by Conrad Martens, 1831
The song is “Joy” by George Winston
Transcript of Waiting on the Word with Malcolm Guite
Jeff Greenman: Greetings, everyone, and welcome to this very special event of the Trinity Forum, “Waiting on the Word” with Malcolm Guite. I’m Jeff Greenman. I serve as the president of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and we’re a co-sponsor of this event. Always have enjoyed working with the Trinity Forum, and together we’ve collaborated on a number of events over the last couple of years, and it’s a real joy for us to be a part of this with Malcolm Guite. So welcome. I understand there’s a very big audience of people joining us from 29 different countries. So wherever you are and in whatever time zone you may be part of right now—it’s morning here for me in British Columbia—wherever you are, welcome, and I hope you really enjoy this event. We’re in for a very special time together.
It’s fun to partner with Trinity Forum and especially fun to connect with Malcolm Guite. And you might be wondering why is a theological school in Vancouver, British Columbia, being a part of an event with a poet? What in the world? Well, Regent College, as some of you know, but if you don’t, is a graduate theological school with a very wide international reach, located in Vancouver on the campus of the University of British Columbia. From the very beginning 50 years ago—we’ve had our 50th anniversary this year—the arts have been a part of our concern and our focus and our teaching. The very first courses of Regent College were summer school of 1969 and poetry was on the docket. A Canadian poet named Margaret Avison that I know our speaker today knows her work was one of the speakers. And since then there’s been a steady stream of poets and literary figures who have been teaching and discussed throughout our life at Regent, and that includes Lucy Shaw, who’s been our poet in residence for many years. Some of you know her poetry. Madeleine L’Engle has taught. Together Lucy and Madeline taught poetry writing at Regent, and there’s been a constant stream of poetry.
One of the people who’s been a very special part of us over the last decade or so in teaching with us is Malcolm Guite. He has been a regular in our summer school and he’s teaching again at our summer school, coming up this summer, coming out of his latest book, David’s Crown: Poetic Meditations on the Psalms. He’ll be teaching June 28 to July 2nd, and that’s something, if you’re stimulated and interested coming out of today, you might want to follow up and be a part of that course at Regent. You’d be welcome to do that. Malcolm is always interesting, always stimulating, always very thoughtful. We’ve had him for courses as well as our distinguished lecture series last year called the Lange Lectures. He was our lecturer. And those lectures are available also on our YouTube channel, in case you wanted to follow up and get a look at some of those. So it’s a real privilege to have Malcolm with us, he’s just a lot of fun to be with, very stimulating thinker. He’s a person who is really always spiritually insightful and stretching and enriching for us. So we’re really looking forward to today’s session with Malcolm, a joy for us at Regent College to be a part of an event like this. And right now, I just want to hand back to Cherie Harder, who’s the president of the Trinity Forum, to introduce our event and introduce our speaker.
Cherie Harder: Well, thanks so much, Jeff, and on behalf of all of us of the Trinity Forum, I want to welcome you to today’s Online Conversation with Malcolm Guite on “Waiting on the Word.” I’d like to thank our partners in this effort, our sponsors Barbara Bryant and Regent College—you just heard from Jeff Greenman— as well as our co-hosts, the Rabbit Room and the C.S. Lewis Foundation, who helped make today’s program possible. We are now deep into the season of Advent, a time of waiting for the incarnation and, as the words themselves suggest, the beginning of adventure, the great story of God with us. It’s also a season of paradox. In the words of our guest today, “It’s a season that looks back at the people who waited in darkness for the coming light of Christ, yet forward to a fuller light still to come and to illuminate our darkness. It falls in winter at the end of the year in dark and cold, but its focus is on the coming of light and life, when the ancient of days became a young child and declared, ‘Behold, I make all things new.'” He concludes, “Perhaps only poetry can help us fathom the depths and inhabit the tensions of these paradoxes.”
And so today, our final Online Conversation of the year, it seemed fitting to adventure into the paradoxes of the season with poetry and with a poet as our guide. Our guest today, Malcolm Guite, is a renowned and beloved English poet, priest, songwriter, and scholar who’s been described as what you might get if John Donne journeyed to Middle Earth, taking musical cues from Jerry Garcia, fashion tips from Bilbo Baggins, and returned via Harley. He served for 20 years as the chaplain of Girton College at Cambridge and remains a supernumerary fellow there, as well as teaching at the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and lecturing widely across England and North America. He is a remarkably prolific poet and writer. He writes “Poets Corner,” a weekly column for the Church Times and has written more than 10 works spanning poetry, criticism, and anthologies including Love Remember, Mariner: A Spiritual Biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Parable and Paradox, Theology and the Poetic Imagination, The Singing Bowl: Faith, Hope, and Poetry, and several others, including, of course, the wonderful work we’ve invited him here today to discuss, Waiting on the Word. Malcolm, welcome.
Malcolm Guite: Thank you, it’s lovely to be here and lovely to join you. It’s extraordinary how— I know the, you know, the medieval theologians supposedly argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, but it’s lovely to think that we can each get where— there are 2,000 of us in each of our rooms, as it were. We’re all here for each other, even though we can’t be physically here. I know I couldn’t get you all into my little study, but I’m delighted that through this magic screen we can have an encounter and it’s an encounter I hope that we’ll all enjoy and will be well worth having.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So as we get started, Malcolm, how did you become a poet and what was the first poem you loved?
Malcolm Guite: Oh, wow, now that’s a good question. Well, I think, first of all, I think we’re all born poets. I think poetry comes first and praise is the later sophistication. And one of my joys as my children were born and began to grow up and did that miraculous and beautiful thing of acquiring language, the first thing they had was rhythm and rhyme, wasn’t it? The sort of cradle songs and the nursery rhymes and the little language that they would make up for themselves. I always it found was full of strong rhythm. Now, I was very fortunate that my mother was a person who had a huge fund of poetry in her. And her father, my grandfather, had a theory that children should be exposed to the very best literature from the cradle, that there should be no, nothing ruled out. So my mother had had Shakespeare and Milton recited to her in her cradle, and she did exactly the same for me. So I grew up with these sounds. I knew poetry as as a lovely sound coming from my mother before I knew it as a printed thing, let alone a subject or something you might write books about. And I remember being very surprised when we got to school and we did— for example, the school teacher gave us something from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. I think it was the one about the train that went, you know, “faster than fairies, faster than witches, bridges and houses, and hedges and ditches; and charging along like troops in a battle all through the meadow the horses and cattle.” I thought, “That’s my mum’s!” You know, I had no idea it was in a book. Because my mother didn’t sit me down in a corner and say, “Now this is poetry. It’s important. Listen.” She just, it came out of her sort of naturally— So I really think that I was, I was blessed in that way and that my mother was a great friend of it.
My father, too, my father was a classicist. He recited poetry more rarely, and it was often quite high poetry, which I grew into. But my mother recited old border ballads and sang Scott songs. And I think, within the world of poetry, the thing I suppose that I’m more known for is my love of rhythm and rhyme, my sense that we don’t always just have to write difficult free verse, that there is a song, that there is a music in poetry. Lyric poetry has the word “lyre” in it, and the lyre is a stringed instrument. And I think that goes back to my mother. I owe her an immense debt from that point of view.
Cherie Harder: And you’re known for the beautiful in your poetry, but you also talk a lot about really the pursuit of truth. And I think you’ve called the imagination a “truth-bearing faculty,” a way of knowing. What is it that we can learn about advent or anything else through the imagination that might be inaccessible to us through other means?
Malcolm Guite: Yeah, thanks. Yes, I have said that, that imagination is a truth-bearing faculty, and I think when I say that one of the things that we need to say straight away is that although the imagination is capable of making things up and we can make up a story that’s in an imaginary world in the sense that it’s not there, great works of imagination—even, actually, because they’re in a made-up world where the poet can shape things and give them symbolic meaning—great works of imagination are full of truth. So there’s a lovely bit in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where somebody asks Touchstone, the fool, what poetry is. What is this poetry? Is it a true thing? Is it honest in deed and word? And he says, “Nay, Madam, verily, our truest poetry is our most feigning.” Let me tell you a story. And as I tell you the story, I’m going to tell you a greater truth than I could tell you if it’s just— Because sometimes the story gets through to you.
And of course, we know that very strongly from the Bible and particularly from Jesus’ use of parables. But if we go back to an earlier parable out of which I think a lot of the power of Jesus’ parables spring, if we think about Nathan the Prophet and we think about David, you know, Nathan could have done a kind of logically clear moral diatribe about David’s behavior, and it would have been like water off a duck’s back. David would have fended that off. But to borrow a phrase of C.S. Lewis’s, Nathan snuck past the watchful dragons and told a story. Now the story about the little lamb was a made-up story, but it awakened King David’s moral imagination, which had been dangerously asleep, and he said, “That person was wrong! Who is that?” And of course, then Nathan said, “You are that man.” And the imaginative story got through.
So I think imagination can take us to places and open up truths that might not otherwise be apparent to us. Indeed, the poet Coleridge went so far as to say that all our perceiving involves imagination, not making stuff up but imaginatively seeing the inside of the things and the people—especially the insides of the people—whose outsides we only see. C.S. Lewis put it very beautifully in one of his essays when he said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth. But imagination is the organ of meaning.” So reason can make you know what is the case. But imagination helps you to know what that means, and especially what it means to you. And I’m very interested now that we have not only rational apologetics, which is very important, but also imaginative apologetics. Now, I clearly and unashamedly, I believe Christianity is the case. I mean, the poet Betjeman says, “Is it true? Is it true this most tremendous tale of all?” Well, it is true, and I’m very happy to defend it with the philosophers. But in the end, I found that both for myself and for others, I also have to imagine it from the inside, and I have to feel from within how that truth comes home to me. And that’s where poetry comes in.
Cherie Harder: You said once that “the imagination apprehends more than reason comprehends.” And I read that, and I thought, well, that’s fascinating. And my next thought was, well, like what? So what is it that actually we can apprehend that might be inaccessible to reason?
Malcolm Guite: Well, thank you. That’s very kind of you to attribute that to me. In fact, it was Shakespeare. You know, if you’re going to steal… Shakespeare said, “imagination apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends.” And of course, “apprehend,” the “-prehend” bit of that—those two words “apprehend” and “comprehend”—is to do with getting hold of something. But when you apprehend something, you reach out and you touch just a bit of it. When you comprehend it, you get your mind right around it. Now, to get your mind right around something and comprehend it completely, in a sense, it’s got to be down to the size of your mind. Your mind’s got to be big enough to get all the way around it. Now do you remember in John’s gospel, in the prologue where— and we sometimes translate it, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.” But another translation is to say “the darkness has never comprehended it,” that there is always an extra-ness and over-plus-ness, a super-abundance. What the Greek word in scripture is “pleroma,” the fullness of God overflowing. There is always more to the loving presence of God than we can actually comprehend. But we apprehend it.
So I think apprehending the love and light of God happens in two ways: it can start with the tiniest glimmer of apprehension. We can be in the dark—”The people who walked in darkness have seen a marvelous light”—but some of us may not see a marvelous light for a very long time. For some of us in the long dark, there may be only glimmers. The late, great Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was very much the poet of the glimmer, and he has a line about his own poetry where he says, “Compose in darkness. Expect Aurora Borealis in the long foray, but no cascade of light.” So it’s those glimmering northern lights. But he knew where that light was coming from. And late in his life, he wrote, he translated John of the Cross’s poem about light, the light, the actual essence of God coming like a stream, like a river of light towards us: “How well I know that fountain filling, running, although it is the night. That eternal fountain hidden away, I know it’s haven and its secrecy although it is the night.” So there’s apprehending that happens when we’re in the dark and we just get the glimmer and it’s enough to be going on with. But poetry takes the apprehension and woos it gradually towards you into comprehension. But with God, you never come to the end of your comprehension. You can comprehend so much more today than you did yesterday. And yet there will always be in the deep mystery of his being another apprehension coming towards you.
And in the same speech in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Shakespeare talks about imagination apprehending more than cool reason comprehends, he says, “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagin–”—this is a great moment in Shakespeare—”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 this bodying forth is taking the heavenly—it’s the heavenly that we apprehend and only the earthly that we comprehend. But we need never to be satisfied with our comprehensions; we always need to be drawn through them to an apprehension again. Seamus Heaney in an early poem, starts a poem with one of the best opening lines of a poem ever. It’s a poem about a blacksmith’s shop, but the blacksmith is really a symbol of the God who works secretly and makes all things. And that poem opens with the line: “All I know is a door into the dark.” It’s wonderful; I’m going to go through that door. And then somewhere he imagines the anvil, he says, “horned like a unicorn, an altar.” And this is again Seamus Heaney, “where he expends himself in shape and music.” Now, at one level, it’s a perfectly ordinary poem about a blacksmith behind a dark door and you hear the hammer and the anvil, but he expends himself in shape and music making all of this. You know, science will help us, and it’s a wonderful thing, science, to comprehend a little bit more of this intricate and beautifully made reality in which we find ourselves. But only imagination will help us to begin to apprehend the Maker as he expends himself in shape and music.
Cherie Harder: Yes. Well, your wonderful work, Waiting for the Word, actually is intended to help us apprehend some of the meaning of advent. And in the introduction, you say this quite explicitly. You say, “I hope readers will feel they are joining me in a profoundly countercultural and indeed subversive act. And the one thing that would make it even more counterculture will be to dare to read poems aloud and slowly.” So Malcolm, I was hoping you could lead us in that form of countercultural act and perhaps read one of your poems there, aloud and slowly. And then when you’re done, maybe kind of walk us through how we can better taste it, apprehend the meaning, understand and savor it.
Malcolm Guite: Okay. Well, let me— I’ll do it with a poem, which is actually the poem in the book that was set for yesterday, for the seventeenth, which is, as it happens, still in the English prayer book. It says, “O sapientia, O sapientia, Sunday.” Now “sapientia” is the lovely Latin word for wisdom. And as you know, in Proverbs 8 and also in Ecclesiastes, wisdom is personified as this beautiful feminine figure who plays in delight, as it were, at the beginning of all things, and God makes all things in wisdom. And as it happens, my sonnet, “O Sapientia,” was not only the first of the seven that I wrote for the Advent antiphons, but actually the first sonnet of what became a whole book called Sounding the Seasons, which took me not just from Advent, but right through the seasons of the year. And I’ll read it to you. The little prayer to which the poem is a response, the very ancient, probably sixth-century prayer, that begins, “Oh, sapientia,” I’ll read it to you in English, and then you’ll see where the poem is coming from.
So the prayer goes like this. It’s a call for Christ to come. “Veni.” Advent. “Veni” as in advent. But the beautiful thing about this is it’s, although it was written 600 A.D., it’s kind of imaginatively B.C. The Christian who wrote this thought for a minute about if he didn’t know the name of Jesus.
He would know he needed a savior, he would know he needed a light. He would have apprehensions that he wanted to woo towards him. What was he looking for? And he wrote these seven great prayers, where one of them says, “O Wisdom, come,” and another says, “O Light, come,” and another one says, “O Key, come,” another says, “O Root, come.” So this is the one for wisdom. So the prayer goes like this:
“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. Come and show us how to live.”
Now here’s how this came out as a poet for me. I’ll read you the poem and then we’ll open it out a bit
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 one of the things that’s sort of going on in that poem is this idea of the word within the words, the light within the words, beneath the words, the light within the light, the mind behind the mind that— We’re sort of stayed on surfaces, you know, where we deal with everyday life and it comes and goes and we wake up every morning and find out here we are and we stop remarking on the fact that here we are in existence. We didn’t bring ourselves into existence. But what I take from John’s gospel is that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and everything comes into being through him. And of course, in Genesis, which John is riffing on, God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. God is a God of beauty and order and light and poetry, who doesn’t keep all that to himself, but like a poet, creates a beautiful sounding form which resonates and has a life of its own. And what this poem is really saying is you and I, Cherie, and all the other people who are on this call are as it were logoi, we’re little words in the mouth of the Logos, the great Word. Right now we are being spoken into being; each one of us is an unfinished poem that God is speaking right now.
I found a lovely letter once, a letter exchange between my hero Samuel Taylor Coleridge and another great hero, Thomas Clarkson, who was one of the great campaigners against slavery and, in fact, the person who recruited William Wilberforce to campaign against slavery. And Clarkson had burnout. The long, hard struggle to change a systematic injustice and set it right, and the many defeats in parliament. He was, and he wrote a distressed letter to Coleridge saying, “I don’t even know who I am or what I am. I’m not sure if I believe. I see this thing, that the spirit of God searches our spirit. I read John, but I have no idea anymore of the divine.” He finishes his letter to Coleridge. And Coleridge— He’s just exhausted and depressed, Clarkson. And Coleridge writes back the most beautiful letter in which he says, “I understand that at the moment you feel you have no idea of the divine. But let me remind you that you yourself are a divine idea.” It’s wonderful. “God thought you up. The risen Jesus Christ in whom all things go here is speaking you, Thomas Clarkson, into being.” And there’s a wonderful bit where he encourages him to get up and carry on the struggle. And he says, “Try not to be an impediment in the speech of Jesus.” You know, don’t let his tongue trip on you, but rather let him speak you into being. So that’s, you know, “nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.”
And it’s also an answer to that question where, you know, that is repeated tauntingly in the Psalms. “Where is now your God?” You know, some of these materialist atheists think that they can prove that there’s no God because they’ve gone up in a spaceship and not seen a person in a big white beard floating on a throne, as though the God of the universe was just like one more item in the cosmos to be weighed and measured and counted. On the contrary, the very possibility of the spacecraft, the very possibility of space into which it goes, the extraordinary minds that made it possible, are all there because God, in his wisdom, Christ the Logos, is allowing for them and making them possible. So that’s— I wanted to begin all of this by saying in one sense, I say, “come,” and he does come amazingly into the world he made as a child. But in another sense, even to say the word “come” to him is to acknowledge in another sense that he does come. He comes by bringing me into being and you into being.
Cherie Harder: You mentioned the scientific materialists and the like, and of course, it’s not only them. I mean, there’s the business community, there are large sectors that sort of seem to believe that reliable knowledge needs to be empirical, concrete, logical, and there’s a strain of this within Christendom too. There are, you know, a lot of strains that are distrustful of the theater, of non-representational art and the like. And you said once, which I thought was fascinating, that it’s your conviction that to do theology well, you need to have poets at the table along with the theologians. What do the poets bring that the theologians lack?
Malcolm Guite: Well, that’s an interesting question, of course. Well, one of the things they bring, I suppose, is a deep awareness of metaphor. Now metaphor is, I mean, it’s one of those, you know, jargon words. But in the Greek, the full part of metaphor is to do with the same word as “fairies.” It’s actually carrying things across. And it’s where knowing one thing allows you not only to know that thing, but something more. It carries, as it were. So metaphor is a way of talking about symbol. And when we speak of experiences that we don’t yet have, and we none of us yet has experienced the joy of what the theologians call the beatific vision, that is to say the blessed vision where, as George Herbert says, “God shall look us into bliss and we will behold his glory.” You know, we haven’t done that. We only have the glimmerings. So when we speak of God, which is the job of theology—”theology” is precisely logos or logoi: “words about God”—it is necessary for us to take the things of this world, which we can see and hear, and allow them to become bearers, metaphors of something of God. And we have the authority of Jesus for doing this because, of course, he uses these wonderful analogies of that loving father who’s lost his son and who doesn’t just stay passively but, while his son was still a long way off, runs down the road to find him. And the metaphors of the king and the metaphors of the judge separating the sheeps and the goats, and the metaphors of the person who’s giving a wedding feast and the bridegroom. Now, of course, all these analogies for God are not God. I mean, it’s the same as in scripture. You know, when it says, “The Lord will bear his mighty arm,” probably those who heard Isaiah doing that thought he was going be like a big fist is going to come down and thump you. But the poet has to say, “This is a metaphor that God is strong.” But then, of course, God says, “Yes, it is a metaphor, but let me show you something. I can come into my own metaphor and inhabit it.” And then God takes his own metaphor and makes it more than a metaphor because he does bear his mighty arm. But it turns out the place where he bears his mighty arm and exposes it, is not to roll up his sleeve to smash people, but is to stretch his arms out on the cross and defeat evil by turning it back into love in those words of forgiveness on the cross.
But there’s a danger for the theologians that they forget they’re using metaphorical language. They start to take their own metaphors a bit too literally and too seriously. And they then, as it were, divinize their discourse; they worship their formulae. There’s a very fine late poem of C.S. Lewis’s called “An Apologist’s Evening Prayer” about the inadequacy of even the best language about God, where he says, you know, thoughts—and this is about thoughts, not even words—”Thoughts are but coins. Let me not take instead of thee their thin warn image of thy head. From all my thoughts, even my thoughts of thee, O fair silence fall and set me free.” He recognizes that the metaphor gets you somewhere, but it also takes you into the mysterious presence of God. So poets are in that business. They’re in the business of understanding metaphor as metaphor and letting it do its best work without mistaking it for the literal. And yet making it something beautiful from it. And in that sense, I think it’s useful when theologians are really going at it hammer and tongs to have a poet.
I’ll give you one very specific example of a poet who says something poetically, which speaks directly into a massive theological controversy that was going on at the time he wrote the poem and which just cuts right through it and says something so beautiful and so true that all the people on both sides of the controversy can agree. So during the Reformation, there was naturally in all the reforming of the church a big conversation, which in some ways is still going on, about what God meant in Christ when he said, “This is my body and this is my blood” and about what’s really happening in a communion service. And you had a very full-on real presence position in the Catholic and Orthodox camps, and you had various degrees of Protestantism saying, “Well, it is indeed just a metaphor or it’s just a symbol,” or it’s, you know, until eventually it tails off into somebody thinking it’s just a brief visual aid that you can use or not as you like. You know, there’s a spectrum. And the theologians tied themselves absolutely into knots as to how the God who is eternally behind all things and present could also be there with you when you receive your communion, which is part of the mystery of the incarnation. Anyway, George Herbert, a gentle, beautiful, deeply-read, soaked in the Bible poet-priest, instead of getting into sides on the controversy, just quietly writes a little poem called “The Agony” about what God did for us in Christ on the Cross. And then he simply concludes the poem. He says, the poem is all about love. Love did all these things. And the last two lines of the poem are simply this: “Love is that liquor sweet and most divine, which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.” And suddenly, there you have the blood of Christ and the wine of communion brought together in a single line about its effective beauty inside the receiving soul. “My God feels as blood,” what it costs God for us to feel, “and I as wine.” And it’s just that’s poetry doing something that the theology had proved itself incapable of doing and uttering a truth to which different controversialists could ascend.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great story. We’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second before we do one last question I want to ask you, which is about poetry and prayer, in that the line between the two in the Bible seems often quite blurry in that there’s many prayers offered as psalms, as poetry and the like. And I know the fusion of the two is an area you have reflected on for many years, being part of a small group of priests-poets like John Donne and George Herbert. So how can poetry refresh, deepen, and enlarge our prayers?
Malcolm Guite: Well, I think it can do so enormously. Now I— let me give testimony. This is really became important to me after I’d been serving in parishes as a priest for seven years, you know, toiling in the vineyard. I was myself getting just exhausted and depleted, and I’d set poetry aside, not quite in the rigorous way that Gerard Manley Hopkins said, but I felt the calling into priesthood, in particular to sacramental acts as priest, was so demanding that I couldn’t really spend a lot of time reading and writing poetry. And there was a period of about seven years when I didn’t. And the poetry for me was the liturgy and the sacrament and the work in my parishes. I had a very— I had what they call an urban priority area, and I had a lot of kids in real dire need and we had a big AIDS epidemic and I was just doing that. And my bishop kindly gave me a break and said, “Look, you need a break. Take a couple of months off and do whatever refreshes you.” And I suddenly thought, “You know, I just need poetry.” And I re-read huge amounts of poetry and just gathered I already had it, it was deep down inside me. And it wasn’t even just Christian poetry, but all kinds of poetry. And it seemed to refresh me. It seemed, as it were, to open up the channels, if you like, between the heart and the head. So all this stuff, which had just become fixed in my head as either proposition or anxiety, it was like sap rising, you know. It was like these dry twigs up there were suddenly becoming green again because of the poetry.
And in the course of reading that poetry, I read a great poetic sequence by Seamus Heaney called “Station Island.” And towards the end of that, in the 11th of a 12-poem sequence, Heaney remembers having been to confession as a young man and in a terrible state and feeling that he’d debased his gifts. And after the end of the confession, the priest says to him—you know, you’re not only given— but you’re given advice. The priest says, “Read poems as prayers and for your penance, translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.” Then Heaney goes on, makes this beautiful translation. But “read poems as prayers” came to me like a thunderbolt. You know, I read poems on the one hand and I prayed on the other, and then I suddenly saw, no, no, I can read any poem as a prayer, even if it’s not addressed to God. I can read it with Christ in the room. I can read this poem and have God enjoy it with me. And then he’ll open it up for me. And that coming together of the poetic side of my life and mind and the devotional side became really central. So much so that when I came to meditate on a poem called “Prayer” by George Herbert, which is a wonderful—it’s just a sonnet—but it’s got these 26 emblems of prayer without explanation. Just begins, “Prayer the church’s banquet.” You know, “angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, the Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth.” When I read that I actually felt moved just to refresh my own prayer life to write. I wrote a sequence of 27 sonnets out of that one sonnet, the sequence called “After Prayer.” Really just letting prayer and poetry soak through one another.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And for those of you who this is your first time in an Online Conversation, you can not only ask a question through the Q&A feature at the bottom of the screen, but you can also “like” a question, and that helps us have a sense of what some of the most popular questions might be. So we will just dive right in, and I see a question from Greg Eller to ask what disciplines help cultivate the imagination?
Malcolm Guite: Ah, right. That’s very good, well, let me put in a good word for reading, reading as opposed to scrolling or skimming. We’re in a very, you know— we have an age where we’re actually reading texts and things like that all the time, but we hardly dwell on anything. Poet Adam Crothers, a contemporary Irish poet, said poetry is language slowed down, which is a really helpful thing. I think poetry, reading and poetry, slows you down, and reading it out loud helps you. But reading anything, reading novels. So reading for pleasure. I mean, there’s a paradox here. If I tell you that reading for pleasure will be a discipline that cultivates and enriches your imagination, there might be a danger that you then don’t read for pleasure, but for duty. You go like, “Oh, I’ve got to read this, I’ve got to finish War and Peace, so my imagination is better.” And then it becomes utilitarian again. There’s a paradox here. There’s a kind of playfulness. You actually have to sit down in your armchair with no interruptions and take out a favorite book. And that’s why if you want the pure pleasure of reading, often rereading a favorite, not because you want to find out what happens next, but because you know what happens next, and that can be— One of the things that was a prelude to my own conversion as an adult—my return to the faith that I had abandoned in my early teens, my full adult return to it—was that I decided just, you know, as a guilty pleasure, not because, you know, I was supposed to be very sophisticated and grown up—you know, students at Cambridge in the late 70s were all terribly sort of full of faux sophistication and all claiming to have seen through things that they hadn’t really seen at all. And, you know, so the last thing you want to be found doing would be reading a children’s book. But I reread the entire Narnia sequence one summer. And it was so rich. I had loved them as a child, but I had no idea really how what they were all about. And that rereading, you know, not only did me a huge amount of good in moving me back towards my faith, but actually also deeply opened up the worlds of my imagination.
So reading is a good discipline. Listening, you know, listening to music. But the other thing I would say to counterbalance the reading, lest we become too wordy, is—and this is a thing I’ve really come across in lockdown. We’ve been allowed to go for walks at least, you know. First, we were only allowed an hour a day. And I have to say, that a quiet walk, if you can possibly get it into any kind of countryside, especially if there’s a stream going, why does that enrich the imagination? Because you’re walking into the midst of the divine imagination. God is imagining the birds that are singing to you while they sing. That’s why they’re there, singing, because he’s breathing them into being. So all these things around you are not only what they are and a proper object to scientific study, they’re also language of God. They’re a kind of poem. I mean, that Psalm that says, “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the firmament show forth his handiwork,” that is actually the case that your imagination will be enriched by God’s imagination. The more you open yourself to what God is saying to you through the nature around you.
Cherie Harder: I’m going to combine two questions, both having to do with music, so one question from Jeff Greenman, who says, “Most questions Christians encounter poetry in the form of hymns or songs. Does Malcolm have a favorite Advent or Christmas hymn?” And somewhat similarly, Mary Phillips asks, “As a musician, do you sometimes hear a melody when you’re writing a poem?”
Malcolm Guite: Oh now, those are both good questions. Yes, of course. As I was saying earlier on, song and poetry really began together, and then poetry became this slightly different thing on the page. But I think the best poetry almost summons a melody. So to answer Jeff’s question first. If I want to have a single Advent or Christmas hymn that is great poetry, but poetry which is superbly enhanced by the tune to which it’s sung, it would have to be Christina Rossetti’s, “In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” I mean, it’s a beautiful description of the hard, cold winter, but of course, it’s really about the heart. By the time you get to the end of what “I give him my heart,” it’s your own heart that’s been melted by the poetry. But that I think— and Christina Rossetti— I open this anthology with a Christina Rossetti poem, and she is a great poet, a poet of the first order. And what made her write her devotional poetry was, you won’t be surprised to hear, reading George Herbert. Her brother Dante Gabriel was a bit worried that her interest in poetry might lead her astray, which is very hypocritical of him because he was, like, totally astray. So the idea that he was going to look after his sister’s virtue was pretty dodgy. But in order to keep her on the right path but still loving poetry, he gave her a volume of George Herbert. And she learned far more not only about faith but about poetry than Dante Gabriel Rossetti ever knew, good as he was in different ways, from George Herbert. So that poem of hers sung the way it is, Jeff, that would be my classic.
So the other question was about poetry and song. And are there poems that make you hear a melody? Yes. And there are certain poets who I think have the melody in them more strongly than the others. Keats was one and Tennyson was another. So one of the poems from Keats I have in Waiting on the Word is a lovely winter poem of his called—which is about the parley in a sense between memory and hope, which begins, “In drear nighted December, too happy, happy tree, thy branches ne’er remember their green felicity. The North cannot undo them with a sleety whistle through them.” You know, that’s wonderful. You know, the tree is happy because it can’t remember it’s green, but to talk, to see the drear night in December, and then suddenly, in those two words, to summon up the fresh spring, “the green felicity.” It’s absent. But the rhythm of that—”In drear nighted December, too happy, happy tree”—it’s asking to be sung. And I think there are a number of poems, certainly Keats, some of Wordsworth, a great deal of Tennyson that has that music and asks for music.
I’ve been very, very blessed that a number of composers have picked up on my poems and made music with them in very different forms. I mean, the Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell—there’s a poem I might read you if we have a moment which Steve Bell turned into a fantastic song, a poem called “Descent”—on the one hand. And then Jack Redford, the great, great American composer—I mean, composer and orchestrator of film music, but also fine choral and symphonic music—took my seven sonnets on the Advent antiphons and made really beautiful musical settings. And when you hear your own poems sung back and you hear the music that somebody else has heard, that’s amazing. Heaney has a line about a well in his childhood where he says about this particular well, that it had echoes. And this is Heaney’s line: “It gave you back your own voice with a clean new music in it.” And that’s very much how I feel about the way people like Steve Bell and Jack Redford have taken my work and done something with it.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. Speaking of Heaney, we have a question from a friend of yours, I believe, Jerry Root.
Malcolm Guite: Oh yes. Happy birthday, Jerry. He’s just had his birthday.
Cherie Harder: He asks, “Malcolm, when Seamus Heaney says in the blacksmith poem, “All I know is the doorway into the dark,” why would he enter the door if he didn’t know more? What do you need to know to give you confidence to enter?
Malcolm Guite: Yeah, that’s a very good question, Jerry, because you could hold back from the door because it is a door into the dark. But this comes back to hearing in music because in that poem, Heaney can hear something. Well, he can see the figure. He sees a figure of a blacksmith before he turns and goes into the door. So he sees this man. And then he says, and then he hears the music of the ringing anvil. And then in the dark, he sees again—Heaney’s phrase in the poem—”an unpredictable fantail of sparks” as literally, as the hammer strikes the iron and the sparks fly. And that’s enough to draw him forward. The sense of shape and music. And yet it’s still a daring thing to do. And of course, many of the great Christian mystics have recognized that. There’s John of the Cross famously talking about the dark night of the soul, that you have to go sometimes into a darkness, that not all darkness is bad, that there’s a waiting darkness. If you want to think of the most beautiful darkness and full and rich darkness that there has ever been in the world, surely it is the darkness of Mary’s womb in those nine months when the Word himself is being made flesh for us. And in that wombing darkness, the beginning of our salvation is happening.
And I sometimes think that our Advent season is like the wombing darkness. We’re waiting for Christmas Day when Jesus is born. But we recognize that in this rich darkness, God is already at work and something is stirring. And of course, that idea—that even, as it were, in the wombing dark, we can get a glimpse—is there in the wonderful moment of the visitation when Mary and Elizabeth meet, and John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy and kicks from inside because he knows Jesus is near. So that’s I think— In fact, my poem, which we’re going to read at the end, “O Emmanuel,” I ask, in the end, I ask God to make a womb of all this wounded world. I try to say that the present darkness we’re living through, and God knows it’s dark enough, doesn’t have to be a destructive darkness. If we let ourselves be born again in God, it can be a wombing and fruitful darkness.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. So a question from Anna Chang who says, “I’m just starting to get into poetry. Any recommendations on where I should start?”
Malcolm Guite: Yeah. Well, I would say, funny enough, start with some of the older stuff. Quite a lot of modern poetry, particularly post-Eliot, is quite sort of difficult. It almost pushes the reader away, and it doesn’t have the added bonus of music and rhyme, or some of it doesn’t. So that can be quite difficult. I would start with absolute classics that are just beautiful to read. So Keats, Shelley, Byron. Now you might think, “Golly, you know, here we are, Trinity Forum, you know, what’s he doing recommending a dodgy poet like Byron?” Well, you know, you have to look out for your morals a bit, you know. Byron was supposed to be mad, bad, and dangerous to whit, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a gift of poetry in him which alerted you to beauty. You think of a Byron. I mean, I would challenge anybody even who thought they didn’t like poetry if they just had any sense of beauty. That lovely Byron poem, which is actually Byron partly under the influence of the Psalms, he wrote a book of poems called Hebrew Melodies. And one of them has the famous lines, “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” It’s great poetry. So start with the real early classics. Not, I mean, I don’t mean start with Chaucer, because that’s difficult. And Shakespeare, if you’re not seeing the play, is difficult. But do you know those romantics, the ones that used to be in school anthologies and aren’t anymore? They are very beautiful, and they really will enchant you. And it’s inside the chant of that enchantment that you’ll find your own poetic spirit awake. That’s what happened for me, anyway.
Cherie Harder: That’s gorgeous. So we have a question from an anonymous attendee who asks, “Current forms of interaction and especially social media seem to promote immediacy and impulsiveness rather than waiting. Does Malcolm have any advice for how to cultivate the patience and attentiveness necessary for good living and good poetry?”
Malcolm Guite: I love that. Anonymous, I think you did very well to put patience and tentativeness together. That’s very good because there’s a poem of Heaney’s again, where he refers to his art as “my tentative art.” And tentativeness also goes with humility, so it is waiting. There’s no point in writing poetry in being a Know-It-All. If you already know exactly what’s going to be in the poem and what it’s all going to mean and could summarize it in your head before you write it down, then what you have is a brief note to self, but not a poem. Unless you wait for the poem to form itself and then listen humbly to what the poem is saying and say, the word is, the poem is going to teach you. I mean, the only thing that gives me confidence to write poetry is the conviction that all the words I use are older and wiser than I am, that they’ve been around and they’ve got things to teach me if I’ll only overhear their conversation.
So now how do you get that? You have, well, you have to resist the impulse, as it were, to surf on, to surf, you know. I have one of my poems I talk about, “we surf the surface of a wide-screen world and find no virtue in the virtual” and its ends as a prayer for God to root us and ground us. So take the opportunity of times you have to wait. I’m not a natural waiter. I have as much impatience in me as the next person. But I am also somebody who for environmental as well as economic reasons tries to use public transport quite a lot. So I spend a lot of time waiting for buses and trains. And I’ve actually turned that into a spiritual discipline. So as soon as I start fretting, I register my fret. I register that and I counter it and I say, “Accept this extra 20 minutes because you missed the bus as a gift, except it as a complete gift, and ask God to ritually fill it for you, whatever it is,” you know, and I go into a stream of consciousness. And I sometimes got a number of quite worthwhile poems out of being stuck on a damp, windy bus shelter with, you know, two teenagers smoking offensively just in front of me, you know. I’ve actually got a poem out that, you know, so yeah. Take the frustrations as gifts.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we have so many questions we’re not going to get through, so I want to combine a few that are fairly similar in theme. Donald Cammer asked, “How can poetry heal our divisions?” Similarly, Michael Hart asked, “Can you expand on ways poetry’s creative power might be a light to those neighbors who are experiencing a wilderness of the heart during this era?” And a third: “Considering we are coming to the close of 2020 and waiting through Advent, I wonder if you would share how your personal faith is ‘making sense of the world’ in this season?” So that’s a trifecta, all thematically related.
Malcolm Guite: Poetry and healing divisions is an interesting one. I mean, in the end, I think it has to be Christ who heals our divisions. And the closer we come to him, the closer we’ll find we’re drawing to each other. But I do think poetry can help to heal our divisions in this sense in that a lot of the divisions, I think both in your society and mine, are a consequence precisely of that hasty, glossy reading, because we not only skim-read screens, we also skim-read people. We take a few tags off of who they are. And then we click, we click away from them, or we, you know, we file them under this or that, and we have tags and labels for people rather than seeing people as they actually are. And to see a person as they actually are is like reading a poem as it actually is. You have to savor it slowly and let it be what it is and not jump to conclusions about what it’s going to say to you. So actually, the training of the mind in poetry, if we then regard people as poems—I mean, possibly initially quite difficult poems, but poems, nevertheless—we might bring that, as it were, poetic attention to people. I mean, Coleridge said that poetry removes the film of familiarity from things and allows you with a fresh wonder. Well, we need to remove not only the feeling of familiarity from people, we actually need to remove the film of contempt and categorization and labeling.
Now Heaney seems to be coming up a lot for whatever reason. I mean, we’re living in a deeply divided society in Northern Ireland. But he spoke of himself as one who had escaped from the massacre, who took protective covering, but he said he was, in one of his great poems “Exposure,” he says he’s “feeling every wind that blows.” And Heaney was able to speak into both communities, and in the end, his poetry became part of the healing that was the Good Friday Agreement and was quoted at the time that it was signed.
I had the experience, very interesting, I mean, once the poems are out there, you know, different people read them. And I was asked by the Bishop of London a year or so ago to speak to a clergy conference of the two cities of Westminster and London itself. Now London, I mean, you know, the Church of England, as you know, has lots of different wings. Betjeman famously said that he was asked about the C of E, and he said, “I don’t know what C of E stands for. I don’t know if it means comedy of errors, or perhaps it means co-inherence of extremes.” Now it’s co-inherence of extremes. So when I got to this conference, there were the super, super ritualist Anglo-Catholics, and then there were the sort of, you know, matey evangelicals who were all, you know, kind of down the pub with my mate Jesus. And you know, there were conservatives and liberals and everything. And I was supposed to be poet-in-residence at this conference. And I was reading poems. And I discovered that there were people on both camps who like my poetry. And there was something about the poetic expression, which was not a tagged, clichéd church political expression. It was kind of going behind the slogans and trying to get back to the heart of the matter that allowed people who thought they disagreed with each other to find something that they did agree on. So I think that that can be helpful. And that’s another of the reasons why we need poets. I think we are far too hastily reading and therefore misreading each other. And of course, there are malign forces at work that encourage us to caricature and demonize and misread each other, and poetry won’t let you get away with that.
And I think there was another question which I didn’t quite pick up on there. Well, there was a big one like, “how do I make sense of the world” kind of question. Yeah, well, yeah, I tell you what, I’ve been reading the poetry of the Bible a lot and particularly the poetry of the Psalms. And one of the most encouraging things about reading the Psalms is how often the psalmist says to God, “This doesn’t make sense to me. What’s going on here? Why aren’t you doing this? Why are you delaying?” That we don’t have to be full of lucid and perspicacious, you know, crystal clarity all the time. When we’re in the dark and the mirk, God is with us there as well, and God is happy to hear us out in our confusion as part of the process of working towards clarity. So we should never censor our prayers to God, only say the things we think God wants to hear. The Book of Psalms and the Book of Job make it absolutely clear that you can tell him what’s on your heart, including the confusion of your mind. And he will work with you in that.
Thank you. Well, I think the best thing might be to read the last of my Advent antiphon sonnets. Jeff was asking about hymns and poetry or poetry going into hymns. This is almost the other way around. We all know the great advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and that uses some of the ancient Advent antiphons and the images of God as a key and a light, and so on. So I wrote these seven sonnets, and the final one gathers up all the rest, and it returns to that image of the wombing darkness that we talked about earlier. And it’s really, I’ve been rereading it. I mean, it’s funny when a poem is old enough, you can read it almost as though somebody else has written it or you read it in a new context. I have to say, rereading this poem, this particular poem of mine, which I wrote many years ago, in this particular advent in this particular time of darkness, the yearning in this poem, the “come, come” and the longing for God, as I put it in this, “to touch a dying world with new-made hands” has become even stronger than ever. So perhaps I can just finish by reading you “O Emmanuel.”
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
May it be so. Amen.
Cherie Harder: Malcolm, thank you so much. Thank you to all of you joining us. Have a very happy Advent and a very merry Christmas.