Well, with March now ending I’m pleased to announce that my 12 Poet’s Project has finished. What a year it has been – beginning with 17th century poet and pastor George Herbert and finishing in the 21st century with former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
To celebrate this year of exploring some of the best Christian poets of the past four hundred years, I have put together a collection of 12 highlights of the year: one poem for each month. You can access it here, via the 12 Poets Project page. You can also look back over all 48 poems, all linked from this page.
I’d love to know what the highlights have been for all of you. It’s certainly been wonderful delving into the riches of Christian poetry and seeing the ways that these 12 quite distinctive poets have given voice to their faith and viewed the world through the wonderful, nuanced prism it provides. I look forward to announcing my next writing project, due to be unveiled after Easter. In the meantime, God bless you all in this Lent season.
In my last steps of dream, I am running,
carefully conscious of each footstep,
prayers in sync with my hesitant freedom.
Steps unfold as sun gathers mind up;
day summons up the light to enter, to command.
Yet first the halfway time, the thought
that what the day holds in its hands can hurt
more than night, more than the half-death
of sleep. Prayer holds; dream’s footsteps linger
and patter the day into being. Rise:
the night has not crushed, the sun will not harm.
Unknowing morning beckons.
Bach’s ‘Cello Suites are for me the supreme example of contemplation in music. They don’t deal with the emotions very much, there is nothing spectacular but just a single line unfolding itself. And I always see it as a kind of silver line in the middle of darkness…
As a child, I adored Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, especially No.4. Today’s poem, prompted by Rowan Williams’ poetic tribute to Bach’s Cello suites, takes that magnificent and rich piece as its inspiration – as well as its composer, for whom music existed “for giving honour to God and for the permissible delight of the soul”.
Concerto No.4 (After “Bach for the Cello”)
Polyphony dances the three-in-one’s consummate joy.
Staves undulate, conflicting as the cantor
gathers multiples together.
Where strings’ thrum and wood’s wind intersect,
there the rejoicing ordinary is captured,
beneath manifold sound:
Mourning and marriage run deep together;
necessity, glory, a prince’s pleasure,
all find common, circling breath,
interweaving soft as light,
The soul’s delight.
Bach for the Cello – Rowan Williams
By mathematics we shall come to heaven.
This page the door of God’s academy
for the geometer.
Where the pale lines involve a continent,
transcribe the countryside of formal light,
kindle with friction.
Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals:
under the level moon, desire runs fast,
the flesh aches on its string,
(From The Poems of Rowan Williams, Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans, 2002)
Well, it’s high time that I got down to sharing with you some of the quite extraordinary poetry of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. When Williams became Archbishop, many were unsure of his theology or what he stood for in his faith. Yet read his poetry and you see that, at heart, he is a poet: both a blessing and a curse, because poetry is full of nuance and complexity, something which can both aid and challenge our understanding of orthodox faith.
Today’s poem is based on Williams’ poem “Great Sabbath” (not readily available online, sadly, but you can view it here courtesy of Google Books). One of Williams’ gifts as a poet is his use of camouflage: the way that both his poetic form and the Biblical truths in his poetry creep up on you unexpected. So, to let my poem and his speak for themselves, I will say no more.
Now I tell you (After “Great Sabbath”)
Once before, they’d gathered by a peak
While gnats and flies buzzed around sore ears
And sun beat down on dull heads. It was a time
When mountain peaks had seemed too tall to climb
And law, they’d reasoned, must come to meet them here.
Yet law, tenacious, raised its voice to speak
In volumes which could never be ignored.
Higher than their ears could reach, it had come
Down to their dark, while scent of melted gold
And stink of drink and hot revelry turned cold
Lingered with them, and the righteous sun
Had blasted into every hidden store.
Today, the day at zenith, the sun burst
Across the bright-lit ridge where he stood.
Ears itched to hear his new-fangled thoughts:
Would he teach them a battle-cry? Sharp retorts
To put tyrants and bullies in their place for good?
The air rustled, scalps burned, and at first
They thought they heard familiar strains of songs
Taught at bedsides by mothers, aunts: that word, Blessed, a promise of no-one begging bread
And lands overflowing. (Milk and honey, they’d said.)
Today was dry; heat ate up much of what they heard.
Yet here and there a shock: cheeks turned toward wrongs,
The extra mile walked, the second tunic given.
Here, Simeon knew Eli still had his shirt
And Eli frowned when Enoch passed him by.
Hearts had excuses, but still the same reply:
A hand which rose to take in every hurt,
A back which gladly let itself be riven.
What, then, was blessing? A code? Sheer wordplay?
Some scratched their heads, others left for softer fare;
Some stayed, ears prickly, consciences seared.
Yet something of sheepish hope also appeared,
And as he paused, his lips a constant prayer,
He burnt their hearts with all his brightest day.
February now over, it is time to offer one final celebration of Les Murray’s poetry, before moving onto our next – and final – poet in the 12 Poets Project. Here is a short reflection on some of the qualities I value most in Murray’s work. I hope it is a fitting conclusion to our month spent in his work.
And as March gets under way, it will soon be time for us to open up the work of a quite unexpected poet: former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, the Welsh-born theologian and writer Rowan Williams. I first encountered Williams’ affinity with poetry through his translations of his eighteenth-century countrywoman Ann Griffiths’ work, only to find that he had written much of his own. I am looking forward to sharing it, and my responses to it, with you this month.
February is a short month, and so sadly I am having to speed up our journey through Les Murray’s poetry. My final poem for the month is an original work written in response to this interview with Murray from Image (Winter 2009-10) as well as Murray’s own description, in a personal letter, of his visit to a Lutheran church in Leipzig. My poem also draws on a number of Murray’s own poems. I’ll leave the eagle-eyed to find which ones, but the direct quotes from Murray are all in italics, to show they aren’t my own words. All in all, it’s a tribute to a man whose philosophy I do not wholly agree with yet always find compelling.
Sprawl: For Les MurrayGod, at the end of prose,somehow be our poem –
(Les Murray, “You Find You Can Leave It All”)
No pinched-arse Puritan, you could walk, I
into the church in Leipzig with J.S. Bach
differing perhaps in dogma yet relishing the
plenitude of song.
What did you hear that day in St. Thomas’?
Some mighty Cantata? The gospel set to words, to
set to heart again? The world, you said once,
reverberates with Muzak and Prozac. The mind
some analgesic sound to cool the air; yet souls
Yours that day resounded with the thump and hum
when Reformations raged, was controversy:
the heavens, all seemed to agree, will roar with
voice and instrument,
yet some still debate where earthly Temple-lines
Heaven invades earth as molecules of grace; yet
the Presence has always been Real: enacted in
passed hand to hand, and in sprawl
of shirtsleeve nobility, giving with no thought
no heed of destiny. Whispered in poetic diction,
felt, danced and dreamed, God breaks the banks
of hearts sunk enough to receive Him, who
enter church, not to proclaim what’s already
but in desperate, grateful hopes of being wrong.
It is with slight trepidation that I tackle Les Murray’s masterful poem “Equanimity”. For one thing, it is my girlfriend’s favourite Murray poem, so I would hate to destroy it for her. It is also a very complex poem, with a challenging style to imitate. But the central idea – the beauties of common grace – is one which is important to me, so I’ve done my best to reflect that, taking as the context for the poem what, for me as a teacher, is the very everyday scene of a schoolyard.
Schoolyard Grace (After "Equanimity")
The unequivocal rustling of leaves declares the wind,
a relief where sun has scorched for days and grass lies
dead and thin.
Rain having fallen, in its way, on righteous and
we pause, not quite content, but fewer weights surrounding,
the heat like harness for now at least gone
and the heart somehow able to rest.
Yet does it rest? The day continues with its obligations;
doors open still, still shut, and corridors and boardwalks
with children carrying books and truths
sometimes contained in books, some not.
And still the papers rustle, achieving the task at hand;
and still the bustle goes and goes, with lessons to learn,
and days to earn the approval of met expectations.
Grace like a silent spectator sits: grace in moment,
grace in movement. Hands move, attentive, yet
time contains the hope that now, this moment, is not All,
pass nonetheless beneath the gaze of one who knows and
For those who have not encountered Les Murray’s poetry before, his work always strikes me with the way in which it blends profundity with earthiness. One of his most beautiful poems for me is his “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”, a description of a man crying in the middle of Sydney’s city centre, his tears somehow a rebuke and a gift to those around him. I’ve tried to capture some of this in my own poem, which is also inspired by a magnificent piece of music which I heard performed for the first time at the Brunswick Beethoven Festival last week, Biber’s “Passacaglia in G Minor”. This recording doesn’t quite capture how it sounded and felt last week, but it might help you imagine what I’m expressing through the poem.
Passacaglia in G Minor (After “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”)
In the paddocks and the laneways,
over hills and silos and Sydney Road cafés,
the strains carry, in 40-degree-pain,
as the waiting place, expecting change, mourns and gathers
hay-bales, dust and tumbleweed – a man plays violin and speaks
with four bass notes, weaving in and out, attuned with tears.
It catches first commuters’ ears. The 19 Tram is locked by cars;
stopped at Albert Street, their minds slow to receive the faint
refrain. Some turn their heads, others stay
motionless, as though they’ve not heard. The wind
blows their papers, rustling; neighbours feel the tension
within the cushioned, vinyl seats. All have surely heard.
Some halt in the street. Walking here, there, shopping bags
poised inside inattentive hands, they pause. Where, they ask,
their eyes adance, is that tune? As though caught somehow
within the breeze – here lifting, there drooping, catching all
at traffic lights and crossing roads. Moving in and out,
the tune intrigues, now familiar, now new. What does it
mean, this unexpected crying violin? Children stop,
their parents’ hands tugged to sudden standstill: babies cry
and mothers gasp. Silent as the heart, the street pulsates,
attenuated evening mood drifting over tram-lines
as somehow the violence of this violin declares
the night into unexpected submission.
It gathers too across V-Line tracks and over hills,
this shouting, whispering, crying violin. Suited men stop
where they left their keys and wait; in the fields, the workers
wipe the sweat from brows and think, no sound to hear
yet pulsing through the earth, the cracks, the gaps, the fissures
and the hopefulness of the heat-waves’ final day.
And far into the earth’s dry heart, the strains now drift,
now mine, now desecrate the well-trained patience of
the stoic afternoon. Deep into the ear it goes
and pierces where the soul is still, and cries and cries.
The noise is war! And still on Sydney Road it plays
and men and woman stop their tracks to hear,
silent tears gathering in the twilight of their minds.