The Rise and Rise of Poetry

Occasionally there is good news. This week we heard that poetry sales in the UK continue to increase, helped by exposure on social media platforms (Instagram alone features 19 million poets with the hashtag #poetry). I turned to The Bookseller for further information specifically about the U.K. and discovered some impressive statistics. Apparently, 1.4 million people in the U.K. write poetry — the same number as those who attend contemporary dance and just slightly fewer than those who attend opera. Of course, The Bookseller isn’t so much concerned with whether the poetry the 1.4 million are writing is any good as whether it sells, but at least their poetry is being published.

When I was responsible for the Stanbrook Abbey Press, I regularly received manuscripts from budding poets. In all but a few cases, alas, I had to find gentle ways of suggesting the waste-paper basket was their best friend. Perhaps I was just unlucky; or perhaps — perish the thought! — I failed to recognize genius. However that may be, as an enthusiastic reader of poetry I am glad to think of all the new poets I have yet to discover and the new ways of thinking and seeing that will result. Good news doesn’t have to be political or economic, or concern the environment or any other cause we feel the need to fight for. Sometimes it appears ‘like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ between the leaves of a book — for many of us, a poetry book.

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For Good Friday 2018

Crucifix by Giotto
Crucifix by Giotto

Good Friday is one of those days when I take refuge in poetry or look at a crucifix and feel stupid and dull, unable to get my mind round the sacrifice Jesus made. Above all, I seek the bare, stark forms of the liturgy because everything else seems too small, often too ‘pious’, for the hugeness of what we celebrate.

The liturgy is objective in a way that forces us to consider the Crucifixion anew every year. Our understanding is stretched almost to breaking-point. The liturgy’s quiet dramas and haunting music, the return  to forms of worship familiar to the early Church, help us cope with the vastness of the story it tells and the inadequacy of our response. The death of Jesus on the Cross has changed everything. What can we possibly say after that?

The Preces of the Solemn Liturgy gather into a sequence of ten prayers our needs and the needs of the whole world. They articulate what we cannot. So, today, let us pray as the whole Church prays: for holy Church; for the Pope; for all orders and degrees of the faithful (i.e. bishops, priests, deacons and laypeople); for catechumens (i.e. those under instruction before becoming Christians); for the unity of Christians; for the Jewish people; for those who do not believe in Christ; for those who do not believe in God; for those in public office; for those in tribulation (i.e. asking God to cleanse the world of error, banish disease, drive out hunger, free the imprisoned, loosen fetters, grant safety to travellers and return to pilgrims, give health to the sick and grant salvation to the dying.) AMEN.

Note
There are several earlier posts that treat other aspects of Good Friday. Please do a search in the sidebar if interested.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Moonlight

Last night I could not sleep (too much sitting during the day made my back painful). There is only so much prayer and reading one can manage when wriggling around trying to make oneself ‘comfortable’; the charms of the World Service quickly pall when every half-hour brings a reminder of the turmoil in Europe. Only the moon made the night bearable.

How beautiful it was last night! Older Catholics will remember that the moon was often referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Lamp’ (no green cheese or men in the moon for us). I suppose it was the inevitable consequence of the idea of Mary as Star of the Sea (one of the happiest typos in history). Anyway, I spent a pleasant hour or two recalling all the poetry about moonlight I’ve ever known and could only marvel that God should create something of such loveliness to lighten the darkness of night. In case you suffer from a sleepless night, here is Walter de la Mare enchanted by the moon’s silvery beauty:

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail