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A poet who sets puzzles

18 July 2014

After the publication of a new edition of Rowan Williams's poems, Cole Moreton asks the priest-poet what goes on behind the verse


WE ARE talking about writing poetry when the former Archbishop uses a most unpoetic word. "You have to lose whole stanzas. It's the 'killing your children' moment, as people say. You think, 'Oh gosh, this is clever, this is clever. No, it's not: it's bollocks.'"

We both laugh, because it's funny to hear that word coming from the mouth of Lord Williams of Oystermouth. Pottymouth, more like. Such vulgarity would have got him in trouble - again - as Archbishop, but it is a little sign of his new freedom. He is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and chairman of Christian Aid, besides returning to his literary career.

Carcanet has published a new edition of his selected poems, which go back more than 20 years. When it was first published in 2002, by a small press, there was far greater interest in his poetry than there might have been had he not just been announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader to nearly 80 million people across the world.

Being Rowan Williams, he fretted about that. "I said to myself: 'Is this getting published just because of the curiosity value of an Archbishop writing poetry? Is it possible for anyone to read it while not thinking this is the Archbishop of Canterbury? Will it look worse or better?' Eventually I decided, 'Well, it's there. It's written. Let's risk it.'"

Then came the reviews. "I was always uncomfortably conscious that it was going to be difficult for anybody to read or review the poems without thinking of my being Archbishop of Canterbury. Some people would get gushing about it; some people would get unduly cynical about it."

He remembers one review in particular. "It effectively said: 'I picked this up with the lowest possible expectation but it is not as bad as I thought.' Phew!"

Then another comes to his mind, as we sit at the kitchen table drinking tea. "One of my great critical treasures is a review by Craig Raine of one of Geoffrey Hill's collections, when he said: 'This is almost as bad as Rowan Williams.' I thought, 'Woah!'" He isn't offended, just delighted to have been mentioned in a piece about one of our greatest living poets.


LORD WILLIAMS first began to write poems as a schoolboy in Swansea. "I wrote bad imitations of Dylan Thomas for quite a long time, like you do." He is still a fan. "Now that I look back on his poetry, I can see the enormous amount of hard work that goes into doing that. But, when you're a teenager, it looks like falling off a log. It's one of Thomas's most successful con tricks, that effortlessness. One of many."

His poems were shared among a close group of friends. "It was an enormously exciting cultural environment. My friends and I talked a lot about music, poetry, and drama. We all wrote, and showed each other our stuff.

"We published things in the school magazine. Although a lot of it was pretty terrible, that's fine. I don't think there is any sense of embarrassment. I look back with tremendous gratitude. My best friends are still friends I made in those days."

One is a priest, one an adult-education lecturer, and another has just retired from a museum in Swansea. It was in his late twenties that he began to do the work of reading and writing he considered necessary to call himself a poet.

"Auden had a big impact on me. It had a lot to do with discipline. He was someone who insisted you work hard. You didn't just rabbit on, or do an expressionistic riot of images and metaphors. I thought, 'I have got to work harder at this.'"

Geoffrey Hill, now Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, was also an influence. "I still remember the moment when I first picked up Tenebrae in about 1977."

He also loves the work of R. S. Thomas, but is, frankly, too nice to be him. I tell him this, and he laughs out loud. He has Thomas's habit of worrying away at a particular moment in the natural world, but not the intense spikiness.

"R. S. has been a huge presence, as he must be for any priest who writes poetry," he says. "Years ago I was reviewing The Man Who Went Into The West, the brilliant biography of R. S. by Byron Rogers, and I said it was the picture of someone who coped with being a mysanthropic, unhappy, complicated man by pretending to be a mysanthropic, unhappy, complicated man."

LAUGHING again, Lord Williams appears a happy man, whose life is far less complicated than it once was. What is he now trying to achieve as a poet?

"I didn't particularly want to be thought of as a religious poet, but a poet who, as it happens, is a religious person," he says. "It's a mixture of poems about the matter of faith and other things."

There are two main reasons why he writes poetry. "One is to deal with pressing emotion, as poets do. There is a sequence of sonnets which is really about an unhappy love affair in my twenties." This was written over several years. The poem is a series of sonnets, stylistically similar to each other. "It was a quite anorakish exercise in strict form. But also to do with what was quite a taxing experience at the time."

The writing of the poem started with a single image. "It was sitting in a basement in London with the other person involved, and looking at an uneven wooden floor, listening to the Underground. Something about that moment made me think 'This is an uneven surface to be on, and there's a lot rumbling around.'"

The other reason he writes is to help him process what he is seeing and hearing, in art or nature. "Dealing with perceptions. Poetry often happens when you look at a landscape, a person, you hear a piece of music, and you think, 'There's more to that than I can quite manage or get on top of: I need some words that fill out the edges a bit.'"

All of the poems are written by hand. Two are dedicated to his parents, who died within a fortnight of each other in 1999. "They sit within a cluster of poems that are about death, because . . . well, there was a lot of it about."


AS ARCHBISHOP, he came to enjoy long train journeys, when he could work away at a poem. "It was one of the unexpected graces of a not always terribly graceful exist-ence."

Did his mind drift away during Synod debates? "God forbid. I didn't write any poems during Synod. There is one certainly one called 'Emmaus' that I wrote during a rather dull conference. There happened to be a picture of the road to Emmaus on the wall. The talk I was listening to was pretty dull. I looked at the picture and thought, 'Oh. . .'"

His poetry is not supposed to be easy reading, he admits. "It sets you puzzles. It requires work. It's saying 'These are some of the extra dimensions I see in the environment we inhabit; come and have a look with me.'"

When the tabloids turned against him as Archbishop, they used his verse as a kind of evidence that he was too unworldly to be any use. "No surprises there, really. That's why it is something I feel mixed about. What am I doing publishing this stuff? But it is there, it is part of who I am. Why collude with the sense that it is somehow illegitimate or fancy or unworldly?

"I don't think poetry is unworldly. It is one of the ways we relate most intensely to that much-maligned entity called the real world. It's how we get inside ourselves."


The Poems of Rowan Williams is published by Carcanet press at £9.95 (Church Times Bookshop £8.95).

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