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The planting of a word

28 November 2014

Ronald Blythe looks at new work by two of our priest-poets

Beyond the Drift: New and selected poems
David Scott
Bloodaxe Books £12
(978-1-78037-104-7)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT292 )

The Other Mountain
Rowan Williams
Carcanet Press £9.95
(978-1-84777-449-1)
Church Times Bookshop £8.95 (Use code CT292 )

WITH this volume, Beyond the Drift, David Scott has some claim to be the Church of England's finest living poet. Prolific, visionary, intensely quotable, he has the current Anglican situation at his fingertips. Behind his language lies a religious culture that we all share - word-rich in itself, but carried along in these poems into fresh regions of personal experience.

Scott lifts the common apparatus of worship, also traditionally beautiful in itself, into his own dimensions, which are privately devout in a Herbertian fashion. We can see where he is coming from, although the result is always new and often startling. He is very appreciative; he admits that his "heart goes walking to the holy places" - as indeed does ours; but so does his head.

Much of his work is a reinterpretation of the familiar, even the commonplace. He reminds us that liturgy has to be re-seen and re- heard. His mentor is George Herbert, but he, too, must come out of the literary closet in which scholarship has often locked him up and be felt by the Christian mind in all its questing prayerfulness. Scott's title Beyond the Drift suggests a re- disciplining of the search for God. It is both a guide and a devotion - and also an enchanting biography.

Scott is a great tourist: never in search of the goal but of the everyday made new, something in which he is perpetually engaged. So he takes the reader to gardens, shrines, birthplaces, and simply "to church", the last being the most wonderful destination of all. We may think that we know most of these destinations backwards, only to find that in his terms we hardly know them at all.

Boyhood comes into it in a very adult way. He is a poet of maturity, of being grown up in the sight of God, although never forgetting what happened earlier on and needing to celebrate it. Those who influenced him and showed him how to grow are plain enough: Thomas Hardy, of course, but Caedmon, St John of the Cross, and a good many botanists.

He has been wide-eyed on his travels and in his reading, and accepting of most things, though claiming the poet's privilege to say what he likes about them - not often what he hates. Scott is the poet of gratitude. He cannot get over the generosity of "the earth with its store of wonders untold", and it is no surprise to find him saying "Thank you" to Thomas Traherne.

These days, we are inclined to make pilgrimages to poetry as much as to places. One of the advantages in reading this collection is to know the way perfectly well, so that we can put all our interest in Scott's interpretation of it; in what he thinks of David Jones, John Betjeman, and other fellow-travellers; in what he tells us about his own Christ.

It is also a book for today's clergy and worshipping laity, especially for those who often find themselves a bit stranded, and could do with an eloquent hand. Like his Lord, he is very much on the hoof, just walking about, taking a look at this and that, musing on what is passing. Like those of us who climb into pulpits of a Sunday, he meditates on his duties. Congregations hear one thing; those who preach to them, another. It is this otherness that Scott catches, sets down, is able to give us. He is "A Priest at Prayer":

From prayer to prayer involves
a dwindling, a way of being
that accounts for weariness, a regular

drawing in and letting out of breath;
the planting of a word and its forgetting,
a close examination of what is there
until it isn't. . .

He refuses to let the unparalled evils of the 20th century slip into obscurity, piling a fresh condemnation on them: the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the enormities that democratic governments committed in order to block barbarism and allow the often thin stream of civilisation to flow on.

Marks and pauses: where we cannot speak
we must not, where we can we must.

We must not leave it there. And he doesn't. If we have heard it all before, he doesn't say sorry.

Although the historian's voice may flag, the poet's must never weary. Jeremiah had great difficulty in warning his nation, when the going was good, how it was to recall and how it was to go on. In "Nagasaki", one of Rowan William's unforgettable look-backs on the 20th century, he admits of the "air being full of blurred words". And so it is.

Clarity is established when a little priest turns from the altar to the boy serving his mass as the bomb falls, and both are turned to charcoal. Is what is happening in Syria at the moment to update this inhumanity? Scott says no. Modern suffering is all of a piece, and not a series of items.

Rowan Williams ends The Other Mountain with translations from the Welsh of a fellow countryman, Waldo Williams - his "What is Man?" and "Young Girl". The latter is a reverie on a prehistoric girl's skeleton in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury. Williams has been frequently drawn to it. Such labelled items in collections have their followers. They invite speculation, and sometimes love - in Williams's case, a father's love for a daughter.

In this instance, a girl is so far away that the centuries no longer matter; so she comes close to him. He calls on her in the museum more than once. "All too soon she was put away, in her eternal foetus crouch." The young bones that housed her spirit are fleshed out by his words.

Throughout Williams's work there exists a central quietness as he listens to "The muttered conversation of rain on leaves". It is something that he listens to during the loud and beautiful language of his public life, the high-table Latin, the confident choirs - sounds that are never in competition with his poet responses. Anniversaries come and go. Dylan is a hundred. There is an inherited lyricism. Cambridge is more than colleges and full of "Yellow-grey houses, small clay ovens against winter".

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