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Poets’ reworking of old wineskins

24 April 2015

Martyn Halsall on haiku, sonnet, psalm


The Singing Bowl: Collected poems

Malcolm Guite

Canterbury Press £10.99


Church Times Bookshop £9.90 


Kenneth Steven

SPCK £9.99


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Psalms Redux

Carla A. Grosch-Miller

Canterbury Press £10.99


Church Times Bookshop £9.90

Holy Luck: Poems of the Kingdom

Eugene H. Peterson

Canterbury Press £10.99


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Ian Adams

Canterbury Press £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9 

TRAWL through the micro-library that these varied poetry collections represent, and you find sonnets, psalms, and haiku being recruited by writers in the Christian tradition.

Sonnets form just part of the finely written and deeply intelligent work in Malcolm Guite's The Singing Bowl. Guite, Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, holds faith to light, re-examining the historic through the prism of the immediate. He follows in the disciplined tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, while pausing to light his pipe near Granchester, and elsewhere receiving an idea for a villanelle from a broken photocopier.

Like the earlier Metaphysicals, Guite does not deny struggle, as in poems about prayer or child neglect, but he also celebrates, as in the faithfulness of saints, from Cuthbert to C. S. Lewis, and the fulfilment of human love. Guite forms alliances; his work is both classical and yet immediate. Poems include an autobiographical snap from Bewley's coffee house in Dublin, a meditation on a register of ships' names, and the view from William Cowper's old church, "with its flood meadows holding scraps of sky".

The collection is completed with three sequences, including a searching examination of prayer, six biographical "glimpses", and reflections on Dante's Commedia. Deeply thoughtful and humane, technically varied and adept, realistic and faithful, Guite has written a memorable, fluent, and enjoyable collection.

Kenneth Steven starts in familiar Celtic territory in Coracle, but soon sails into testing waters on contemporary concerns. Deftly, through story, he raises big issues such as peace and war ("George"), bullying ("School") and institutionalised health care ("Patient"). Steven is a fine conjurer of atmosphere, both indoors and, especially, outside. He finds "Corridors smell of shouting and tears; The windows are huge opportunities For suicide", while, later in the collection, "The trees held in a bonfire of the last sun".

There are nods to other atmospheric high masters such as Edwin Muir ("Horses"), Seamus Heaney ("The Mid-March Frogs"), Ted Hughes ("Otter"), and Carol Ann Duffy, where there is "The sadness of Latin nouns being chanted". Michael Longley is honoured through "The Ghost Orchid", the title of Longley's 1995 collection, and Steven returns to his Celtic bloodstream with a concluding poem, "The Hermit's Cell", celebrating the paradoxical travel through stillness: "I need nothing;/ all I want is where I am". Coracle adds memorably to the fine work Steven has already developed.

Carla Grosch-Miller, a United Reformed Church minister in Oxford, re-casts some 60 of the Psalms after experiencing personal spiritual problems with the originals. Her work is not intended to "supplant" these, but to provide "prayer aids for those of us who need a fresh language that guides us into the depths of renewing prayer". Comparisons are, however, inevitable, and her poem-psalms appear slight and diluted as a result. Stronger material in Psalms Redux appears in her own prayers.

Eugene Peterson's reading of the Psalms at 13 rescued him from biblical literalism, and led him to a wider appreciation of poetry, "but it was David who got me started". Later, poetry helped to make his theology and pastoral ministry more "alert", as he wrote poetry "in the working context of the Kingdom of God". Many of the 70 poems in Holy Luck appear in disciplined sections of equal line lengths, preceded by Biblical quotations. He has a sharp eye for the ironies that often provide foundations for God's Kingdom.

Ian Adams, an Anglican priest, transposes the Japanese haiku form into a biblical key (the Beatitudes), and the devotional day, alongside the 42 that compose his "unfurlings". These show not only a real understanding of the form, but offer the requisite fresh insights required by the originals. There is a realistic sense of suffering within his celebrations of love and creation, and his openness to Eastern spirituality adds a depth and space to his searching, and his honouring of our world.

Dr Halsall's new poetry collection, Sanctuary, reflects on his year as Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral.

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