The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
I FOUND this book interesting, instructive, and spiritually helpful: a happy combination not often found. A 35-page introduction sets out the reasons why Mark Oakley believes in poetry. In brief, this is because there are some truths so profound that there is no chance of their being conveyed in prose. This is especially the case with religious truths, which can be killed stone dead by any kind of literalism. As Les Murray put it: “God is the poetry caught in any religion, caught, not imprisoned.”
Oakley, like any modern preacher at all sensitive to the culture in which we live, finds himself continually struggling to convey what he passionately believes, and the only help he finds this side of total bafflement and silence is poetry, and religious language understood as poetry.
This introduction is followed by a discussion of 29 poems from different ages — some religious in theme, others not. The big names include W. H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, R. S. Thomas, Alice Walker, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, and George Herbert.
But many readers will be glad to be introduced to some less familiar contemporary poets, such as Jen Hadfield, Jo Shacott, Liz Berry, Alice Oswald, and Fiona Benson. He ends with a particularly moving chapter based on a two-line landay (a traditional form of poetry for women) from Afghanistan,
I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and find
Oakley says why each poem matters to him; something about the author, then a close reading of the text; and then some of the Christian implications of what has been said. He is well read in modern poetry, is instructive about the different forms it can take, and is not frightened of being honest about his own journey.
It was as a busy parish priest that I found, personally, that poetry came into its own. It does not usually take long to read a poem; so I kept a volume by the telephone; it was ideal reading when waiting for a call or for someone to answer. More important, in the struggle to communicate the gospel, a few words of a poem — perhaps the fruit of a lifetime’s struggle for the poet — can say so much more than we can dredge up from ourselves in a pressured existence.
Beyond this, those few words can force us to dig deeper into ourselves to find our own fresh words rather than simply act as a conduit for the linguistic sludge of a debased culture and stale religious terminology.
This is a book rich in quotations. A few do not have a reference, a problem I know all too well. You jot down a good quote, but fail to take down its reference — and then find it again only with great difficulty, or not at all. The author writes freshly and vividly. When it comes to the poems, each chapter forms a splendid basis for a daily reading and prayer. Indeed, because of its richness, this is how the book is best read.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.