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Words underpinned

07 October 2016

Martyn Halsall learns from a poet-priest who reminds him of Donne

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the sayings of Jesus and other poems
Malcolm Guite
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90



SONNETS and their near relations appear to be enjoying a revival. The Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail wrote 13- and 14-line poems to honour his wife’s memory in One Crimson Thread (Books, 27 November 2015). Michael Symmons Roberts’s collection Drysalter (Books, 23 August 2013) of 150 15-line poems, won awards. Malcolm Guite, Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, sets 50 classical sonnets on the “hard sayings” of Jesus at the heart of his latest poetry, Parable and Paradox.

Reading Guite takes you directly to John Donne: the same interrogation of grace, compression of argument, and illuminated richness of thought, often in one line. While individual poems shine, many single lines can be abstracted, meditated upon, and learned from. Guite sets out his literary stall in “Bible Study”:


Untwist the thread of prejudice that binds you,
Pattern the fragments and reshape the shards,
Be lost in reading till the reading finds you,
Discern the Word that underpins the words.


Guite seasons historic structure and classical exegesis with contemporary concerns. He writes of “a world imprisoned in its wealth”, dependent on global militarism, and enslaved by consumerism. He highlights the cult of physical perfection, and the stricken world of the poor, refugees, and all those “beyond some comfort zone”. There is salt in these Bible studies, a sting in spirituality not afraid to re-examine the controversial, as when the Syro-Phoenician woman challenges Jesus about the membership of the people of God, and so: “Teaches you more of who you’re meant to be And so renews your power to give more”.

Guite’s collection, in which use of half-rhyme constantly intrigues, also includes sonnets examining the two “Great Commandments”, the seven “I am” sayings, and the Lord’s Prayer, and a tribute to the Metaphysical master George Herbert.

A rare unfortunate note emerges in Guite’s hymn to cancer-inducing pipe-smoking — perhaps part of the “paradox” that otherwise proves so rewarding in this illuminating and intelligent collection.


Martyn Halsall is a poet and journalist.

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