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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 May 2018

Malcolm Guite tries his hand at ‘found poetry’, which finds hidden meaning in the everyday

I AM a latecomer to the fascinating form of “found poetry”: the art of discerning the hidden traces of a poem amid a clutter of printed prose, or finding them strewn along the street in signs, or scattered on a map in place-names. It is the literary equivalent of the whole genre of art trouvé: the idea that one might find hidden beauties and meanings amid the everyday, amid the discarded, and that the art made from these “found” things might itself send the beholder back into the world with new eyes and a new appreciation — an antidote to our throwaway culture.

My first effort at “found poetry” came when I happened to notice what a beautiful sequence was made by the names of the last little fishing boats, remnants of the North Sea fishing fleet, tucked in to the harbour at Amble, in Northumbria. I saw those names early one morning, many years ago, picked out in fresh paint on the old wooden prows, jotted them down, and carried them around for years, like a jeweller with a pocketful of rare pearls waiting to find their right setting. Eventually, it came, and I wrote the poem “Saying the Names” on the back of a shopping list, swaying on the upper deck of a bus, celebrating

…The ancient names picked out in this year’s paint:
Providence, Bold Venture, Star Divine
Are first along the quay-side.
Fruitful Bough
Has stemmed the tides to bring her harvest in,

Orcadian Mist and Sacred Heart, Aspire,
Their names are numinous, a found poem.
Those Bible-burnished phrases live and lift
Into the brightening tide of morning light
And beg to be recited, chanted out,
For names are incantations, mysteries
Made manifest like ships on the horizon.
Eastward their long line tapers towards dawn
And ends at last with Freedom, Radiant Morn.

Later still, I came to that other kind of found poetry, where one glimpses the poem hidden in the midst of someone else’s prose, like a shy deer hiding in a thicket.

This time it was the prose of C. S. Lewis. I was re-reading his trenchant and prophetic book The Abolition of Man. The first chapters are a sharp analysis of the way our present approach to science and technology is reducing both the world and its people to so much “dead stuff” to be manipulated and exploited; but, in the final chapter, Lewis asks us to “imagine a new natural philosophy” combining modern science with ancient reverence and respect.

And that is where I glimpsed the live deer in the thicket; for his prose lifts to his theme, and I found sentence after sentence quickened with the underlying music of iambic pentameter. My “found poem”, “Imagine”, involved no change to any of Lewis’s phrases, just a little judicious selection and arrangement.

As we try to recover from the catastrophic effects of our reductive and exploitative approach to nature, his words seem more vital than ever:

Imagine a new natural philosophy;
I hardly know what I am asking for;
Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,
With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,
Continually conscious, and continually. . .
Alive, alive and growing like a tree
And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,
The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser
The tree of knowledge and the tree of life
Growing together, that great ritual
Pattern of nature, beauties branching out
The cosmic order, ceremonial,
Regenerate science, seeing from within . . .

To participate is to be truly human.

“Saying the Names” and “Imagine” are both collected in The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press.

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