Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 July 2018

Poetic inspiration comes to Malcolm Guite at unexpected times and in unexpected places

I HAVE a little hut at the bottom of the garden, which is called (more in hope than expectation) the Temple of Peace. I borrowed the name from Gladstone; for, in any house he inhabited, that was the name that he gave to his study.

Not that my little hexagonal hut, which is, to be honest, no more than a glorified gazebo, would stand comparison with the spacious rooms, well stocked bookshelves, and lovely big desks that furnished the various “Temples of Peace” enjoyed by the Grand Old Man.

Nevertheless, I remember how pleased I was with that hut, with its comfortable chair, small writing table, rack for my pipes, and, pinned on the wall, a poem of Wendell Berry’s, “How to Be a Poet”, with its wonderful opening lines:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have —
 

I even went so far as to intimate to my friends that this hut was to be “my trysting place with the muse”.

This was news to her, however. For the first few times that I sat solemnly in the writing hut, fountain-pen in hand and entirely at her disposal, I found that she had booked the day off, or perhaps just pulled a sickie. There was nothing doing. In fact, the first poem that came to me after I had built the temple came fully, clearly, eagerly waiting to be written, and very suddenly, while I was on a crowded train, and I ended up writing it down with a Biro on the front of the paper bag I had for my packed lunch.

But, even as I did so, I had an obscure feeling that the Temple of Peace had something to do with it; that, somehow, by creating that external space where I waited in silence and in vain, I had opened a new inner space for the poem that came to me on the crowded train.

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Perhaps my muse was glad that I had made and kept a space for her, even though, on this occasion, she had loftily disdained to use it. Perhaps the Temple was honoured and fecund, even when it was empty.

I have found that to be true in other ways and places, too: that the making and keeping of spaces in our outer lives somehow clears paths and opens spaces in our inner lives.

The lovely medieval church in our village of Linton stands empty most of the time — as, I suppose, do most of the parish churches of England — and yet it, too, holds something open; something about presence and purpose, but also something about peace and silence which is, I cannot help feeling, as richly available and strangely efficacious for those who glance at it and hurry past as for those who open the door and drink in what it has to offer.

The whole village, both outwardly and inwardly, would feel different if that Temple wasn’t there. I wonder if that prayer-shaped space still shapes the prayers of those for whom the occasional visit is only a memory, as well as for those who often go there, outwardly and visibly, to keep tryst with the invisible.

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