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Poems at close quarters: Church Times Festival of Poetry

18 May 2018

Paul Handley spent a weekend listening to poets and discussing poetry

Ash Mills/Church Times

Sarum College, where the Church Times Festival of Poetry was held. Photos from the event can be seen in the gallery above

Sarum College, where the Church Times Festival of Poetry was held. Photos from the event can be seen in the gallery above

THE words would have been inspiring enough on their own. But it didn’t hurt that the first Church Times Festival of Poetry was held in the picturesque setting of Sarum College, in Salisbury Cathedral Close, during one of the finest Bank Holiday weekends in memory. If you sat in the right chair in the lecture room, you could glimpse the famous spire over the speaker’s left shoulder.

But that was an unnecessary distraction from the poets’ and academics’ contributions over the weekend. There was no unifying theme, but in the course of Saturday the speakers played a kind of poetry “tag”.

Elizabeth Dodd picked up on Mark Oakley’s description of infancy; Malcolm Guite referred to Dodd’s mention of breathing; Christopher Southgate recited his poem with the same title as Guite’s “What If?”; Rachel Mann recited her poem with the same title as Southgate’s “Compline”; Jeremy Davies made reference to Gregory Dix’s The Shape of Liturgy, mentioned earlier by Guite, and recited George Herbert’s poem “Prayer”, used earlier by Dodd; and during a sort of poetic compline, Pádraig Ó Tuama picked Kevin Hart’s “Prayer” to be read aloud: it had been read by Oakley at the start of the day.

Such cross-references, some accidental, some deliberate, ran into the following day, and helped to weave the festival together. Thus, although the talks and readings were discrete, each contributed to an exploration of the links between poetry and the Christian life — in particular, prayer and worship.

Oakley, Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, set the tone with a comparison between people of faith and people of poetry. Both “sing a new version of reality”, he said; each distrusted first impressions; each used words primarily for formation rather than information. Both were “disciplines of attentiveness”, accepting that people of faith were given just enough to understand the divine and themselves — and no more.

Ash Mills/Church TimesMark Oakley

Poetry was often difficult, he conceded, but people of faith “have learnt that difficulty is the only thing that will change us — apart from love”.

Following on, Dodd, who lectures in theology and literature at Sarum, talked of using poetry as an aid to prayer. “Shouldn't prayer be one of the most natural things? So, how can we not know how to pray?”

She dwelt on Denise Levertov's “The Prayer Plant”, the Maranta Leuconeura, the leaves of which close in the dark as if in prayer. Our bodies can speak to God for us, she said, and she linked breath with inspiration: “It is the Spirit we hear in our breathing.”

Like Mann later in the day, Dodd cited David Jones's epic about the First World War, In Parenthesis, quoting the passage in which soldiers are guiding each other through the mud:

Mind the hole
Mind the hole
Mind the hole to the left
Hole right. . .

Poets were the pathfinders to our desire, she said.

Guite, Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, and a Church Times columnist, was in confessional mood when it came to describing his craft. Whereas a poet such as T. S. Eliot “bosses words around”, trying to stop them slipping and sliding away, Guite saw himself more as a genial host, introducing words to each other. “Those two words haven’t been together since they met at the end of a Donne poem. They’ve probably got a lot of catching up to do.”

Guite was followed by Christopher Southgate, author of eight collections of poetry, who read a selection of his works. He apologised for the “grim” tone of many of his poems, providing what he called “dark relief”. He was drawn to places charged with spiritual meaning, he said; but also spoke of his visit to the World Trade Center in early 2001, and his return 11 years later, recounted in “Return to Ground Zero 2012”.

Ash Mills/Church TimesMalcolm Guite

The mood remained sombre when Mann, Rector of Burnage, in Manchester, considered the “war poets”, the subject of her recent book Fierce Imaginings (Books, 28 April 2017). Mann took an unsentimental look at the work generated during the Great War, suspicious of poems that had helped to condition the reading public into an anti-war stance, in which soldiers are seen as victims of circumstance or unjust regimes.

If poems written on the front line had their limitations, Mann was more impressed by David Jones, “a modernist Homer”, who finished his great work in the 1930s, recollecting the war in tranquillity.

Davies, a former Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral, tied poetry with liturgy. Worship took its origin, like poetry, “from emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Herbert’s “Prayer” was a “jumble of needs and aspirations”, one of the few poems to exist with no main verb — “but only the verbum makes sense of our inarticulate yearning”.

Paul Kerensa is remarkably humble for a stand-up comedian. During his after-dinner speech at the festival’s gala dinner, he apologised for not being a poet; but his rendition of verse from his latest children’s book, Noah’s Car Park Ark, and an eight-minute run-through of the Bible narrative in the style of the Don McLean song “American Pie” suggested differently.

The day ended in the candlelit chapel of Sarum College, in the gentle hands of Ó Tuama. Poetry readings included “In the beginning” by Dylan Thomas and “The Starmarket” by Marie Howe, but much of the simple liturgy was in Irish. “I'll never pass up the chance to speak Irish in an English church.”


IT WAS in the chapel, too, that Ian Adam, a tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, began the programme on Sunday morning with a poetic meditation. Gentle, conversational, he read from his collection of poems and haiku. His message: “Nurture a resilient inner life, the effects of which may ripple into the world.”

His work seldom strayed from the natural world: 

I was trying to read the river
But the river read me
“How will you live your mayfly life?”

Gerry Lynch/Church TimesPádraig Ó Tuama

Ó Tuama, leader of the Corrymeela Community in Ireland, concentrated on his early collection, Readings from the Book of Exile, describing a time when he was “circling around religion” — and not in a healthy way, he now believes. He described the story behind the poems, describing what he called a time of exile, which gave him great sympathy with the Israelites who were led in chains to Babylon.

One phrase resonated, used in a poem that defended and lamented a dead friend: he was “moved beyond belief”.

He recalled the time when he was 20 and underwent two years of corrective counselling about being gay — counselling that he now believes was abusive (not to mention creepy). He was told at one point: “Your problem is language.” The No. 16 bus bore him to safety.

He was followed by Michael Symmons Roberts, Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, and a prize-winning poet and librettist, who read a selection of his works from his latest collection, Mancunia, and elsewhere. What was most noticeable was the breadth of his allusion: although the poetry that he chose dealt with religion — “Jairus”, “Food for Risen Bodies”, “Mancunian Miserere” — they brought in an expanse of metaphor and reference.

During questions, Symmons Roberts was another who eschewed the label “religious poet”. As an atheist turned Roman Catholic convert (“I prefer to say I lost my atheism in my twenties”), people expected him to be “extremely certain, extremely conservative”. Instead, he said, faith was like poetry: essentially exploratory.

The Psalms united the last two speakers. Carla Grosch-Miller, a theologian now living in Northumbria, described how she was thwarted in her attempt to say the daily Office by her inability to pray the psalms. One of the things that made it impossible, she said, was that “the psalmist had projected all his rubbish on to ‘others’.”

Ash Mills/Church TimesCarla Grosch-Miller

She decided, instead, to write her own, publishing Psalms Redux: Poems and prayers in 2014. Although inspired by the originals, she felt no compulsion to provide mere translations. These were new psalms, dealing with “challenges and opportunities unknown to the ancient psalmists”.

Edward Clarke, a lecturer in English Literature at Oxford University, is still producing his set of psalms, closer to the originals, but making free with present-day allusions, as in the start of his Psalm 14: “The fool has taken to heart an Idiot’s Guide. . .” Since beginning the project, Clarke has begun taking Hebrew lessons, and described himself as “in thrall to an emergent book”.

The festival ended in the cathedral, with a festival evensong at which Oakley preached.

Canon Oakley’s festival address can be heard on the Church Times Podcast.

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