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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 August 2018

Holidaying on the canals, Malcolm Guite encounters some new poetry in an unlikely place

IT IS always a pleasure to see lines of poetry carved or inscribed on wood or stone, and having seen Blake’s poetry inscribed on his memorial in Bunhill fields last week (Poet’s Corner, 24 August), I had the pleasure this week of encountering some new poetry carved on wood.

We have been enjoying a family holiday on the canals, and, as our narrowboat gently ascended the flight of three locks at Hillmorton on the Oxford canal, I caught sight of the words “This door makes depth” inscribed on the bar of one the middle lock gates, and “captive for a while” inscribed on another. On the other side of each gate, visible in hindsight, were the two inscriptions: “working water” “climbs carefully down”.

Our passage through the locks meant that we approached the phrases of this public poem slowly, gently, each phrase on its own at first, and then finally, and in retrospect, began to put them together: not a bad way to approach all poetry.

So, at first, I just enjoyed the truth of the words “This door makes depth” as perfect for a lock gate, and then as true of words themselves, and of poems as doors into something deeper; and then I realised that the second phrase changed the first: the depth is only “captive for a while”, both in the lock and in the comprehending mind.

Likewise, looking back I could see that, in these locks, “working water” was “captive for a while”. But then I saw that this was only one reading. A traveller descending, or using the left rather than the right-hand lock, might read:

Working water,
Captive for a while,
Climbs carefully down.

And then realise, in conclusion, as they glanced back, “This door makes depth”.

Read either way, these inscribed lines offered some rich reflection for a journey along still waters that was already, in every sense, reflective.

I subsequently discovered that these lines were part of a larger project, “Locklines”: lines of poetry carved and inlaid on to a series of lock gates to commemorate the inaugural year (2012) of the Canal & River Trust. These lines for Hillmorton, composed by Roy Fisher, were shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for new work, and rightly so; for Hughes was himself a master of the poetry of water.

All that information came later, but, at the time, rising through the locks, I found these suggestive phrases drawing my attention to the paradoxes of the locks themselves. And that, in turn, brought me to a further paradox: that the whole experience of ascending through the locks was a kind of rising by means of falling, a deft and beautiful turning of gravity against itself. Water must always flow downhill, and yet here it was lifting us up. Detained, held captive for a while on its slow descent, it enabled our ascent, and the lock itself spelled freedom, the power to move in a new direction.

It seems to me that something similar is true of our chosen terms and times of prayer and meditation. They are like little flights of locks set in the stream of time. We bar off a stretch of time between two gates, before and after, and, in that lock of liturgy, although the minutes flow as they must, they do not entirely flow away, but, rather, they accumulate, they fill the chosen lock, they rise and lift us with them, a little flight higher, a little lift closer to our source.

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