Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

12 April 2019

Malcolm Guite ponders on ‘home thoughts from abroad’

I FIND myself travelling further and more frequently than I ever thought I would — perhaps further than I should — and so I am still on the road as I write this, thinking “home thoughts from abroad”.

And, while I, too, might sigh with Robert Browning and say “Oh, to be in England Now that April’s there,” it is not only because I, too, would like to be there “while the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough”, but also because I know through what hideous halts and lurches my country is passing, round what blind bends we race to some unknown end, and it is hard to hear these things belatedly and from afar, to share them only secondhand, and not to feel them along the pulse with my fellow citizens as we pass through this crisis together. By the time I hear “today”, it’s already yesterday.

Of course, travel has its compensations, too, its gifts and revelations. Last week, I was amid the flat plains and wide skies of Texas, finding that George Herbert still had a place and a voice among the long-horns and the pick-up trucks. Today, I am in “the high dry hallows of Montana”, in the little university town of Bozeman: already 5000 feet above sea-level, and circled on all sides by the snow-capped peaks of no fewer than four different mountain ranges. It certainly makes a change from Cambridge.

I’m here to do a poetry reading, and to give some lectures on poetry and theology, but, before I do that, I have a little pilgrimage to make. For it was here, in Bozeman, that my guitar was made. I have a treasured old Gibson J45, on which I have composed almost all my songs, into whose hollows I have poured so much of my own feelings and from whose soundboard has come a rich music that owed more to the quality of the guitar than the skill of the player.

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Some years after I had acquired this guitar, I read an article about how Gibson made them in Montana because the altitude and the dry air were perfect for curing the wood, and because in this rugged part of the States there was still a tradition of craftsmanship, of working slowly and patiently in wood, taking pains and care over the shaping and finishing of a well-wrought work.

Inspired by that article, and by the paradox that the shaped emptiness of the sound box is what gives the guitar its fullness and voice, I wrote a sonnet about my guitar, and now, at last, I shall have a chance to read it in the place it celebrates:

Hollows

I lift you lightly, you were made for me;
No box of rain to give the grateful dead,
But breath instead and beauty for the living.
A certain shaping of the mountain air
Censes its gentle wood-scent in your hollows.
The high, dry, hallows of Montana
First saw you braced and fretted, resonant
And ready to be sounded into song.
The smallest tremor trembles through your form
And turns the air to music. My full heart
Is poured into your forming emptiness
And given back as passion for another,
Your hollows hold a weight that sets me free.
I lift you lightly, you were made for me.

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