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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 May 2020

In these strange and trying times, people are rediscovering poetry, says Malcolm Guite

ONE thing about being told to “work from home if you can” is that, at least as a poet, I can indeed. I can still walk across the garden to my little hut, where I am relieved to discover that my muse is not social distancing; indeed, she is more intimate than ever.

And it’s not just me: I get the impression that everywhere, in these strange and trying times, people are rediscovering poetry. Perhaps it’s because poetry is, in one sense, language slowed down, an invitation into the pause and poise of every word; and, when our lives seem to have been put on pause, when we ourselves are poised on the brink of we know not what, it makes sense to read in that way.

But there is something more, I think. Perhaps the single most distressing thing in our current circumstances is the experience of being disconnected, isolated, atomised; but poetry is an art form that makes a unity of disparate parts and sets up a pulsing and vibrant network of connections between them all.

And that is true not just of the parts of the poem, but also of all the different readers of the same poem. When you read a Shakespeare sonnet, or one of the odes of Keats, part of the experience is the sense of the countless readers over the ages who have shared this with you, and those in your children’s and grandchildren’s generation who will share it in the future.

And there is one further way, during this crisis, in which poetry seems to be coming into its own: that is, in the harrowing experience of lockdown funerals. Just at the point when we most need to be physically together, we are being kept apart, and in that tragic disconnection we need all the other connections that we can get.

I have had an increasing number of requests in this crisis for permission to read my poems at online funerals and memorials, and, of course, I always grant that permission. But one poem, in particular, from Parable and Paradox (Canterbury Press), seems to be speaking into this crisis, perhaps because it starts by acknowledging the parting of our ways, the sense that “the best is wrested from us”, perhaps because it speaks of how Christ himself “Shares with us in time that shears and parts”; but, mainly, I think, because it reflects on that most poignant of funeral readings, from John 14.1-3: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”

How can they not be troubled? Jesus’s words acknowledge the trouble, but also call and draw us into a love and welcome that neither death nor any other distancing can diminish:

Let not your hearts be troubled

Always there comes this parting of the ways,
The best is wrested from us, born away,
No one is with us always, nothing stays,
Night swallows even the most perfect day.
Time makes a tragedy of human love,
We cleave forever to the one we choose
Only to find ‘forever’ in the grave.
We have just time enough to love and lose.

You know too well this trouble in our hearts,
Your heart is troubled for us, feels it too,
You share with us in time that shears and parts
To draw us out of time and into you.
I go that you might come to where I am.
Your word comes home to us and brings us home.

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