MALCOLM GUITE’s latest poetry collection, After Prayer, illustrates the difficulty of transposing the historical into the contemporary. Guite takes as his central text George Herbert’s sonnet “Prayer”, published in 1633, and re-employs the 27 metaphors that Herbert listed for sonnets of his own. These follow the “trajectory” that Guite discerns in Herbert’s poem to “tell something of my own story too”.
This should intrigue, as it includes life as a Cambridge college chaplain, academic, musician, leader of retreats, and conference speaker. Guite is also an astute literary critic, as Mariner, his reclamation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an important Christian poet and philosopher, illustrated. “Mine are the twists and turns, the long road home,” he writes with reference to Herbert’s “Angel’s Age”; but the fascination of his original idea is not matched by its exploration.
The sonnets feel all too often detached, spiritually introverted, and locked in the historical. Technically the poems, written over some eight months in 2018 and 2019, are adept, but emotionally and intellectually they feel underpowered. While Guite understandably questions the “almighty” nature of God — “We fling back famine at him, torture, cancer” — as he explores Herbert’s image of prayer as an “Engine Against Th’Almightie”, his is not the age of the Syrian barrel bomb, or the Israeli Army sniper.
Although there are occasional references to historic rock music, most of Guite’s writing seems eager to take refuge in comfortable words rather than current engagement. There are some exemplary verbal gymnastics — “Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease” (“The Church’s Banquet”), but these sonnets too often lack the bite and acid of the original Metaphysicals; the darker side of humanity against which faith is illuminated, and experienced.
An inevitable comparison is invited with Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet “Prayer”, which concludes her 1993 collection Mean Time. This is similarly based on Herbert’s text, and weaves telling images into the poetry that Duffy has described as “secular prayer”. Interestingly, Guite’s outstanding poem in his collection lies outside the Herbert sequence. In “Empty”, he imagines Coleridge preparing to write “Frost at Midnight”. This illuminates a more exploratory potential in Guite’s work which much of After Prayer fails to realise.
Carla Grosch-Miller introduces her collection Lifelines with the dramatic statement: “I write to save my life.” The deaths of her brother, Tom, a skilled surgeon, and of then her parents led this priest to exchange “the pulpit for the pew”, pacing frontiers of mental and spiritual breakdown. Her poems re-examine faith’s foundations when almost undermined by grief, and find her “ultimately celebrating the triumph of resilient love”. “Scrambling to pick up pieces, / to patch together enough / life and warmth” she writes in “Death’s Undoing”.
Her poetry is short and sharp, often rooted in a specific biblical text; direct, without much adjectival adornment; quiet teaching with deft phrasing. In “Sarah Speaks”, based on Genesis 17, she illustrates her own experience and its representation:
“The Holy and Unholy / are as interwoven / as wheat and tares.”
Longer lines stretch the “Ode to Moses’ Mum” in a cross-cultural account of the adoption of “the wee bairn”. The apparent simplicity of the writing awards profundity and potential, as where the Hebrew Scriptural rooting of “The Tree” nevertheless looks forward to Christ’s cross. In their quiet, apparent simplicity, these poems exhibit the redemptive potential of suffering, and offer eventual, generous encouragement.
Dr Martyn Halsall is a former Poet-in-Residence at Carlisle Cathedral.
After prayer: New sonnets and other poems
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90
Lifelines: Wrestling the word, gathering up grace
Carla A. Grosch-Miller
Canterbury Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70