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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 December 2020

A Chinese translation causes Malcolm Guite to see his poetry in a new light

MOST poets would agree that bringing a poem into the world, and afterwards sending it out on its adventures in a book, is more like having a child and watching it grow up than it is like simply completing a literary task.

As soon as the poem is even conceived, it begins to take on a life of its own: even in the literary womb, it gives its mothering poet the occasional lively and independent kick, and there is certainly some labour in bringing it to birth from the mind to the page. And, just as one’s children start to grow up, make their own friends, and develop their own tastes, so it’s fascinating to watch a poem, once it’s been published, making new friends, who draw insights from it which you missed yourself the first time round.

If that is true, then finding one of your own poems in translation is a bit like hearing your children, home from abroad, speaking a new language — the same voice, but so many new possibilities.

I had this experience very powerfully the other day when the postman brought my author’s copy of Darkness-Lightening Lantern, a translation of my sonnet sequence Parable and Paradox into Chinese poetry, which has just been published in a beautifully illustrated parallel text in Hong Kong.

The Chinese title is significant. My translator, Haiyan Zhiang, had taken the image of the lantern from my sonnet on the Beatitudes and made it central to the whole collection; and, looking through the book, I could see how my once-familiar poem might, indeed, take on a different feel, a new poignancy in its independent life among the Christians of Hong Kong and China. Lines such as “I glimpse beneath the veil of persecution, The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss” might well speak strongly into their situation, and the poem’s thanksgiving for every glimmer of light we can get, “amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning”, might have a particular resonance there.

Alas, I cannot even pronounce, let alone understand, the beautiful Chinese characters into which that poem has been translated, but, reading it afresh, set alongside its Chinese sister-poem, has helped me to see my own poem in an entirely new light:



I bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,
And set this lovely lantern on a hill,
Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt
By lifting for a little while the veil.
For longing is the veil of satisfaction
And grief the veil of future happiness.
I glimpse beneath the veil of persecution
The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss.

Oh make me pure of heart and help me see
Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning
The promised Comforter, alive and free,
The kingdom coming and the Son returning,
That even in this pre-dawn dark I might
At once reveal and revel in your light.

A Heaven in Ordinary: A Poet’s Corner collection 
by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78622-262-2.

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