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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 September 2021

Malcolm Guite composes new stanzas to the sounds of a bricklayer’s trowel

BOTH my reading and my writing these days are accompanied by the intermittent and rather satisfying sound of a bricklayer’s trowel, scraping and cleaning, laying out cement; the odd hammering sounds, and chips and chinks, as bricks are trimmed to size; and, weaving in and out of it all, the occasional strains of his favourite classic-rock radio station.

We are having a little garden-dining room added on to the back of our small house, and it has been fascinating to watch how it is made: from the digging and laying of foundations, through the careful layering and gradual growth of the cavity-insulated walls, and now to the laying on of the roof beams. When it is finished, it will be the first room I have inhabited whose construction I have actually witnessed, and it will be all the richer for that. For all the plain white of the walls within, or the red brick without, I will have some sense, also, of the interior layers, the hidden foundations, the invisible skill and labour that made all this happen.

As I look out at Mark the brickie from my own work at my desk, I sense a certain kinship. As he works on the garden room, I am working on a new stanza for one of my Arthurian poems, which is also, in its own sense, a new room added to the structure of the poem.

As it happens, the word “stanza” is derived from an Italian word, which simply means a room. A poem of several stanzas is, as it were, furnished with a series of rooms, each of which opens on to and contains a little more of the household of the poem: its colours, its characters, its images, and its emblems. Donne is playing on this meaning of stanza when, in the middle line of the middle stanza in “The Good Morrow”, he says that love “makes one little room an everywhere”.

Looking out from the window of the back room of our house, through the half -finished new room towards the garden, gives a new perspective, a hint of the new windows through which we will one day gaze, and how the way in which rooms and windows give on to and lead into one another is part of the character of a house. So, too, of a poem.

Think of the eight stanzas, the lovely eight-roomed house, which is the “Ode to a Nightingale”. You start in a rather shadowed hallway, drowsy and numb, your heart aching, but soon you have been ushered through to the garden room, and you glimpse outside the “beechen green, and shadows numberless”.

The second stanza beckons you to the wine cellar and a vintage “cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth”. Then, soothed and refreshed, you’re out into the garden itself, amid “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild”. Then, somewhere at the back of the poem, in its penultimate stanza, you come at last to the “magic casements”, to those widows, that must open at the back of every poem, on to a mystery beyond words, on to “the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn”.

So, as Mark wields his trowel, I wield my pen, both of us hoping to make something capacious, helpful, inviting: something with windows framing a view and opening in new ways on to the world.

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