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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

09 September 2022

Poems, like children, grow and make their way in the world, Malcolm Guite finds

IT IS only too true, as Socrates observed, that a poet is not necessarily the best judge of what is happening in their own poem, or what it is ultimately about. Poems are like children: you nurture and form them up to a certain point, and of course you have your own ideas about what they mean, and who they are.

But they are living, independent beings, and, like children growing up and leaving home, published poems go out and make their own way in the world. They make new friends and have conversations that their parents could never have imagined, and perhaps shouldn’t overhear. But, sometimes, they come home with their new friends, and you have the pleasure of knowing that someone has seen something in your child, or in your poem, that you hadn’t seen yourself, but you’re very glad it’s there.

I learned this most vividly when a poem, which I had thought was so personal that I might not publish it, went out anyway and found its own friends. It happened like this: I had intended to go with my father to the funeral of one of his old friends. My father was unwell, and we both had some sense of his mortality, too, of the precious time left to us.

At the last minute, I was called away to a pastoral crisis in my college, and couldn’t go with him; but a friend of mine and his went with him instead. I glanced behind me as I set off for college, and saw that she had reached out to hold my father’s hand as they walked to church. I was so grateful, and, later that day, I penned her a little poem. My wife asked if she could send the poem to a friend in Canada, who, in turn, unbeknown to me, shared it with a friend who worked in a hospice.

A week later, I got an email headed “Your Hospice Poem”! I had no idea what this was about, but the email said: “Thank you for the poem which so completely expresses our work and vision as a hospice, we would like to frame it on our wall and include it in our newsletter.” I was flummoxed. But it turned out to be the little poem that I had written for my friend and shown to Maggie.

When I re-read the poem, I suddenly realised that they were right about it, and I was wrong. It really was their poem, a poem about something far more than I had in mind when I had inscribed it in a thank-you card for my friend. Here’s how it went:


Holding and Letting Go

We have a call to live, and oh
A common call to die.
I watched you and my father go
To bid a friend goodbye.
I watched you hold my father’s hand,
How could it not be so?
The gentleness of holding on
Helps in the letting go.

For when we feel our frailty
How can we not respond?
And reach to hold another’s hand
And feel the common bond?
For then we touch the heights above
And every depth below,
We touch the very quick of love:
Holding and letting go.

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