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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 June 2023

Poetry is more than simply an art form — it is a way of knowing, says Malcolm Guite

I AM back from giving some talks and poetry readings in the States, and very glad to be home. I enjoyed some of the contrasts of that enormous country while I was there. I started in Southern California, which was, contrary to the stereotype, considerably cloudier and cooler than the England that I had left, as Californians were experiencing what they call their “June Gloom”, when a combination of sea-fret — low cloud and mist coming down from the mountains — cools and suffuses, with a kind of sepia tint, the golden sands and blue seas for which their state famous.

There were, of course, still the palm trees and the Spanish Colonial architecture to admire; and there was the wealth and glamour by which to be intimidated. I always felt that we were driving either in or out of the album cover of the Eagles’ Hotel California; fortunately, I was able not only to check out, but also to leave. After that, I was in Wisconsin, which was much hotter and brighter than California, and staying again at Nashotah House, a version of St Stephen’s House transplanted to the Midwest, but with the addition of visiting fallow deer, chipmunks, and sand cranes.

But I am happy to be home, and it feels as though, after a cold wet spring, summer has suddenly come in, in all her blossom and beauty.

I had been in the US to give some talks about how poetry is more than just a particular art form, but is also a way of knowing. I was developing Shakespeare’s insight that the imagination “apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends”, and commending Coleridge’s assertion that poetry can “remove the film of familiarity” and “awaken the mind’s attention to the loveliness and wonders before it, but for which, in consequence of that film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes that see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand”.

My claim, in those talks, was that, once we have read and inwardly absorbed certain kinds of poetry, our perceptions are heightened and clarified. If you have Psalm 19 within you, and know that “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord and the firmament showeth forth his handiwork,” you will never see the night sky in quite the same way again.

But, once I was back home, amid the woods and fields of England, it was not the Hebrew psalmist, but John Clare, that most deeply native English poet, who helped me to apprehend more, to see and to appreciate the English summer afresh, and to sense those “intimations of immortality” to which even the most passing and changing aspects of nature seem to bear witness.

As I was enjoying all of summer’s sights and scents, it was these words of Clare’s which came to me, unbidden, and cleansed the doors of perception, so that I could see anew what he wonderfully calls “the green life of change”:

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal; and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal is its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

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