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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 February 2024

Malcolm Guite feels both poetry and prayer in the air when he visits St Albans Cathedral

I TRAVELLED recently to the ancient city of St Albans to give a poetry reading at the cathedral. The cathedral itself is awe-inspiring enough, but, on this particular occasion, my reading was set beneath a remarkable artwork: Peace Doves, an installation by Peter Walker (Feature, 14 April 2023).

Thousands of beautifully folded paper doves are suspended on satin ribbons from the ceiling of the 1000-year-old Norman tower. These were a beautiful — indeed, numinous — sight in themselves, floating in the vast cathedral space above us, some of them stirring a little in the imperceptible currents of air.

But this was no mere idle beauty, no empty aestheticism; for each of these doves bore a message or a prayer written on it by hand as each bird was cut and folded — not by the artist himself, but by members of the wider community of St Albans: the cathedral and its staff, the schools and colleges, local associations, congregations across the diocese, even a group of refugees. Looking up in awe, I was suddenly reminded of those lovely opening lines of Seamus Heaney’s poem “St Francis and the Birds”:

When Francis preached love to the birds
They listened, fluttered, throttled up
Into the blue like a flock of words

Released for fun from his holy lips.

Far from crowding the space in the cathedral, the myriad doves seemed to enhance and amplify the building’s spaciousness, not least because they made us all look up. It was as though all the prayers and hopes, the winged words and thoughts of the faithful, over 1000 years, had been made visible for us. From where I stood beneath them, I could occasionally make out little phrases written on their wings: “Don’t give up”, one read; “For peace”, said another; and I wondered what prayers the refugees had written, as I added my own unspoken prayers for them and the places that they had left behind.

I had called my recital “Giving Words Wings: Poetry, prayer, and peace”, and I felt that there were already both poetry and prayer in the air before I began to recite. One of the first poems I read was “A Lens”, and was about the way in which the peace and spaciousness of these ancient buildings become a lens to focus, for a moment, the presence of the God, who is always present everywhere. Indeed, as I read it, I felt that my poem, too, like all those prayers, had been made visible in this artwork:

Not that we think he is confined to us,
Locked in the box of our religious rites,
Or curtained by these frail cathedral walls,
No church is broad or creed compendious
Enough. All thought’s a narrowing of sites,
Before him every definition fails,
Words fall and flutter into emptiness,
Like motes of dust within his spaciousness.

Not that we summon him, but that he lends
The very means whereby he might be known
Till this opacity of stone on stone,
This trace of light and music on the air,
This sacred space itself becomes a lens
To sense his presence who is everywhere.

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