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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 July 2024

Malcolm Guite, like Donne, confesses his tendency to be easily distracted

I ADMIRE those who have the power of concentration, those who stay focused whatever is going on around them. I admire them because I myself am easily distracted.

Perhaps it’s because I am also easily attracted: a few words come together in my head, and I am immediately attracted by the possibility of a poem. Wind stirs the leaves above me on a woodland walk, and I am instantly off on a train of thought, perhaps even a meditation, on the wind as an emblem of all those invisible forces that move and stir us. This is all very well if nothing else demands my attention at that moment; but if I am in the midst of a task that requires concentration — say, listening to a sermon, or filling in a tax return — then it’s a problem.

At least I’m not the only one who experiences this almost infinite distractibility. John Donne felt it, too, and confessed that it afflicted him at the very time when he should be most concentratedly and completely present: the time of prayer.

As he says vividly in one of his sermons: “I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on, in the same posture of praying; eyes lifted up; knees bowed down; as though I prayed to God; and, if God, or his angels should ask me, when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell: sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer.”

After I had published my sonnets on the Lord’s Prayer, someone wrote to me and said that I had forgotten the most vital word in the prayer: the Amen at the end. She was right, and, when I made good the omission in my collection After Prayer (Canterbury Press), both my own distractibility, and Donne’s good example in confessing it, made their way into my poem:

Amen

When will I ever learn to say Amen,
Really assent at last to anything?
For now, my hesitations always bring
Some reservation in their trail, and then
Each reservation brings new hesitations;
All my intended amens just collapse
In an evasive mumble: well, perhaps,
Let me consider all the implications. . .

But you can read my heart, I hear you say:
For once be present to me, I am here,
Breathe in the perfect love that casts out fear
Open your heart and let your yea be yea.
Oh bring me to that brink, that moment when
I see your full-eyed love and say Amen.

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