There was a church in Umbria, Little Portion,
Already old eight hundred years ago.
It was abandoned and in disrepair
But it was called St Mary of the Angels
For it was known to be the haunt of angels,
Often at night the country people
Could hear them singing there.
What was it like, to listen to the angels,
To hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices
Poured out on the bare stones of Little Portion
In hymns of joy?
No one has told us.
Perhaps it needs another language
That we have still to learn,
An altogether different language.
Among the joys of being alive for me is the sense I have, at the core of my being, that we humans do indeed need an altogether different language – and that we will discover, are discovering, and will be given it.
And when I’m occasionally thought barmy for being in possession of such a faith, I point – have pointed for forty years or more – to poetry, which is moving, always, in that direction, sometimes quicker than at first we can keep up with it.
(Always before us and / leaving as we arrive – as R S Thomas has it.)
What do you wish might properly be said were there an altogether different language with which to say it, or hear it? In asking the question, in altogether different searching silence, we may hear and see such a language being brought to birth within and around us.
That’s why we’re here. Co-creating. Poetry – life that cannot always be told, but that can hint and inspire, handed down through generations, eight hundred years and more. And that’s vivacity. And I don’t mind being thought barmy!
In dark-blue heaven a white road shines
like a sunrise opening the sky,
like a path dividing two green fields,
worn by cart-wheels repeating their journey;
as a ship draws her furrow on the sea,
printing on the white water a road
that unwinds from a coiling whirlpool,
this frontier of the dark height glows,
& splits with light the dark blue heaven.
Translation by Sally Purcell from The Astronomica of Marcus Manilius, Book 1
(First century AD)
Contemplation often facilitates comparison. Behind the dark-blue of my closed contemplative eyes there’s often to be found a white road – like a sunrise opening the sky. Recurring.
Awe and wonder ask by what great grace the silent contemplation raises hopes for proper opening and right direction?
Rest – if not answer – comes upon a quiet mind’s trusting a way forward that unwinds from a coiling whirlpool … and splits with light the dark blue heaven of our human unknowing.
It is because of the open-ended images of poetic forms that their power is exercised. All imagery forces us beyond containment. Words carefully crafted induce us to move beyond their literal meaning towards thinking in quite a different way, and so, potentially, of a quite different order of reality. Poetry allows a creative freedom in terms of ‘constructing meaning’ as opposed to ‘being told something’.
‘Are you paying attention to this poem?’ I was asked by a schoolmaster I held in high regard. I can’t remember now what the particular poem was (so, literally, it served poetic purpose!) but that I smiled and nodded, too young, inarticulate and timid to verbalise the thought – that he could ‘no more read my mind,’ as I responded to the poem before us, than I could read his.
Unique persons can have none other than unique responses to anything. So humankind must learn to express, with mutual respect, what our unique response to the poem – to life – is, or has been – a conversation (not dictation) made up of the partial, since our responses (millions of them, every second) are dynamic and ongoing. And these communications will be received uniquely. And initially, even if only for a nano-second, silently. The ‘understanding’ of the receiver will never be identical to that of the communicator. There’s an inbuilt creative provisionality inherent in all that exists. Unfinished works.
Therein, I think, lay my earliest personal comprehension of what poetry is about. The opposite of being told. Invitation, rather, to co-create – with the self-giving risks involved. On both sides.
Creativeprecision – precisely open-ended. No walls. The vehicle, the means, for eternal potential and always-unfolding creativity and renewal. Nowadays I recognise this experience, this ‘eureka’ moment, as the platform from which, very early in my life, I began to reject all forms of fundamentalism and unexamined literalism. The Creator of All Things is so much greater, so much more liberal, generous, inclusive and complex than one, literal, understanding of anything at all can possibly be. That’s why the guiding texts of the world’s scriptures – in all faith traditions – were written poetically.
The Source of Life – the eternal and universal Poet – affords each the possibility of an open-ended ‘paying attention’. We’re all allowed our own responses and interpretations.
Poetry – some of the greatest literature known to humankind – philosophical, political, sacred, scriptural, scientific, secular or speculative – celebrates the unique responses of individuals to its creativity within us. Creative communion and (Eden-like?) cohabitation for humankind will only be possible when the inbuilt responses to life in the hearts and minds of individuals are universally respected (when R S Thomas’s ‘blind look at themselves and love looks at them back’) – and readily welcomed as necessary constituent parts of a creative and always-creating whole. When unity is found in human diversity.
The other day I read one man’s serious insistence that all humankind should assent to his assertion that ‘God prefers that men and women should …’
Poetry helps me respond to the outrageous suggestion that one person, or group of persons, should presume to speak to humankind of God’s preferences. I do sympathise with the frustration of the literalists who, often angrily, insist ‘It’s a question of authority! It’s all there. Plain as a pikestaff. In the Bible’ – (or other particular source of their presumed written absolutes). Nonetheless it remains plain as the aforementioned pikestaff to me that it’s all poetry, a process of creative unfolding – and there’s nothing absolute, or plain, or final about that, now or in eternity.
For the umpteenth time I find myself persuaded that Louis MacNeice had a great grasp of provisionality, which I return to again and again –
For every static world that you or I impose
Upon the real one must crack at times and new
Patterns from new disorder open like a rose
And old assumptions yield to new sensation;
The Stranger in the wings is waiting for his cue,
The fuse is always laid to some annunciation.
‘there are more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand upon earth, and more atoms in a grain of sand than there are stars in the Universe’.
With a click of a computer mouse one can begin to have a sense of dimensions. Earth, with its diameter of 8000 miles; Betelgeuse, inspiring the poet, the second star in the constellation of Orion, with its diameter of 850 million miles. And there’s more. Infinitely more – whether we’re looking out, or in.
There’s tenderness in Vikram Seth’s Far from the City Tonight. Recognised need for proper perspective. And tenderness and perspective too in the heart of one Jesus of Nazareth, both within the walls of Jerusalem (which name, ironically, describes a vision of wholeness, completeness and unbrokenness) and – crucified – without.
They don’t know what they are doing …
We don’t. But through all the ages nonetheless, humankind has cried ‘Hosanna!’ – ‘Save us’. Always on the lookout for Messiah, Christos, Caesar, King, Lord, powerful one, magician.
Someone – anyone, even – save us from living death.
Someone lead us to a new life, a better life, a resurrection already! – If it’s even possible. Though we’ve had so many ‘messiahs’ through the ages we’ve become both sceptical and fickle. Wall building everywhere – because we’re desperate to hang on to what we’ve got, while simultaneously grumbling ‘Where’s the good life? Is there good life? Where’s the – is there – resurrection?’
Resurrection? Yes: of course, in the vast and alive depths of a grain of sand, of a star, of a person, of many persons, of an immeasurably infinite universe.
Resurrection? Yes: of course, in out of the ordinary Silence.
Resurrection? Yes: of course, where there’s no desire for lordship, or kingship, or national boundaries, or magic, or allowed and ignored starvation, thirst or war, or human aggrandisement and greed, or prioritised religious or secular traditions and sophistries taking precedence over prioritised loving.
Resurrection? Yes: of course, just so, said the Nazarene, for any and all who will enter into their chamber, little space, room, or tomb – setting aside (or crucifying) their too easy literalisms, their flair and depth and hankerings – reaching inwards, and outwards, to a fuller perspective, to the Heartbeat, to the Energy of the heavens, of the heights and in the depths.
Far from the City Tonight. Yes: yet in such a room, or tomb, unknowing humanity may yet encounter Jerusalem here and near – and thereby the quiet dawn, height, breadth, delight and depth of a universal resurrection.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on :
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed ; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back ; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
Two years ago the poet Paul Lenzi shared a poem on his blog that truly bowled me over. It still does. I return to it as to a hallowed hospital for the soul. And sometimes it’s the other way around – the work returns to me, like inner light, by way of one of those timely “reblogged this on …” emails. And I’m grateful for the great grace with which Paul allows and encourages still wider, deeper sharing of a poem that, I think, is about just that – still wider, deeper sharing.
think for yourself
new streams cut and curve
diving down through the snowpack
escaping the slopes with the help of the sun
cold and barren ideas will eventually thaw
find their flowing descent from high mountains of mind
to the ponds and the pools where they join
other waters absconded from glaciers of ancient beliefs
swirling eddies reconstitute certainties
muddle and deconstruct dogmatic doctrines
no longer cast frozen in rarefied air
now in potable mixtures free radical concepts
available here within low-lying reach of the everyman
this is where thinking can have its refreshment
slake thirst for clear unpresumed knowledge
if only the thinker will kneel unassuming
make cup of his penitent palms and then drink
How we need to know, today, that cold and barren ideas will eventually thaw
And how profoundly I need to maintain faith in the sort of generous reconstitutions that might arise from other waters absconded from glaciers of ancient beliefs
How glorious a vision – dogmatic doctrines no longer cast frozen in rarefied air – replaced by something infinitely more drinkable – within low-lying reach of the everyman
Let thinkers cup their palms to access a living water, arisen from the depths – having first acknowledged – by way of the penitent’s turning around, by way of a new looking, that our present-day cultural deserts are absolutely and utterly parched.
I thirst. We thirst. The world thirsts. But cupped hands – well, they could change that.
Hans Christian Andersen by Anne Grahame Johnstone – see art.co.uk
Green velvet smoking jacket
svelte and warm and treasured
the pool of light that quickened
the grain in his oak desk was
as much a portal for him
into other worlds as was the
oak door through which he entered
his library at every
Sometimes the desk supported
the console of a racing carriage and
at others the cockpit of
a spaceship from the pen of
Leonardo da Vinci and
at others still the pool of light
upon the desk resembled that upon
the spectacles of a tiny Rumpelstiltskin
or the chestnut hair of Lydia
the one and only he’d ever
And his pen added a carrot-nose
to a snowman fashioned
by his father and the slowing
pace of his seventy-five year
old legs was rejuvenated as
his pen pointed brighter than
candle flame into the
archives of an always fertile mind
His eyes could appear as blank
black discs in a handsome patrician visage
when observed at the desk from
eventide street window but
only because there they gazed
inward, remembering, rejoicing
resurrecting realities borne of
fairy tales of wingéd truth
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.
There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock: the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon: they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?
R S Thomas
On finding your joy
The swirl of a Mr Whippy 99 and the inviting sweep of the cliffs contrasted roundly with the dry square pointedness of my primary school classroom.
Padding along cliff paths, humming the tunes a handsome chap from the beach mission played on a glorious accordion, I was aware, even at five, that I learned more readily, lived more fully, when my own imagination was afforded space and acres of time in which to fly free, to be on pilgrimage, to wonder – or as students of Zen have long noted, simply, NOW, to BE.
The roar of cascading waves was for me so much less jarring than the stern calls to attend to multiplication tables, or incomprehensible, ill-experienced ‘comprehension’. The throwing of sticks for deliriously happy dogs – spaniel ears flying in the wind – was altogether more fulfilling than the jolt of the schoolmaster’s cane cracking the old mahogany desk – bouncing inkwells – or the chalky calves of his dark pin-striped three-piece suit.
Rock pools and small fishing boats taught me most about oxygen and marine life, hard work and skill, navigation and perseverance. The ancient church (in my case) at Pistyll, with its straw-strewn floor, spoke to me silently of the music of incomprehension, of all that may not be wholly apprehended, and of the bardic pilgrims who had come and gone before.
Colourful kites were my professors of aerodynamics. The aforementioned accordion my teacher of poetry, soundwaves, wind and joy.
St Hywyn Aberdaron, Lleyn Peninsula – where RS Thomas was parish priest | writinginlight