“I don’t deny that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.”
I can hardly think of a more fitting statement of description for Dr Malcolm Guite ~ poet, priest, musician, educator and enchanter of words and readers. Truly priest and poet, he reminds us again and again with intelligence, beauty and skill that we are not dead yet. It seems with every passing day that we need that reminder the more greatly.
In the following interview Dr Guite deftly explores the confrontations that face us all as believing creatives and shares some specifics about his marvelous new book – Parable and Paradox. I highly commend this work to all Cultivating readers and to make yourselves acquainted with the whole range of his artistic work. You will be the richer and gladder for it!
LES: Of the wide range of topics you could have written about why did you come to choose the specific subject of Parable and Paradox?
AMG: I had two reasons. The first was that many readers of Sounding the Seasons had asked for some more sonnets, going beyond the feasts and festivals, perhaps to be used in ‘ordinary time’ and concentrating on the gospels and the teachings of Jesus. The second was a personal feeling, in my own spiritual life, that although I had spent a long time thinking about what Jesus had done for me and for all of us by his Incarnation, death and resurrection, I needed to spend more time, personally, sitting at his feet and listening afresh to what he actually said and taught, and writing the sonnets seemed to me to be a good discipline for doing that.
LES: The title Parable and Paradox suggests the hard sayings of Jesus and that seems clearly laid out in the format of the book. How did you choose the poems in the first half of the book?
AMG: At one point I thought of producing a book that only contained the sonnets in the sequence ‘Parable and Paradox, but then I thought it might be good to set those poems in the wider context of the rest of life as we live it and I thought that by choosing and including some of the other poems I was writing in between my sessions of gospel contemplation might lead to interesting conversations and connections between the two kinds of poetry and also give a bit more of that wider context in which we all read the gospels, the context of our own lives as we live them.
LES: Are there parables and paradoxes that are particularly difficult to you? How do you reconcile those that you are wrestling with especially when the wrestling is personal rather than from an intellectual or spiritual perspective?
AMG: The teaching of Jesus is beautiful and searching but never easy. In Sounding the Seasons I had a poem about St. Thomas the Apostle, who had the courage to tell Jesus when he didn’t understand something and to ask him real and open questions. I’m sure these questions and difficulties were also in the minds of the other disciples but they just didn’t have the courage to ask. Whilst I was writing that sonnet I saw how fond Jesus was of Thomas and how he encouraged the questions and answered then for him in a transformative way. In that sonnet I call Thomas ‘Courageous master of the awkward question’ and in the new book I thought it might be helpful not just for me but for my readers if I channeled my ‘inner Thomas’ and asked a few more questions like his. So you will see in these new sonnets there is quite a lot of dialogue, where I put an objection and imagine Jesus’ reply. In fact when I was wrestling with the central teaching of Jesus in the ‘Two Great commandments’ I ended up with five sonnets entirely in dialogue form! This whole exercise has deepened my conviction that the Christian faith is strong enough, the claims of Jesus are strong enough, to stand up to robust questioning and sometimes that questioning, far from unsettling our faith, uncovers new depths and meaning for us.
LES: You have written hundreds of sonnets and poetic reflections in the course of your career, and those sonnets have inspired, comforted, and anchored thousands of readers and listeners who have brought them into their private and corporate worship times. What effect on you does the creating of these sonnets have?
AMG: A lot of the time our faith is implicit, its there but it is often unspoken and unexamined. That’s fine, but there’s a danger it can be taken for granted or even sometimes forgotten in the heat and press of modern busy life. I found that the time I set aside to write these sonnets, and I hope the time that other people generously take to read them, will have the effect of re-kindling and renewing that often unspoken and implicit faith.
LES: Much of what you write about are the simple, “ordinary” elements of life – words, paths, light, familiar friends, daily implements of our modern technology, pipes and smoke rings… you are able see these things through a filter of wonder and sense their connections to the unseen. How do you develop practices of perception that allow you this kind of a “double vision?”
AMG: Again Herbert is a very important guide for me here. His phrase ‘ Heaven in ordinary’ from the poem ‘Prayer’ and his verse in
A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the Heaven’s espy
goes to the heart of the kind of poetry I am trying to write.
In the end nothing is ‘secular’ but everything, even the smallest and most ordinary things, can be lifted up into the light of Christ and transfigured.
All the long day’s weariness is done
I’m free at last to do just as I will,
Take out my pipe, admire the setting sun,
Practice the art of simply sitting still.
Thank God I have this briar bowl to fill,
I leave the world with all its hopeless hype,
Its pressures, and its ever-ringing till,
And let it go in smoke rings from my pipe
The hustle and the bustle, these I shun,
The tasks that trouble and the cares that kill,
The false idea that there’s a race to run,
The pushing of that weary stone uphill,
The wretched i-phone’s all-insistent trill,
Wingers and whiners, each with their own gripe,
I pack them in tobacco leaves until
They’re blown away in smoke rings from my pipe.
And then at last my real work is begun:
My chance to chant, to exercise the skill
Of summoning the muses, one by one,
To meet me in their temple, touch my quill,
(I have a pen but quills are better still)
And when the soul is full, the time is ripe,
Kindle the fire of poetry that will
Breathe and expand like smoke-rings from my pipe.
Prince, I have done with grinding at the mill,
These petty-pelting tyrants aren’t my type,
So lift me up and set me on a hill,
A free man blowing smoke rings from his pipe.
LES: Malcolm, not surprisingly, one very reoccurring theme in your body of work but uniquely in your sonnet collections is the basic working element of a writer – words. You have a brilliant and beautiful set of poems about words themselves – including Spell and Saying the Names, which appear in earlier works, and here in Parable and Paradox you give the reader “Hospitality” and “A Lament for Lost Words.” In the way that you refer to words as almost independent beings with their own unique life forces there is a sense of a more ancient perception of words as full of mystery and power, sacred and transformative. How have you come to see words in such a light and to keep company with them this way?
AMG: Well, I certainly love words and see them as in some sense mysterious and magical. The Anglo-Saxons had a beautiful term for what we now, rather boringly, call ‘Vocabulary’. They Called it ‘the Word Hoard’ which has wonderful suggestions of infinite worth, of hidden treasure! Heaney revived and used this term and spoke of ‘ the coffered riches of grammar and declension’ and also, in his poem ‘North’ received instructions from his muse to ‘Lie down in the word hoard…trust to the feel of what nubbed treasures your hands have known.’ I think that is exactly right, as far as it goes, but I wanted to balance it with a further sense that words are not inanimate objects, however precious, but living things that grow and change, and carry their own wisdom. I first expressed this properly in my sonnet, in The Singing Bowl, on renewing marriage vows, but I have gone on to explore it further in the other poems you mention. In my poem Hospitality I talk about listening for the wisdom words have to offer and about how the poet, by placing certain words together can as it were elicit from them a new conversation, get them to reveal something new. Since words are so important it follows that we should be deeply concerned when they are mis-used, degraded, or even lost all together, and that is happening all the time. The words we lose in the pressures of modern life are often the ones we need most. This is why I was so horrified to discover the ‘culling’ of so many important and beautiful words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary and why I wrote that poem of lament and protest!
LES: Could you shed some light on what it means to be hospitable to words and how we might practice that better in our lives as writers?
AMG: I think all the usual rules and practices of human hospitality apply to our relations with words as well. Think about what happens when we give a dinner and entertain our friends. First we are making time for them, then we are calling or inviting them by name, then when they arrive we give thought to where they’d like to sit and whom they’d like to be with. Then we listen to them! We let them say what they have to say. We don’t censor them or rush to interpret what they say our way before they’ve even finished saying it. We give them room and time to expand and develop their thoughts and try to create an atmosphere in which they will feel valued and able to unfold a little. We can do all those same things for the words we use. Most modern reading and writing is done at speed, with auto-correct rushing in to change and suggest things and some words woefully mis-used to give a false impression, as in most advertising or the optimistic descriptions of property in estate agents particulars or holiday brochures. Poetry is just the opposite of all that. It is slow, it is leisurely and the poet gives all is words a chance to find their right place, to shine, and to be themselves!
LES: One of my favourite sonnets in this book is the one titled “The Naming of Jesus.” Another favourite is “Hallowed be Thy Name.” Naming happens to be a theme that runs through all of your collections of sonnets, including Parable and Paradox. What draws you to this issue again and again? At its core, what does it mean – naming – and how can we as artists and writers, as Christ-followers and poet-makers, name better than we do now? How is naming different than making space for words and keeping company with them?
AMG: If words are all precious and important then Names, specifically and especially the names of people, words that mean a person and not just a thing, are even more so. In the bible there is always a link between Name and nature God calls everything into being by naming it and when he makes a person new by the work of his grace he often gives them a new name (Jacob/Israel, Saul/Paul) or reminds them of the deeper meaning of their original name (Nathanael for example). And Jesus’ own Name itself discloses the heart of who he is and what he does (Yahweh Saves!). When we listen to words we may be passive, however hospitable we are also being, but when we Name something we are echoing, and using, or abusing, a god-like power, part of the image of God in us. That is why ‘name-calling’ and inventing or using abusive or false names or pejorative words for people is such a deep and terrible sin. I explore that a little in my poem ‘What If) But on the positive side we can do immense good by calling people by their right name or just speaking their name in love. Think what Jesus does in the garden of the resurrection when he just speaks the name ‘Mary’. So I pay particular attention to naming in my poetry, and at the heart of that is a renewed sense of what an awesome privilege not only to have and use language but to have been given, to have been taught, to be allowed to use, the actual Name of God himself, the name of Jesus.
LES: There is a beautiful mirroring in the two sonnets “The Words of Life” and “A Sword” with the reflective interplay in the deeper currents of meaning and power of the Word. The Word Itself has the power to give life and also to rend it to its basic foundation. How do we best live in balance with such power? Is there a spiritual discipline or approach that best aids us in developing such a balance? Reverence is what I think of but from your perspective is there something more – something perhaps joined with that reverence?
AMG: Well, the final line in ‘A Sword’ turns on the fact that in English the word ‘Sword’ contains the word ‘word’. Both poems reflect on the image in scripture that the Word of God is sharper than a two edged sword, able to pierce to the division of joint and marrow.There are several things at stake here. First a recognition of the searching, piercing power of the Scriptures themselves. We have the impression when we open the book that we are reading the scriptures but very soon we find that the scriptures are reading us, searching our hearts, making us think in new ways. That’s such an uncomfortable feeling sometimes that we try to find ways of blunting the sword, not realizing that the way the spirit wields the sword is different from ours. The Spirit pierces in order to heal. But of course there is another and deeper meaning to the Word. Scripture is only the word of God in so far as it points and leads us to Jesus. It is Jesus himself, rather than any words about him who is truly The Word of God. The Words of life, which is voiced for Peter, is really a plea to Jesus saying even when I don’t understand or have not accepted your words, please keep me close to you as The Word.
LES: You have mentioned to me that with Paradox and Parable you feel that you have come to a completion of the series for this kind of sonnet. Where do you think you might head from here in form and subject?
AMG: As I was coming towards the end of the fifty sonnet sequence in Parable and Paradox I began to feel that I was somehow completing a task and that I should begin to explore some new possibilities in both form and content for my poetry. After I wrote the final sonnets for the Parable and Paradox sequence I looked back at the 70 sonnets in Sounding the Seasons and at the various other sonnets about faith and spiritual life which are collected in The Singing Bowl and also in Parable and Paradox but outside the specific sequence on the sayings. And when I counted them all up I realized there were exactly 150 of them. A good round number, and of course the number of the psalms, so I felt it was time to stop, to let the sonnets go out into the world and do their work and turn to something new.
Whereas Parable and Paradox as a sonnet sequence is a direct response to the words of Jesus and is, in that sense words about words I am feeling drawn now to write, not about texts but about the creation itself, about particular places, and especially about the earth beneath my feet, the particular bit of earth I live on, that is to say England, in all its richness its, depth, its history, its myths and legends, and the whole feel I have for particular places, like Little Gidding, that time in these places is not like an arrow that flies by but rather like a series of layers of being, gradually building up, like the layers in sedimentary rock, and that all these layers are somehow equally available. One idea I have is to do a series of walks on old footpaths to particular places that are associated with ‘the Matter of Britain”, that is to say the Arthurian stories and the story of the Grail, and to write a series of poems to and about those places.
LES: You mention Little Gidding across a large stretch of your work. What is the significance of Little Gidding to you?
AMG: Little Gidding is one of the ‘thin places’ of the world, a place where the veil between this world and heaven, between time and eternity seems to be drawn aside a little. The inscription over the little chapel there is taken from the words of Jacob after he dreams about the ladder between heaven and earth: ’Why this is the gate of Heaven’. I first encountered Little Gidding through the poetry of TS Eliot but when I came to serve in a parish in Huntingdon I realized it was actually quite close and I went for a visit and found myself deeply moved to kneel in the ‘secluded chapel where prayer has been valid’ as Eliot says. After that I visited often and began to lead quiet days there on behalf of the Diocese. It has never failed to move me and some significant events in my life have taken place there, not least a day spent with Seamus Heaney which seemed to confirm my vocation as both a priest and poet.
The other hugely significant thing about Little Gidding for me is the connection with Nicholas Ferrar and George Herbert. Ferrar founded a Christian community there in the seventeenth century whose purpose was to renew the life of prayer for the church of England, and I believe, for England as a whole, and it was to Ferrar at Little Gidding that Herbert, on his dying bed, sent the as yet unpublished manuscript of all his poems. Ferrar took that that precious manuscript from Gidding to Cambridge and had it published there in 1633. I regard that publication as a momentous event not only for poetry and for the church of England but for the whole church worldwide, we are still seeing the fruits of it today. In my own small way I see myself as working in the tradition that Herbert started and in some sense, under God trying to continue what he was doing, so Little Gidding is for me a place of consecration, renewal and inspiration. When I need to focus and re-dedicate myself for my own work that is where I do it.
LES: Do you see a correlation between the work you have done on Parable and Paradox and on your forthcoming book on Coleridge?
AMG: Yes I do and the key link is the way we sometimes need to exercise our imagination as well as our reason if we are to get a full picture of the truth. The Coleridge book tells his whole life story but it centres on Coleridge’s belief that our perception of God’s world is active and imaginative not just passive and mechanistic. Coleridge believed that part of the image of god in us is imagination that our own unique consciousness is a finite repetition or echo of the eternal and infinite I AM. That God is calling the artist in each of us to keep imagining and re-imagining his beautiful world along side him. Now as I was exploring these ideas in Coleridge I was also writing the sonnets for parable and paradox, and as I contemplated the words of Jesus ~ I became aware of how often he appeals to the imagination in his stories and parables, how often he asks us to imagine the kingdom and then live from that vision so as to help make the kingdom real in this world, that’s what the beatitudes and the parables are all about. so I found in the sonnets that I was more and more asking the imaginative questions what if we did this? Suppose we lived as if this were true? Imagine if we lived this out! So both books, for all their differences turn out to be about the importance of Imagination.
LES: At a certain point in your own life’s growth, is there really a way to tell those facets of intellect, spirit, personal and professional apart? Does steadfast growth move each of those elements of being into a deepening harmony so they become in the integration something more than the original elements of self?
AMG: Coleridge once said
‘We must learn to distinguish but not to divide’.
We do need, and feel distinctions between the life of the mind and of the spirit, between the personal and the professional, between inner and outer, but in the end what we seek, and what we need desperately for our own healing and the healing of the world is a deep integration of all these aspects of our lives. Christ is the corner stone, who joins many not one and I think it is in and through Christ that, gradually, we can find that integration. It’s a long process though and is certainly nowhere near complete in me!
LES: You have collaborated with a number of creatives who work in mediums different than your own – painters, dancers, choreographers, composers, song-writers and story-tellers… where do you feel most at home in the collaboration?
AMG: Collaboration seems to come naturally to me, but I think collaboration in one form or another is patterned, as it were watermarked into us as human beings. We all receive the gift of life from another person, indeed from the collaboration of two other people, we learn language from others and every conversation is a collaboration. But most of all we are made in the image of the Triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, a communion of love who all work together in us that we might be reached by that love, saved and redeemed. It is natural for us then, in our creative endeavours, as sub-creators under God to collaborate. I tried to put a bit of that into my sonnet for Trinity Sunday in sounding the Seasons ‘The Triune Poet makes us for his glory/ And makes us each the other’s inspiration’.
I have been very fortunate in finding friends and creative partners with whom to work. It’s especially stimulating to collaborate across different media, Dance does something that neither poetry or painting can, and transforms music. Music transforms poetry into song, as I see so often in my collaborations with Steve Bell. Faye Hall has turned my poetry into something completely new through painting, indeed she is making a beautiful illustrated book out of the sequence ‘Seven Whole Days’ which concludes Parable and Paradox, I can’t wait to see it when its finished. And now I am also responding to the work of painters like Bruce Herman and Adam Boulter to make new poetry. I’ve just finished working with Steve Bell and the great musician and producer Roy Salmond to produce a new CD combining my poems and songs called ‘Songs and Sonnets’. That should be out in July and again it wouldn’t be possible without collaboration.
AMG: This is a very exciting project. I have admired Bruce’s work for a long time, in particular a painting of his father which I saw when I was speaking at a CIVA conference some years ago. The painting had such extraordinary presence that I wanted to write a poem about it and I told Bruce I had that in mind. It turned out that this portrait was just one of a series he was working on called ‘Ordinary Saints’. These are not official portraits of the rich and famous, but paintings of people Bruce knows and loves, family and friends. The theme he is exploring in all these paintings is what it means to be face to face with someone, to give the other complete attention, to be utterly present to them and let them be utterly present to you. And in and through that he is looking at the deeper theme of our call to seek God’s face, to dare to be face to face with him, to learn to see his face in the face of others, as Jacob did when he saw the face of God in his brother Essau, the brother he had wronged but who forgave him. These portraits are remarkable, amongst the best things Bruce has done. Anyway he invited me to come and see them and to stay with him for a while and out of that came a project in which I am writing poems about the portraits and these deeper themes and as we exchange words and ideas Bruce is also working on new paintings some of which may be a response to my poems. We don’t see the final shape of it yet and we are not working to a time limit but I think something quite powerful is beginning to emerge.
LES: What is the universal virtue of poetry as it fits into so many kinds of creative expression?
AMG: Now there’s a question! I think Poetry is a primal thing. If you listen to very young children, almost at a pre-linguistic stage, mouthing and lisping, babbling, making up strings of syllables that sound right to them in their own language, speaking back to the world and trying to name the mysteries they find there, that’s poetry! That’s where it comes from, that’s why nursery rhymes are so strong and important for children. Prose is a later sophistication, but poetry is primal and it naturally kindles and encourages an imaginative response, awakening the artist or poet in its listeners and readers.
LES: Throughout the full arc of your work, including in Parable and Paradox, you draw attention again and again to goodness as the foundational element throughout creation. Goodness seems of all the elements you name to be the deepest running theme and it shows itself in a dozen different phrases in your poetry, prose, song-lyrics, and conversation. How do you define goodness as we experience it? (In other words the substance of it and not only the idea of it.) Given the often overwhelming presence of evil we are face in this world, how are you able to reconcile personally the terrible brokenness of our world with the essential goodness of God’s creation?
AMG: Well, I think we must start with the essential goodness of God’s Creation because that’s where God started, indeed, how he started everything. There is an original blessing before there was ever a fall or a curse. God saw everything and said ‘Behold it is very good! The Hebrew word there means more than just good in a moral sense it means, fresh, juicy, lovely! Its about the sheer goodness write down to the core of what God makes because God is good. He cannot make a bad thing.
Its only when we know that that we can understand what badness is. Badness is the spoiling, breaking, wounding or abuse of some original good thing, and when things, and more importantly people become spoiled or broken or wounded or fallen away then God is in the business of redeeming, rescuing, saving his original good, not dismissing or rubbishing or throwing away. We don’t see this because we live in such a throw-away culture. Because we don’t make the things we use we don’t care to repair them when they break and we don’t know how, we just throw them away and get another one, and unfortunately we take the same attitude to people and relationships. In the Kingdom of this world everything is disposable. That is not so in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God everything is redeemable, and God who took all that time and care to make us takes even more time and care, even greater pains, in every sense, to mend us when we break. Yes I feel the shadow and presence of evil and suffering in this world, I feel it terribly but I am not going to call it the prime thing, that would be to give in to it. On the contrary I am going to look behind the shadow for the good thing, the good person who is being twisted and broken. That’s part of what my poetry is for – to point to and celebrate that original goodness, not as a way of ignoring evil but as a way of resisting and defying it!
It is always a great privilege to work with Dr Guite and an honour to introduce him to readers who have not yet made his acquaintance. If you are new to Cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful – or have not read Malcolm Guite’s work allow me to offer these references within the Cultivating site as well as Malcolm Guite’s own site and his Wikipedia page.
As always, thank you for reading along with Cultivating. Many blessings to you and yours!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.
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