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Malcolm Guite: Church with poetry enshrined at the heart

Poetry opens up imaginative possibilities and offers “phrases that feed the soul.”

July 21, 2009

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Most job descriptions for institutional leaders don’t require proficiency in poetry. But for the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite, a love of poetry is a prerequisite to leading well. Guite, a priest in the Church of England, is chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and teaches for the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges.

He is a poet who has published two chapbooks: “Saying the Names” and “The Magic Apple Tree,” and is the author of “What Do Christians Believe?” He also is a singer/songwriter with the band Mystery Train.

Guite spoke with Faith & Leadership in June 2009 while teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.” Guite discusses the work of writers close to his heart, including Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot and his beloved George Herbert.

Q: How do you describe what you do for a living?

I’m a poet first of all. That’s a conversation killer. I’m a poet, priest, rock & roller, in any order you like, really. I’m the same person in all three.

Q: You’ve talked about [17-century poet and priest] George Herbert’s poem “Bitter-sweet.” Why does it mean so much to you?

“Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
and all my sowre sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.”

What means a huge amount to me is the sheer honesty. Some Christians think you have to have already purged out all your doubts and difficulties and complaints and live already now as though you were in heaven. But I don’t see that in the Bible, and I don’t see it church history, but I do see it sometimes in church culture. I felt a need for a church (mine is Anglican) with poetry enshrined at the heart of it.

The poem shows what we might call a “both/andness,” an inclusivity, an honesty in refusing to let go of either side of a balance. The other thing about that poem is that the last word is love. The tension of holding things together is how it is now. But that doesn’t mean that we think it’s God’s last word -- God’s first and last word is love.

The poem is embroidered and hung on the wall of the chapel, the little 17th-century chapel in Little Gidding, which is a place that’s very sacred to me. I came to it, like so many people, through T.S. Eliot’s great poem “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets.

Q: The history of Little Gidding is one of hospitality -- which always comes from a place of fragility, doesn’t it?

Little Gidding was hospitable to people of all persuasions. It was famously hospitable after the king [Charles I] was defeated at the Battle of Naseby and he was on the run. He was a refugee -- the most wanted man in England. And he didn’t know where to go. And he remembered a visit he’d made to Little Gidding, this tiny little place in the back of beyond. He remembered when he’d in the earlier days before this tragic war came upon us.

T.S. Eliot says in the poem he came at night in disguise, as a broken king. And they took him in, and literally bathed his wounds, and received him with hospitality.

When he was arrested and brought to his execution in London, they found everything out; then they sent troops to trash the place, and they came in and wrecked the chapel.

But it’s very curious how God works. The soldiers threw the beautiful baptismal font into the village pond. It just sank; nobody knew it was there. Later a revival began in the late 19th century, a sense that the church needed to be as true to its Catholic roots as it was to its Protestant ones. People began to be interested in this experiment in living in Little Gidding again.

Eventually somebody found the font in the pond. And of course baptism is this sense of death and resurrection: you know we have to go down in the waves. I find it extraordinarily moving that the font itself was baptized! That seems to be the story of that place. It has made itself vulnerable, and has died several times, and then been revived.

It was revived in the 19th century through a book called “John Inglesant” by J.H. Shorthouse. T.S. Eliot’s mother had that book. So T.S. Eliot kind of half-knew the story, and then when he came to Cambridge in the 1930s somebody drove him there.

As he was finishing the greatest work of his life, and the fire was falling all over England in the Blitz, Eliot didn’t leave. He had American citizenship and could have left -- lots of American writers did. And when he needed a location for his sense that this bombed-out country was not going to die, and that there is another fire, apart from the dark fire that was falling from the sky: “We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.” That would need to be a different kind of Pentecostal fire. He located all of that in Little Gidding, which had been burnt.

After that, because of that poem, a new community came there, drawn to that place. It’s a definite resurrection place. It has become a place of pilgrimage, and a place in which poetry is allowed to transfigure people’s vision.

Q. Why is that important to you?

At the very heart of gospel as I understand it…is transfiguration. By which I mean not that we get out of the place we’re in…at what may be a very broken and disfigured situation. But that if you look at something clearly enough, open enough to the Spirit, sometimes the very thing you’re seeing -- while not ceasing to be itself -- is transfigured.

George Herbert again was the one who wrote those words, “A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye, Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then the heav'n espy.”

And Herbert also wrote about windows. He wrote a poem called “The Windows” in which he redeems the word “stain.” He doesn’t use the word, he just redeems it. Because if you think about the word “stain,” it always means something negative, except in one context. There’s only one context in which it has no negative connotations, it’s completely redeemed, and that’s stained glass.

And he wrote a poem about being a preacher, you might say being a leader as well. This is kind of a core vision...It starts, “Lord, how can man preach thy eternall word? He is a brittle, crazie glasse: Yet in thy temple, thou dost him afford this glorious and transcendent place, to be a window, through thy grace.”

And the “brittle” and “crazy” is great. He’s really into the techniques of metaphysical poets. He’s really into taking things that people didn’t think were poetic and using them in a new way. And in those days, making glass, if you’ve seen real old glass in ancient buildings, it’s all wavy and lumpy. That’s because there was a trade-off… If you got the glass real thin and clear to see through, it would become brittle and could shatter really easy. So it was better to have it “crazy,” a little bit waved, but thicker. Herbert’s great. He’s saying, normally glass is either brittle or crazy, but Lord, I’m brittle and crazy.

But he goes on in that poem, and says, “I can be a window.” But then he says this amazing thing: “When thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie, making thy life to shine within the holy Preachers.” And he says, “doctrine and life, colors and light in one, when they combine and mingle.”

And again, that’s a technical thing in glassmaking. You can’t just paint color on glass. It just flakes off again. Annealing, to get the color in stained glass, you heat the glass up, which of course it used to be hot, molten silicon. You take it back almost to where it began in this fierce heat. You pour the colors in, and then you bring it back, hoping it won’t get too brittle or crazy. And it’s got this color, this stain.

And what I see Herbert saying in that poem is that we take our passions, and sometimes our faults and our brokenness and our stains, and we let God anneal his story. So there’s some point in which we become a window of grace, not, Herbert says, by being some pure, clear, beautiful thing …but by this annealing process where our colors and the colors of Christ’s passion run together in the glass.

Q: At Leadership Education we draw from the work of Roger Martin and his book “The Opposable Mind,” which talks about trying to hold things together that are normally seen as mutually exclusive. That sounds like the “both/andness” that you ascribe to poetry.

That’s George Herbert all the way. There is a deep “both/andness” that you get in him. A lot of his poems are cast in the form of dialogue, as was much early 17th-century Anglican poetry. His dialogues are often between himself and God. There’s a really great poem of his called “The Collar” in which he goes on for 20 lines or so, getting worse and worse. He laments, “I can’t stand this, I’m leaving.” He details every single thing that is wrong about his calling. As a reader you wonder, “How’s he going to get out of this? He’s only got four lines left.” And there’s this wonderful conclusion:

“But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde,
At every word
me thoughts I heard one calling, Childe:
And I repl’d, My Lord.”

And there’s a real sense there that he as a poet was being a real person, and also was in touch with the child within himself.

One of the great paradoxes of the gospel is that we have Jesus saying, “here’s the child in the midst, you won’t receive the kingdom unless you’re like this child.” And we have Paul saying, “Do not be like a child blown every which way, by every wind of doctrine. But grow up into the maturity of Christ.” The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that a poet is a person who takes the vision of the child into the powers of the adult. It’s the expression of a childlike vision through adult powers. And that’s not unlike opposability.

I actually think a leader can’t expect an organization to have an integrated sense -- an opposability -- these creative tensions in “both/andness” in their organization, if they haven’t figured out how to do that inside themselves. If they’ve become, as it were, monolithic, monoglot, in their own internal structuring, they’re not going to be able to foster that opposability anywhere else.

Q: Who is another poet who tells this truth for you?

A: Seamus Heaney is astonishing. He doesn’t carry the Christian label, but then labels don’t save anybody. He’s born a Catholic in Northern Ireland, and he has a great and hugely Catholic imagination, what C.S. Lewis would call a “baptized imagination.”

But you can well imagine that where he is coming from, the way in which the religious labels have been so much a part of the problem, so politicized and entrenched in hatred and violence, that he’s very shy of accepting his labels. But he’s well aware that his poetry is nurturing tremendous Christian understanding.

He’s another person who powerfully and fruitfully goes down into the darkness, and doesn’t forget the darkness, or overwrite it, or trivialize it when he is able to emerge again into the light.

He has some amazing things to say in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech “Crediting Poetry” about how he had to pay attention to the murderous, but there came a point in his life, where he needed to make room in his reckoning and his imagination for the marvelous as well as the murderous, for the redemptive possibility. And of course his very poetry of redemptive possibility I think has actually been part of the peace process.

I think he’s changed the imaginative possibilities for many people, including people who were closely involved in trying to make that peace happen.

Q: Could you point to a specific poem, or patch of poetry of his that anyone should hear and make them fall in love with Seamus Heaney?

“The Rain Stick” begins:

“Up-end the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rash, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water”

It’s about this sheer unpromising-ness of the rain stick. How do you upend it? How do you flip things over? How do you see them in a new perspective? How does the very thing which has been the problem become the release? I’m thinking about problems in organizations which turn out to be opportunities, but also of situations of reconciliation.

The other thing that’s very interesting in that poem is the movement from subject to object. He starts off by saying, “Up-end the rain stick,” so you’re here and the rain stick’s over there, and you do something to it. But it turns around, and he says, “You stand there, like a pipe being played by water.” And something that you thought was going on out there is actually really happening in here.

Like Herbert, whom he loves and often quotes, he is a tremendous poet of “both/and-nesses.” He grew up a Catholic in the North. The whole culture would be to love all things Celtic and Irish. But he fell in love with Anglo-Saxon culture instead. He’s the best Irish poet since Yeats, but he’s also the best translator of the core Anglo-Saxon poem, "Beowulf." And when he was given the Whitbread Prize for that, he dedicated it to the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Christian who’d written that poem.

Q: When thinking about most leadership literature, almost the last description that would come to mind would be poetic, right? How is it that someone could be a better, more faithful, more joyous leader if they read poetry?

T.S. Eliot said that true poetry communicates before it’s understood. It gives you something which you then unwrap. Now I think one of the problems with leadership -- and everything else -- is everything is quick fix. Everything is, to quote another poet, Shakespeare, “soon kindled and soon burnt.” …That’s Henry IV, a great king, talking about why Richard the Second screwed up. Because he just got an instant thing and nothing lasted.

Now, poetry is slow, and it’s slow-burn. The thing about a really deep, beautiful, passionate poem is like a beautiful person. The poem does not give you everything on the first date. It’s beautiful enough for you to think, “Boy, I really need to get to know this poem better.” A well-written poem is going to keep feeding you.

I once had a conversation with Seamus Heaney and we were talking about how poetry works and why should we struggle to do it. He used this phrase -- it just fell out of his lips -- amazing. He said, “Most people don’t remember a whole poem. Maybe you will learn one at school. Most people, you know, aren’t necessarily going to spend ages reading poems. But, that doesn’t matter. If one, even one poem, or two poems have entered deeply into somebody, what it gives them -- this is Heaney’s phrase -- is phrases that feed the soul.”

You don’t remember the whole poem, but just some little phrase (“upend the rain stick” “Lament and love”). Some little phrase comes to you when you least expect it. Not when you’re sitting down to improve yourself and read a poem. But years later, this poem you dated in the 10th grade comes up and gives you a little kiss, just when you need it.