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The Poetry of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams delivers the twelfth John Rylands Poetry Reading last year

 This is a paper given by Philip Harvey in the Hughes Room at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne on Sunday the 6th of December as one in an Advent series on religious poets. The original title of the paper was ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’.

Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift.

By that I don’t just mean he writes poetry, I mean he engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberately don’t touch both sides of the page, but also in his sermons, meditations, exegeses, his essays, disquisitions, lectures. His poetry is a way of finding expression for things that he could not say as effectively by any of his other writerly means. And, at least for me, his poetry is a distinctive and distinctively different voice, mode, vehicle to his other forms of writing.

We find this in the first poem we discuss today, ‘Advent Calendar’ (PR 31), where our usual ways of describing the coming of Christ are reversed challenged problematised:

He will come like dark
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

We customarily appreciate Rowan Williams as being a priest, bishop, theologian, an academic, thinker, leader. But his vocation as poet is increasingly on show in a public way. He seems to have found a way into making poetry that suits the register, tone, confidence of his own speaking voice, the grip, presence, depth of his own thought. Even now he is Patron of the T.S. Eliot Society in England and apparently has written a play called ‘Shakeshaft’ in which William Shakespeare meets the Jesuit Edmund Campion. Perhaps he will put to sleep once and for all the view that Shakespeare was a secret Roman Catholic. Perhaps he will shake it up.

In last year’s Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Rowan took on the virtually insuperable subject of God and Language. The results are at the more abstruse end of the Williams’ spectrum of verbal display, but nevertheless well worth the effort of reading. On the matter of the vocation of the poet he states, “The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.” (EW, 131) In other words, he sees the poet (himself included) as someone who knowingly writes in ways that are not the common everyday manner of communication. Reader, as well as writer, know they are playing a game, albeit a game of considerable importance, even at its most light-hearted, unserious, feigning. Not only that, this is a routine, it is a cultivated developed practised habit.

He says of words in poems, “… they act none the less as warning signs that this discourse will be something distinct from the usual exchanges of a culture: it will invite us to set aside for this listening period our assumptions about identity, about the solidity or closure of our perceptions.” (EW, 132) We think of this as a modern or post-modern description of poetic engagement, but was it any different for Elizabethans hearing Shakespeare or Greeks hearing Homer? I think we are invited to read overcome appreciate Rowan’s poetry in just this way. Words and phrases are forced into action in this poetry, used to vary double triple in meaning, taken from their basic etymology and improved by memory’s definitions. “This is indeed language under pressure deployed as a means of exploration, invoking associations which may be random in one way, yet generate a steady level of unsettling alternative or supplementary meanings in the margin of the simple lexical sense.” (EW, 133)

His reading of ‘star’ and its complex implications in Jewish and Christian history in the poem ‘Yellow Star’ (OM 44) is just one straightforward example of how Rowan employs “warning signs”:

Take down the star from the treetop:
after these two millennia, it is jaundiced,
scorched, its points still sharp enough, though,
to draw blood. When it first shone,
it lit the way to killing fields. It has not
lost its skill.

Rowan offers another philosophical position about poetry, his own and others, when he says in the same lecture, “It [poetry] is, at the first level, an invitation to see one thing through the ‘lens’ of an unexpected other. But then, at a deeper level, it is a reminder that we are always seeing ‘through the other’, that we never see anything in its own isolated terms, and that we cannot rule in advance which ‘others’ are acceptable and which unacceptable in the business of extending and enlarging our perception.” (EW, 133) Personally I find this helpful when we think we have to understand a poem and cannot. He is assuring us that far from having to ‘get it’ straight off, we must give ourselves the benefit of accepting our role as early explorers of this word object, this unusual way of talking. It is also helpful, this definition, in acknowledging that our identification with the feel aim meaning of a poem is still our own business as we come to terms with a voice often very different from our own. We enter the world of Rowan Williams and it can be very different, much stranger than we had first expected. But doesn’t this go for all our encounters with others? It’s always a process of getting to know someone who, on first encounter, does not fill us with instant hope understanding recognition.     

Rowan has given leads in other writings as to how we might read his own poetry. The preface to his latest book, ‘The Other Mountain’, states that many of the poems have as their presence the landscape of Wales. He wants, he says, “to acknowledge all those who have … helped to shape the inner landscape that goes with that particular outer one.” Much of his poetry is concerned with and found in landscapes, in places very particular to his own experience. We find this, for example in the series set in Jerusalem, his lovely sequence celebrating Cambridge, and the three poems memorialising Constantinople. Like Wordsworth and others, it isn’t landscape alone, but his own personal experience inside that landscape is the real subject.

Then he writes of one of those ‘inner landscape shapers’, Waldo Williams, as a poet who “imagined his own work as a form of quiet but unyielding resistance to a hectic inarticulate violence in the mind, the feverishness that overflows in personal aggression as in wars and pogroms of all kinds.” (OM 8) Rowan here speaks of poetry as resisting such forces and this is a useful guide into the cause of his own poetry, in fact of his own Christian witness in many areas of life. He concludes, “the question is to do with what words resist butchery; what has to be said if manic violence is not the last word.” Where political and poetic language are debased (see CI 41) “one of the most substantial gifts that our tradition has to offer to [the] wider Christian conversation” is this privileging of a poetic engagement. We observe this central concern of his, most recently, in his public criticism of media that would seek to demonise and dehumanise the radical jihadists of Islamic State, his point being that it is when we forget that they too are human that we can justify our own revenge and cruelty.

His translation of poems from the Welsh of the same Waldo Williams says this well, as in the refreshing catechism that becomes the poem ‘What is Man?’ (OM 63):

What is believing? Watching at home
till the time arrives for welcome.
What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns
to stand alongside your old enemy.

When Rowan Williams spoke here at St Peter’s in 2002, as guest of the Institute for Spiritual Studies, he wished to foreground remind celebrate how Anglican spirituality is rich in poetry, how our tradition gives license to all the people (clergy and laity) ways of speaking of God and our life in God through new words and new metaphors. In the first lecture he spoke of what he called ‘contemplative pragmatism’, “an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in.” (CI 17) While saying this is of course not unique to Anglicanism, this virtue influences inspires inculcates so much of the literature of the church. He speaks of looking “long enough and hard enough for God to come to light.” We find this ‘contemplative pragmatism’ in the poems we read today, sizing up a situation, not using hasty religious language and not exaggerating or getting enthusiastic, in the 18th century meaning of that word. Rowan writes his poetry very conscious of this tradition. It informs how he proceeds.

Later he offers another definition of ‘contemplative pragmatism’ as “that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become attuned.” (CI 35) This is relevant in the context of reading poetry for Advent. Even his self-trained use of conditional terms, like ‘somehow’ in that last sentence, is a poetic manoeuvre, an avoidance of dogmatic propositions, that keeps open the possibility for further discovery. This is an observable Williams’ manner in all his verbal expressions.

In the second lecture he talks of Anglicanism at the Reformation being capable of accommodating “a mixture of opposite extremes” (CI 19), what could be called a way of accepting very different forms of Christianity together, and we see this in the poetry, as he makes other traditions inclusive to the conversation. Russian Orthodoxy, for example, is a time-honoured concern of this poet, as we find in his poem ‘Rublev’, about the holy icon maker (PR 51):

One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

He talks of the Anglican imagination that “seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God,” things that assist in our reading of much of Rowan’s own theology and poetry. Again, he starts from a particular place, even when that place is the whole world. We find just such a discernment in the poem we just heard, ‘Yellow Star’, and in ‘Rublev’.

This view is expressed again in the lecture, which was given from the step of the sanctuary next door, when talking about the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne. Traherne exemplifies “Platonism through autobiography, reflection on childhood, and poetry, and emphasized there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but … that wonderful remark, ‘the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine’: language is true when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and don’t map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others.” (CI 23) Poets are often regarded as narcissists, there to give you their own self-reflection. But here Rowan praises autobiography that is outward directed, not possessive of its own findings, sharing the world in kind.

When we hear the poem ‘Dream’ (PR 63) we meet someone who not only well knows self-deprecation, if not outright self-mockery, but also someone who is highly conscious of the roles he must play, public and private, and the cost of that:

                                  What I remember is two speakers,
one cropped and harsh: I find it hard
to formulate my question. One bearded
articulate and reasonable, talking of victims,
tragedy, the pathos of God trapped in a world
of risks. He sounds like dense stringed music.

Lastly in this condensed introduction, I draw attention to the conclusion of this lecture at St Peter’s in 2002, where Rowan Williams talks of the battle against the confinement of God. The priority is on “divine freedom and divine initiative, God’s capacity to be anywhere and everywhere. And if that is so, it is also God’s freedom to show how who and what God is, not in religious places but in the stuff of human relation, and in the stuff of the material world.” Such relation will necessarily include our efforts to communicate in poetry.

Works by Rowan Williams quoted in this paper:

Christian imagination in poetry and polity : some Anglican voices from Temple to Herbert. SLG Press, 2004 (Fairacres publication, 144) [CI]
The edge of words : God and the habits of language. Bloomsbury, 2014 [EW]
The other mountain. Carcanet, 2014 [OM]
The poems of Rowan Williams. Eerdmans, 2004 [PR]


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