Imagining a poetry of Christian spirituality…

broken statue

I am still gathering poetry submissions for inclusion in an up and coming poetry collection to be published by Proost– please keep them coming in!

Proost is a company set up by Christians to gather together lots of the creativity coming out of the left field ragged edge of the church here in the UK. In doing this they have been incredibly encouraging to people (like me) whose output is unlikely to find other commercial outlets. The poetry collection was an attempt to broaden out this ethos still further.

In the process of looking at this, I have been forced once again to consider what I might understand as ‘Christian’ poetry, or even ‘spiritual’ poetry.

The tradition of church that I grew up has little time for poetry. The nearest we got to it were the lyrics of songs and hymns- with people like Matt Redman or Graham Kendrick as the most widely known contributors. The subject matter and style chosen for these songs is very limited, and goes something like this;

  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Over use of obvious rhyme structures- face/grace love/above died/justified
  • Over identification with love songs- ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of stuff
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Lack of room for questions, for uncertainty, for doubt
  • Lack of room for lament
  • Often driven by commercialism- what sells in the American mid west.
  • Substitutionary atonement

These songs became the cultural carriers of our faith- they gave us a proscribed language to describe our understanding of God but this left us only with a set of rather clichéd phrases that we rehashed over and over again- usually strapped to a good tune to make them more palatable.

Hardly surprisingly, those people that wrote poems at all in the churches I went to tended to write poems along these lines too, although this was a marginal practice, as the feeling was that the main forms of expression of faith were preaching the word, evangelising the lost and worshipping through singing.

There is of course a rich tradition of writing poetry in other Christian traditions- Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Asisi, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Thomas Merton to name but a few. However, most of us do not know the work of these wonderful poets well, if at all. Some of them we know as people of faith, but the relationship that poetry has to the development of their spiritual understanding is far less clear. It is not something that we are schooled to even ask.

Eastern traditions are much clearer about this relationship. The Sufi tradition of poets like Rumi, Sanai and Attar are all famous because they were poets. The words they made arose from their spiritual journey- they were the very process of engagement with the divine, not an accidental by product. Here is a bit of Rumi to make the point, written around 800 years ago;

Say who I am

I am dust particles in sunlight
I am the round sun.

To the bits of dust I say, stay.
To the sun, keep moving.

I am morning mist,
And the breathing of evening.

I amwind in the top of a grove
and surf on the cliff.

Mast, rudder, helmsman and keel.
I am also the coral reef they founder on.

I am a tree with a trained parot in its branches.
Silence, thought and voice.

The musical air coming through a flute
A spark off a stone, a flickering
in metal. Both candle
and the moth crazy around it.

Rose and the nightingale
lost in the fragrance.

I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift
and the falling away. What is
and what isn’t.

What makes this poetry so wonderful to us is the freedom that exists in the middle of it- the sense of generosity, wonder and beauty. It opens something up- a window into something deeper. It seems to arise as much from personal experience- revelation even- as from a desire to proselytise or sell a particular idea to us. This is not Christian poetry- but then again, perhaps it is the poetry that we Christians need to be reading.

We often forget that the Bible is a product too of middle eastern mystics, prophets and nomads in their search for God. We forget that around a third of the Bible is written as poetry- not just the obvious bits (Psalms) but we also have searing prophetic rants, apocalyptic weirdness  raunchy love poems, even St Paul seemed to be sneaking lyrics from hymns into his letters.

We needed the Bible to be a legal document, a constitional, foundational tool for life that we could mine for concrete instructional truth- what we got was lots of poetry- although we rarely see it as such. It is an interesting question as to whether reading the Bible as poetry changes how we engage with it.

But back to the point of this piece- which is a search for a new kind of Christian poetry- using language set free from the narrow cliches. An honest kind of poetry- that arises from a deep well of the Spirit within us. Poetry that does not shrink from pain, form ugliness, from doubt, from anger at God even. Poetry that asks questions as much as it answers them. Poetry that holds us to account for our actions- particularly those of us in power. Poetry that is skewed towards the weak, the broken, the poor (as these are the last made first.)

Poetry that can become the songs of the Kingdom of God that is woven into the fabric of our world- in each leaf, each ripple, each stratum, each child, each crack addict.

If you should come across poetry like this, you will recognise it for what it is, even if it disturbs you, discomforts you.

And if you do- send it my way!

Iron Lady…

Margaret-Thatcher__2530139b

So far I have held back from commenting on  the death of Margaret Thatcher. She was perhaps the most dominant politician of my formative years, for good or ill. 

I have decided to write for her (or more accurately, for me) a poem…

Iron Lady

The iron lady

Like all things ferrous

Has turned to rust

And the girders that she

Used for bones

Are now ceremonial arches

Under which old ideologies are displayed

Like long dead dinosaurs

.

When I was a boy I ate her pumped up ice cream

But then, despite her chemical munificence

She took the milk from my school

Before, appetite whetted, she

Killed my community

And let loose the Yuppies

To feed on its twitching body

.

Some declare she saved the nation

From British Leyland

Others dance on the grave she made

From the split down middle England

Me, I breathe a rueful sigh

As the Lady

Turns at last

Poetry of protest…

img_3671_student_protest_1

I have been thinking a lot about poetry that is prophetic– not in the sense of telling our fortunes, but more something that tells what we are- warts and all. Poetry that is an honest, engaged, hopeful critique of culture, and encourages us to think deeper.

There is a horrible danger of poetry like this becoming propaganda in the cause of whatever politics/theology/hermeneutic that we espouse. Poems like this are masturbatory- they pleasure only ourselves.  No matter what skill employed they are empty poems, blind to other perspectives. They claim to have answers to questions that are always nuanced.

I posted a poem yesterday entitled Welfare State which was my attempt to write  poetry of protest.

I had been increasingly angered by the actions of the current government in the UK, as they bring in sweeping changes to our welfare system. It all feels so unjust- making the poorest most vulnerable people pay for the excesses of the richest, and justifying this by vilifying  poor people as work shy, feckless. I wanted to use this anger to write something.

What I found though is that angry political poetry easily becomes exactly the kind of poetry I have described above- shallow self serving propaganda.

How then can we write the poetry of protest, of prophetic engagement, of challenge to empire in the face of injustice? I wonder if some of these principles might be of use (particularly for followers of Jesus);

  • If we are going to fight a cause, let it be for those who are the victims of power- the small people, the outsiders, those who the system has forgotten
  • It has to be honest. It has to be based on engagement with real people, real situations
  • It has also to start with ourselves– examining all that is beautiful and all that is broken in us, so that we can see it too in others
  • I think there is still a place for anger at injustice- but this anger needs to be yoked to love, or we become prophets of the clenched fist, not of the open hand
  • Perhaps the best approach is always to seek to humanise- and never to dehumanise (no matter how tempting this can be in relation to enemies of our cause)
  • It should not flinch from looking at ugly things, or be tempted by simplistic romanticism
  • It should be brave, because any protest will involve confrontation of those in power

This is a work in progress for me, but one that I feel keenly. I have this conviction in me that if we have a voice, we should use it – not just for saying pretty things, although there is beauty in this – but also to saying hard things, difficult things.

Art with nothing to say is simply wallpaper.

New FB page for Proost Poetry Collection…

typewriterletters

We have set up a Facebook page to support the gathering of poetry for an up and coming book.

You can see it here.

(Or if the link does not work (FB is always a difficult thing to link to) then just search for ‘Proost Poetry Collection’ on FB.)

Hopefully this can become a portal for questions, encouragement and support around this project. Please go and ‘like’ it/share it with friends.

Here is the first post- which hopefully gives a bit more flavour of what the project is all about;

Welcome friends.

This is the first post on our new page. We invite you to use this as a means of sharing ideas, discussion and to encourage one another as we seek to compile a collection of poetry.

Why are we bothering to do this? Well, I suppose firstly because some of us think that poetry is important. We need our poets now more than ever- we need to be challenged, to be stirred, to see through the surface of things into new and deeper meanings. In this way, poetry is closely related to prophecy – of the Old Testament kind – less about the prediction of shadowy future events, more about shining truth (a fickle beast admittedly) into our current situation.

Some would tell us that our culture has lost its soul and become merely what we consume. We have become a nation of short lived consumer events, connected by constant streams of media content. Poetry is the opposite of this. It has little or no monetary value, it can not be quickly consumed, and it has this way of asking questions more than providing easy answers.

There are lots of collections of poems out there of course- why another one? Well this one will be different for the following reasons;

1. It is a collection that is written by people on deliberate spiritual journeys. You could say this about most poetry of course, but we are particularly interested in what being a follower of Jesus might mean in our culture.

2. Having said that- we are not really looking for ‘Christian’ poems. By this I mean poems written from a narrow religious perspective, using the language and theology of Church (with a big C.) Poems like this tend towards propaganda- they close down the questions.

3. It is a deliberately open, non-elitist collection. We are happy to include works from published poets, but Proost exists to encourage, agitate and to give voices to those who would not normally be heard- the awkward squad, those who have the gift of not fitting in.

4. That is not to say that quality is not important too- but the way we understand quality is more to do with how well the poems become vehicles for other people to travel. Pure technical genius is not enough (but would be great!) Clever tricks with technique are not enough (Although they are fun if you are of a certain mind set!) However, words that move us, that catch the wind of the Spirit, that challenge, that question, that move us emotionally, spiritually- these are words we want to hear.

5. The collection is intended to be used for personal reflection. We think that arranging different poetic voices into broad themes allows access for people who do not usually read poetry. The success of the Bloodaxe books (Being Alive, Staying Alive etc) tells us that this format has value.

6. The collection is also intended to be a source of material for group use- to be read where groups of people gather, be that in churches or any other gathering. Some poems become new liturgy- ways that people can speak words together.

Finally, this is not a project driven by a desire for commercial success. Any profits made will be used by Proost in work to support  other emerging artistic talents. In the words of the song ‘There ain’t no money in poetry, that what sets the poet free’. We are able to reward contributors by offering a free download from the Proost site- a collection of all sorts of wonderful books, music, films. This will be one per contributor, irrespective of how many poems are included. We know that this is a meagre reward for your talents- but hope that you will nevertheless feel the satisfaction of being included in this book.

Let the poetry begin!

Chris

Calling all poets!

words1

I would really appreciate your help in getting the message out there about this project- if you are a blogger/facebooker/twitterer would you mind reposting?

For a while now, I have been chewing on an idea about putting together a collection of poetry.

From time to time people send me things they have written- asking for feedback. I always really struggle to give feedback- I want to be honest, open and encouraging, but poetry is really subjective. What I find however, is that there is almost always gold in the dust. Most people who write do so to get into the depth of things, and the process opens us up- in my view, it opens us up to God (however you understand this.)

Much of this writing is personal- like many of the things I write, its primary purpose is personal spiritual discipline. However, some poems have a life beyond this- and become vehicles that allow other people to travel. It is these poems that I am interested in.

We are used to being told that our poetic voices are worth nothing- either because poetry has become so elitist, or because we doubt our inner voice. Poetry also has little or no commercial value in the consumer culture that we live in. However, we believe that poetry is more important now than ever- we need our poets our prophets and our malcontents.

So, if you write poetry and you have material that you think may be helpful to the spiritual journey of other people, then you might like to consider this;

We are looking for contributions to an collection of poetry to be published by Proost.

We intend this is to be a collection of voices in and around the margins of our churches and will bring together poets whose writing is not normally heard to be a resource for worship, contemplation, prayer and even faithful prophetic criticism.

Poems should fit broadly into one of the following categories/chapter headings;

  • Faith/doubt
  • Becoming
  • Losing
  • The world is beautiful
  • The world is broken
  • Inside/outside
  • Wilderness
  • Laughing out loud
  • The far horizon
  • Learning to love

Notes on selection process;

We are looking for poems with something to say- poems that open us up rather than close us down. Poetry at its best can be challenging, disturbing, uplifting, transforming and much more. If you write poems like this we want to hear from you. We are not interested in reputation or CV- rather we want to encourage those of you with a poetic/prophetic voice to let others hear it.

We will select poems for the collection if they fit the broad (and generous) ethos of the book and if they are of a quality and spiritual depth that moves us. This means that some very good poems may not be selected. We hope that you will understand that we lack the resources to give feedback on the reasons for our editorial decisions.

We would impose no proscribed form on the poems, but broadly speaking poems should be no more than 35-40 lines.

You may send up to 8 poems– simply because we know how difficult it can be to choose. We hope that this too might be a way of gathering some more unusual voices- many of us have at least one pearl in amongst the pebbles.

Please send poems by e-mail to thisfragiletent@gmail.com

About Proost

Proost is a small publishing outlet aimed at gathering together resources from the creative edges of Church. Most of the material is made available for download- although hard copies of books can be purchased via a print-on-demand service.

As recompense for your hard work and creativity, poets published will be eligible for a free download of their choice from the Proost website- which is chock full of music, art, movies, worship resources and books.

We look forward to reading your poems!

A bit of McCaig…

stock-footage-sick-diabetic-women-in-hospital-room

Thought it was time for Norman McCaig’s poetry…

I often talk to people who tell me that they struggle with poetry. It is as if someone contorted the language it was written in and mixed it into some other dialect- more rarefied, pretentious and elitist. Thinking about it, perhaps this is exactly what was done to it at school…

Perhaps too they have read the wrong poems. Or even never really read any at all. Or (even more significantly) they have never written any.

I too struggle with reading some poetry- this may be because it is never instant. Poems are all about the gift of slow reading- immersing yourself in the opaque ink bath, knowing that some stain will remain. Poetry is about feeling more than understanding. It needs time, and most of us have little patience for time.

Back to Norman McCaig. Here are two of his poems. Think of them as two love poems, at desperately different parts of life.

In which poem was love the strongest?

TRUE WAYS OF KNOWING

Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little,
Our easy reciprocations. You let me know
The way a boat would feel, if it could feel,
The intimate support of water.

The news you bring me has been news forever,
So that I understand what a stone would say
If only a stone could speak. Is it sad a grassblade
Can’t know how it is lovely?

Is it sad that you can’t know, except by hearsay
(My gossiping failing words) that you are the way
A water is that can clench its palm and crumple
A boat’s confiding timbers?

But that’s excessive, and too little. Knowing
The way a circle would describe its roundness,
We touch two selves and feel, complete and gentle,
The intimate support of being.

The way that flight would feel a bird flying
(If it could feel) is the way a space that’s in
A stone that’s in water would know itself
If it had our way of knowing.

Visiting Hour

The hospital smell
combs my nostrils
as they go bobbing along
green and yellow corridors.

What seems a corpse
is trundled into a lift and vanishes
heavenward.

I will not feel, I will not
feel, until
I have to.

Nurses walk lightly, swiftly,
here and up and down and there,
their slender waists miraculously
carrying their burden
of so much pain, so
many deaths, their eyes
still clear after
so many farewells.

Ward 7. She lies
in a white cave of forgetfulness.
A withered hand
trembles on its stalk. Eyes move
behind eyelids too heavy
to raise. Into an arm wasted
of colour a glass fang is fixed,
not guzzling but giving.
And between her and me
distance shrinks till there is none left
but the distance of pain that neither she nor I
can cross.

She smiles a little at this
black figure in her white cave
who clumsily rises
in the round swimming waves of a bell
and dizzily goes off, growing fainter,
not smaller, leaving behind only
books that will not be read
and fruitless fruits.

Three jars…

Wine 2

The first miracle that Jesus performed was at a wedding- recorded in John 2 1-11.

Why does John choose to tell us this strange story? What was Jesus doing at a wedding, encouraging people to drink to excess?

The use of wine as an analogy of plenty, of blessing, of the fullness of life, is found everywhere in the Bible. Amos talks of wine running down the mountains in streams, as a sign of the restoration of the land of the Israelites.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that although we can not command blessing – we can never presume that life is going to be full of plenty, or without challenge – we can still live in ways that become shallow imitations of the life of outrageous grace we see modeled by Jesus. We cease to be people of passion, and become instead bound by cynicism and small boundaries.

So, open up a bottle, raise a jar, uncork the fizzy stuff.

Symbolically speaking of course…

Three Jars

 

Three jars are waiting by

One of water, one of wine

The other one lies empty

 

Like Jesus at a wedding feast

These jars are waiting to release

The living waiting for us

 

The empty jar is hollow life

Like a married man without a wife

Like a cake that’s never eaten

 

The water jar will fill us up

Then leave us staring in the cup

Wanting something other

 

But rich red wine will satisfy

Blood will flow, the days will fly

Our passion consummated

 

Fractals…

old-hands

 

Fractals;

One often cited description that Mandelbrot published to describe geometric fractals is “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”;[2] this is generally helpful but limited. Authorities disagree on the exact definition of fractal, but most usually elaborate on the basic ideas of self-similarity and an unusual relationship with the space a fractal is embedded in.[2][3][4] [6][29] One point agreed on is that fractal patterns are characterized by fractal dimensions, but whereas these numbers quantify complexity (i.e., changing detail with changing scale), they neither uniquely describe nor specify details of how to construct particular fractal patterns.

Memory

Leeched like lime from this soil

The grains of me are gone

Fractalled

And falling away

 

Numbers swirl and tumble

Names all interchange

Heads of friends are hooded

Keys each night re-cut

 

In 66 we went to Spain you told me

The year before Charlene was born

Our wedding day was cloudy

Some song suggested

You

 

Am I portable?

Is there a jar somewhere to catch what is left?

Or do these memories become minerals

Feeding some darker place?

 

Hold me softly my love

For I am leaving

TFT Christmas card 2012…

IMGP3179

Sometimes darkness lies with open arms

Casting no shadows;

No zones of jagged uncertainty

The folded black is bosom-soft

An iris around the eye

Could it be that dark is not opposed by light

But is the place where light is falling?

For the night is not defeated by starlight-

It is anointed.

At the edge of this suburban half light

Beyond the reach of neon

Darkness is waiting

Like pregnancy

For light to be born

IMGP3178

 

May you be richly blessed this Christmas.

More than plastic…

ChristmasChoir5

So I was watching one of those films. You know the

kind: cheaply made-for-TV at Christmas time. Full of cute kids whose

families are being squashed by the weight of some

manufactured crisis. Then despite my (long nurtured) defensive

cynical screen, I am punctured by goodness;

skewered by grace that grew where even the trees

are plastic. I can offer no excuses except to say that

like fake glitter on the surface of snow the hidden

heart of this angel-beast is shaped

towards love.