• Shanley McConnell

Poetry & Renewal: Imagination In A Secular Age, Lecture by Malcolm Guite.

Updated: Jun 21, 2019

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Poetry and Renewal: Imagination in a Secular Age, Malcolm Guite.


Last Thursday, I attended a lecture at OCCA (Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics) to hear professor, academic, poet, singer-songwriter and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite speak.


I knew almost nothing in preparation to this lecture? I only knew that my parents had heard Guite a week before at a conference in Edinburgh, and their encouragement to attend the gathering at OCCA was more than enough. Even if this is all you receive from the post, let me tell you that Guite is a man who carries himself with integrity, humility and discernment. His enthusiasm was evident in the way he engaged with the texts he presented. His words seemed to leave all those who were listening with sense of peace; the kind you gather and hold close when you hear someone else sharing in a passion you live too.


After research a little of his life online, I learned that Guite was born in Nigeria to British expatriate parents. He earned degrees from both Cambridge and Durham Universities. Currently a Bye-Fellow and captain of Girton College, Cambridge, Guite chaplains St. Edward King and Martyre in the city. Author of five poetry collections, including of two chapbooks and three full-length collections, he has also published several books on Christian faith and theology.


During the lecture, Guite focused on two poems at the lecture: "The Rain Stick" by Seamus Heaney and "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy. In response, I'd like to focus on "The Rain Stick."


Published in The Spirit Level, the poem is read as follows:


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

Downpour, slice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Upend the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand times before.
Who caries if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again

----Heaney, Seamus. The Spirit Level (Faber & Faber; Main edition, 2001), p. 5.


Did you read it slow? Almost reverently? Did you sit and ponder the imagery? And what of its sound? Did you read it aloud? With joy? Sorrow?


That's the thing about poetry. We could all encounter the same series of words in the same order with the same punctuation-----feel the same calm-and-passion------and yet, arrive at the end with different conclusions, voices, images in our mind.


And maybe that changes in us as well. Read once, it is a poem about spirituality. Read again, it is a poem about the rain-stick. Read a third or fourth time, perhaps the rain-stick becomes a reminder that what has "happened once" has also happened "twice, ten, a thousand times before."


When Malcolm Guite read the poem, the room was stilled. Even if the words might not have mattered, the presence of them, paired with the rainstick he'd brought, was enough to calm the audience. Tilting it up and down. Upending it to make sound.


"There is a counterpoint in the poem," he said. Stick. Stalk. Cacti. Grit. In these things, "is a music that you never would have known / to listen for." The music of refreshment in things that are not known for freshness. Moisture flowing from the dry. A paradox.


And this is grace.


In Exodus 17 (NIV), Moses cries out to God. The Israelites who followed him out of slavery through parted seas-------the ones who sought peace in the desert------feared death. They rose in their anger, and quarreled with their leader. Moses called out to God, "What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me." The Lord answered, and told Moses to take in his hand the staff with which he had struck the Nile and strike the rock at Horeb. Water will come out of it for the people to drink.


Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel, calling the place Massah (Meribah) because the Israelites had tested God in the face of their fear. There, in the heart of the desert.


Grace is an upending of expectation. In our own lives, the grace of God springs forth like water from rocks of all dry and desert things.


It could be read in the poem that there is a calling to Heaney's commands. "Upend. Listen. Listen now again." A grace in listening for beauty in places you wouldn't know it to exist.


Jesus does this in the Beatitudes. An upending. Matthew 5:1-12 reads:


Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.


Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.


Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.


Blessed are the pure of heart,

for they will see God.


Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.


Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven.


The beatitudes are often seen as a reversal of what is recognized (accepted) in society. But here we could look at each stanza and find a way in which it upends the heart of selfishness.


Jesus's rejection of what 'accepted practice' is what emphasis his acceptance (and love) for us. It is when also we reject selfishness that we become able to upend them and reverse these norms. We can be successful in this because of Jesus first triumphed over sin on through his death on the cross.


There's a musicality to Heaney's "The Rain Stick," found in the words diminuendo, scales, played, undiminished, almost-breaths. The final line in his penultimate stanza and the following sentence reads:


"Who cares if all the music that transpires
Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?"

The word 'transpires' is poignant as a synonym for 'transient.' The following-through. Breathing-through. A quality of throughness.


As I read this and looked over my notes from Guite's lecture, I came to think about how sometimes it can feel as though all the music in one's life is forced. Grainy as an underdeveloped photograph. A violin bow without rosin, pressed down hard over the strings and wood in order to make some sort of sound, however heavy and cracking its melody may be.


Breathe. The act of breathing-through something forces one to rest. Listen. And in this listening (as it was in upending the rain stick) begin to see the "glitter-drizzle" of rain in unexpected places. This listening-----looking-----for grace is what gives us the strength to endure. To follow-through despite the desert-hard.


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I am grateful I had the chance to attend Malcolm Guite's talk. It gave me a lot to ponder as I walked home to finish final assignments. The rain had begun again then. Soft spillage on sheath leaves. It felt as though I were able to re-envision the poem over again and again.


I'd like to finish this post with an encouragement to read some of Guite's poetry. There is such a thoughtful joy in his presentation, and I hope for the opportunity to meet him again.

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