Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Poetry for Lunch

Apologies to R. S. Thomas for the title - inspired by his poem 'Poetry for Supper'. 

Today I invited a small audience in the Cathedral to enjoy eight of my favourite poems. This was one of a series of informal lunchtime talks we have been offering in the nave on weekdays in summer. The task I set myself was to choose eight poems I might want to take to a desert island. It was no more than an excuse to read aloud and invite others to listen if they wished. The only condition I set myself was that on this occasion, it would all be in English. And that each poem, or extract from a longer poem, would be able to stand by itself.

Here's my A-list with a summary of how I introduced each poem. It's today's choice. It changes by the hour - so much great poetry to choose from. Ask me tomorrow and the list could look quite different. 

1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
How could I not choose Shakespeare? The Sonnets are a wonderful treasury of the ebbs and flows of human love. At our silver wedding celebration 15 years ago, we asked our children to offer readings and one of them chose this famous sonnet about 'the marriage of true minds'. As an encapsulation of love at its most profound, has it ever been bettered? What other writer offers such profound insights into human living and loving? 

2. John Donne, Holy Sonnet 5
'Batter my heart, Three-Person'd God': what a way to begin a prayer! All of Donne's turbulent inner life comes out in this passionate sonnet. Its fusion of the spiritual and the erotic is not what you might expect from a Church of England Dean (of Saint Paul's) but there is no disguising the searing emotional honesty of this great poem. The image of the God who has to take us by force and ravish us in order to make us chaste is both courageous and unforgettable.

3. Ben Jonson, 'On my Son'
I did not know this poem until my son pointed me to it when I was writing my book Lost Sons. It is a moving elegy on the child Jonson lost at the age of 7. I doubt there is any loss in the world worse than losing your own child, and this deeply felt poem is filled with all the sorrow and yearning of a very great grief. He calls his 'dear boy' his 'best piece of poetry'. The poem was the choice of one of the contributors to a remarkable anthology I was recently given, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

4. Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Ulysses'
People don't read Tennyson like they used to, but his poetry is second to none in its 'ear' for the feel and sound of words. Ulysses gazes into the far horizons, reflects in old age on his travels and adventures, and concludes that even in the twilight of our lives, we must go on being pilgrims and explorers. The poem rises to a famous heroic conclusion: 'to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield' - this is the spirit of the true lifelong adventurer. It's a poem to arouse and inspire, at least for me.

5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Kingfisher'
Hopkins was one of greatest 19th century religious poets. His poetry frequently has a tragic aspect, coloured by the personal sense of unworthiness he carried all through life. But he touches ecstasy too. Here he celebrates not just the natural glory of a creation that knows how to be true to itself, but the glory of human beings where, in his final beautiful lines, 'Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces.'

6. W. H. Auden, 'Musée des Beaux Arts'
I have admired this poem from schooldays. It has been in my mind recently as we have watched the tragedies of the Middle East being played out on our TV screens while we sit in armchairs drinking coffee and stroking the cat. The paradox of how ordinary life carries on while a disaster happens in front of us is brilliantly caught by Auden. Is he saying: recognise the absurdity, but then try to see with a new compassion, so that when life goes on, it is not because we passed by on the other side?

7. R. S. Thomas, 'Via Negativa'
What Hopkins was to Victorian era, Thomas was perhaps to the 20th century. His poetry was honed in the harsh, unforgiving Welsh parishes where he was a priest. His tough writing, so strong on the tension between God's absence and presence, reflects a faith that has to be fought for, but even at its bleakest, there is no denying the conviction that lies at its heart. The negative way of spirituality focuses on what we can't know or say about God which, Thomas reminds us, is just about everything.

8. The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13
You get the Bible and Shakespeare on your desert island, thank God. I chose to read St Paul's great poem about love in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, thus coming full circle and ending where I began - in the English Renaissance, and with the great theme of love. This is one of the best-known passages in the entire Bible, but it never fails to move me. And because it gathers up and offers all that has lasting meaning in life, it felt like the right place to end. 

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