(This is the text of a short talk during a Lenten Worship)
Faith and Poetry
When Peter (our vicar) asked me to fill this sermon slot, giving me the provisional
titles ‘Faith and Poetry’ or ‘The Faith of a Poet’, my initial reaction was quite
self-assured. “It shouldn’t be too hard; I rarely think about much else”. Of course,
once I actually came to think of how the two phenomena – faith and poetry – come
together, I became a little more concerned. Faith and Poetry… do either of them have
any particular effect on the other? Is the faith of the poet any different to the
faith of someone who doesn’t engage in the activity?
I remember, in my days as an atheist, challenging a Christian friend who was, and
still is, a poet. I said “As a religious person, you cannot be completely free to
write as you would like because you must always be concerned about causing offence
to the God who constantly peers over your shoulder.” It was a cheap and tenuous shot
and I knew it even then. But admitting that now doesn’t really help me. As far as
I can tell, unless the poet is writing about a biblical, theological or Christological
matter – which they may be tempted to do – the poetry is unlikely to be affected
in any great way. As Rowan Williams put it “I dislike the idea of being a religious
poet. I would prefer to be a poet for whom religious things mattered intensely.”
I think this sentiment may be revealed in some of my own work. I wrote the skeleton
pieces of my book The Pustoy as an atheist Master’s student, but completed the larger
part of it after my baptism into the Christian faith. Apart from one obvious reference
to the death of St. John the Baptist, I don’t think I would be wrong in thinking
that one could not tell which scenes I wrote before, and which I wrote after, my
It occurs to me then, that I first approached the issue of Faith & Poetry from the
wrong direction. Faith can inspire poets to write on matters of faith, and also gives
the writer a greater arsenal of religious imagery and metaphor, but these, indelicately
speaking, are differences of a fairly superficial nature. What may be interesting
to discuss I have realised, is the effect that understanding the nature of poetry
can have on one’s faith; the effect it can have on one’s understanding of God, of
Christ’s teachings and the Holy Spirit’s movement through the world.
Of course, we can talk about how the Old Testament is encased in metaphor and idiom
and in some places even written in verse. And in the Gospels, Christ uses parables
in order to convey meanings greater than lessons in plain-tongue. Hence Matthew 13:13
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing
they do not hear, nor do they understand.” But I doubt I’d be telling anyone here
anything new by this.
When working on the subject of the arts and the concept of beauty, the philosopher
Immanuel Kant said that for us to legitimately claim that we have experienced something
beautiful, four moments must have occurred. Firstly, we must have found the thing
beautiful without any vested interests or external information affecting our decision.
Secondly we must think of the beautiful thing being universally beautiful - everyone
should agree, and if they don’t then, thirdly, they ought to. Lastly, and the most
interestingly, the beautiful thing must give off a sense of purposiveness. The feeling
of having a purpose that is unidentifiable and indistinct. Tangibly intangible.
In most cases, poetry puts itself forward as a beautiful thing. It can achieve the
first moment, the instant unvested interest, through its imagery and the musicality
of the words within it. If one enjoys a poem, she will generally consider there to
be something wrong with a person should they disagree and this covers the second
and third moments of beauty. Perhaps more so than with any other art form, the nagging
half-whispered traces of a mind’s rationale lie behind the words of a poem – thus
the fourth moment, the purposiveness without obvious purpose, is also present. As
a poet, I can understand the pain-staking, head-clenching frustration of trying to
find le mot juste – the right word – to describe a concept entirely while at the
same time placing said concept in a particular context or narrative, and above all
still keeping it pretty. Of course, there never is a perfect word to get your exact
meaning across. Unless of course, you are Welsh or German, in which case the feeling
of a yearning nostalgic displaced melancholy can be wholly encased in a two syllable
word – hiraeth, sehnsucht. A finished poem then could be described as an abandoned
attempt to write something perfectly. But what you are left with is a bunch of merely
satisfactory words explaining something in an aesthetically pleasing way. The absolute
true intentions and motivations of the poet are left invisible, yet somehow present,
in the work. The unheard sound of an unpronounceable word.
Those without faith often deride the faithful for mistakenly seeing patterns and
intentions where there are none. It’s a child-like rationality to posit functions
onto nature from observing the functionality of man-made tools. If I were to find
a watch on the ground, I would think there must have been a watchmaker, but I don’t
believe in God because I see a tree sprouting from the earth and assume, as with
the watch, there must have been a treemaker. I think God because when I look across
a frosted field and see sparrows entwining the knotted branches of a leafless tree,
or even a homeless man squatting in the alcove of an abandoned building, I hear something.
Something I can’t quite catch.
I believe that what I almost hear is the ever-moving presence of the Holy Spirit,
traversing through the world like a dove through the thicket. I think it is important
to discern the spirit in this way – as no doubt St. Paul would agree. As a reader
grapples with the words and true meanings within the cracks of the poem, so must
we grapple with what lies in the crevices of plain sight; the echoes of a force that
holds the world together. The purposiveness – the sense of a purpose under an opaque
In this way, I think we can legitimately think of God as a poet. And existence as
his poem. We see before us the magnificent imagery of a universe filled with stars
and wanderers and springs of life; we read the clever nuances, the lyrical tricks
and inflictions in cultural, biological and geographical variety. And behind it all
is the incomprehensible, ungraspable, untranslatable Word. The Word that was in the
beginning, the Word that became flesh. And though we continue to mishear it, I think
it is important to keep listening. It is by trusting in such intuitions – our receptiveness
to the subtle interaction between God and existence, the poet and His poem – that
we are able to take the leap of faith where others may not.
If I may, I’d like to end with a poem, originally written in Welsh by Waldo Williams
and translated into English by Rowan Williams. I think it incorporates a few of the
ideas that I have mentioned, as well as dealing with the difficult topic of integrity
and martyrdom in the face of theological uncertainty and political pressure.
For the Protestant martyrs of the Third Reich
Earth is a hard text
to read; but the king
has put his message in our hands, for us to carry
the trumpets of his court
sound near or far. So for these men:
they were the bearers
of the royal writ,
clinging to it through spite and hurts and wounding.
round fullness is not like a parable, where meaning
breaks through, a flash of lightning,
in the humid, heavy dusk;
imagination will not conjure into flesh the depths
and crystal sealed under castle walls of wax, but still
they keep their witness pure
pure in the crucible of hate penning them in.
They closed their eyes
to doors that might have opened
if they had put their names to words of cowardice;
took their stand, backs to the wall, face to face with savagery,
and died there, with
their filth flowing together,
arriving at the gates of heaven,
their fists still clenched
on what the king had written.
Earth is a hard text to read. But what we can be certain
is that screaming mob is insubstantial mist;
in the clear sky, the thundering assertions
fade to nothing.
There the Lamb's song is sung, and what it celebrates
is the apocalypse
of a glory
pain lays bare.