(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 conversion.

 

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 veil.

 

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.

 

Die Bibelforscher 

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
sweating, whether 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.

The earth's 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
of fire and crystal sealed under castle walls of wax, but still
they keep their witness pure in Buchenwald,
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;
they 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 of
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.

 

Amen.

 

Philippe Blenkiron

Faith and Poetry

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