Poetry as Liturgy

by Guest Blogger January 16, 2014

Review of Sounding The Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Yearby Malcolm Guite (Canterbury Press, 2012)

When seeking to connect with poetry, those who've had little exposure usually expect such traditional values as rhyme and meter. When they discover that much contemporary poetry does not rhyme, they may become disoriented and abandon the quest altogether. Conversely, when some readers of contemporary poems encounter traditionally structured poetry, it may seem forced and sing-songy to them.

Malcolm Guite is a skilled poet who can connect with both types of readers. He embraces the craft of poetic forms—particularly the sonnet—yet writes verse that seems neither forced nor archaic. Considering that each of the seventy poems in this collection is steeped in the tradition of church and scripture, this is quite a feat.

Tangled in time, we go by hints and guesses, Turning the wheel of each returning year. But in the midst of failures and successes We sometimes glimpse the love that casts out fear.

Thus begins the Prologue poem of the collection. Guite does not shy away from biblical phrases like “love that casts out fear,” or, later, from Latinate terms such as "Sanctus" or "Corpus Christi.” The seventy sonnets in this collection are composed with worship in mind. Malcolm Guite is an Anglican priest and the Chaplain of Girton College in Cambridge. The book follows the tradition of organizing the year according to various feasts and seasons—far more than merely Christmas and Easter—a tradition that associates particular Sundays with particular stories and ensures that they are not neglected. For those whose church tradition is not so structured, a poem written for Trinity Sunday may simply become a profound poem about the Trinity:

He calls us. . . .  To sing. . . Three notes resounding from a single tone, To sing the End in whom we all begin; Our God beyond, beside us, and within.

Or, indeed, it may be an ideal addition to a service on Trinity Sunday. Although twentieth-century modernists completely changed common ideas about what a poem should be, there are many poets who have not let go of poetic structures. C. S. Lewis, of course, spoke of what he called "chronological snobbery"—a false belief that ideas, fashions or art of the present are superior to those of the past. Richard Wilbur, for example, made a career as a poet going against the current of free verse—and in recent years a new movement championed by poets including Dana Gioia and Mark Jarman has reasserted the power of traditional forms. Others are becoming more open to a return to structured verse; John Leax, whose existing books are primarily free verse, has a new collection forthcoming comprised primarily of sonnets inspired by the earthly life of Jesus.

When I am asked who is my favorite poet, I'm often at a loss—not just because it would be nice to mention a name the inquirer is familiar with, but because I value different poets for different reasons. I love the simplicity of Mary Oliver, the complexity of Margaret Avison, the descriptive precision of Robert Siegel, and the finely crafted sonnets of Malcolm Guite. I believe the key to writing contemporary verse, using rhythm and rhyme, is to maintain modern ways of talking—avoiding archaic language and inverted sentence structure—despite the need for rhyme or meter. This makes today's sonnet a challenge. With this in mind, let the following lines—from a sonnet addressed to the Apostle Peter—slide across your ear:

Impulsive master of misunderstanding, You comfort me with all your big mistakes; Jumping the ship before you make the landing, Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

If you were to buy this book just to read the rest of this poem, it would be well worth the purchase, for the beauty lies, not only in the language, but in how well the truth of Peter's character is captured. Sounding the Seasons begins with an eight-page introduction that is Guite's explanation of what he's up to in this collection. Here he professes his debt to the influence of George Herbert's The Temple, the less-well-known The Christian Year by John Keble, and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. He also proposes how this book can be used: corporately, complementing church liturgy; but also personally, over the course of the various seasons of the Christian year. I expect that for your first time through, however, you'll just read it from front to back to experience all of the sonnets.

If Guite opens the eyes of church leadership to the value of including reflective poetry within worship services, his contribution will extend well beyond the depths to be found within this fine collection. I think of other contemporary poets, such as Tania Runyan and Brad Davis, who also have scripture-themed books—or hundreds of such poems out there that pack more reflection into a few lines than any sermon could.

Even so, Sounding the Seasons deserves to be a frontrunner. In the summer of 2011, Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell was performing at the Oxbridge Conference of the C. S. Lewis Foundation, where Malcolm Guite was a speaker. Inspired by what he heard, Bell began to work with Guite's Advent Sonnets, and even expanded one sonnet about Christ's baptism into a full-length song, "Epiphany on the Jordan," incorporating phrases from Guite's own sermon on the theme. Steve and Malcolm later worked together, adapting poetry to music.

Because of the connections, as in a Venn diagram, there are fascinating relationships between Sounding the Seasons and Steve Bell's new CD for Christmastide, Keening for the Dawn. The seven sonnets "The Great O Antiphons" are a response to the Latin antiphons that  inspired the Advent carol "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Steve Bell's recording of the hymn includes Malcolm Guite reading two of these sonnets. The intertwining of the two art forms produces a beautiful whole that becomes the focal point of the album. I particularly delight in the alliterative and onomatopoetic language that underlines the thought-provoking words:

I cry out for the key I threw away That turned and overturned with certain touch And with the lovely lifting of a latch Opened my darkness to the light of day. O come again, come quickly, set me free, Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

Although Malcolm Guite's poetics are in tune with centuries-old poetry, or perhaps because of this, this book is a unique achievement that deserves significant attention. Whether you are newly seeking to connect with poetry or have as many shelves of verse as I do, Sounding the Seasons is a worthwhile addition. 

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D.S. Martin is a Canadian whose poetry has appeared in Anglican Theological Review, Canadian Literature, Christianity & Literature, and Ruminate's Issue 18: Sound & Silence. His poetry collections include: So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon) and Poiema (Wipf & Stock). View his blog about Christian poetry at: www.kingdompoets.blogspot.com.

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