poetry

Following trees

 
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I have been thinking about paying attention, how even when we believe we are doing it we miss so much.

It’s all because of Kathleen Jamie, a Scottish writer who I’ve been meaning to read for years. Now I have finally got around to it she is forcing me to realise how little I really see as I go about my life.

Jamie has a poet’s approach to attention: she notices and she knows that noticing matters. In a powerful essay, ‘Fever’, from the collection Findings, she confesses that she cannot pray, not even when her husband is in hospital with pneumonia. She pleads for her noticing to count instead.

Could I explain to Phil that – though there was a time, maybe 24 hours, when I genuinely believed his life to be in danger – I had not prayed? But I had noticed, more than noticed, the cobwebs and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt, and the speckled bird and the sickle-cell man’s slim feet. Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?

Later, a jolly nurse comes to give the now recovering Phil a shot of antibiotics. She’s an expert; it’s a routine procedure; she can do it almost without looking, but for Jamie the absence of attention comes as a shock.

Attend! I wanted to say to her, though she hardly needed to. Here, I’ll do it. I’ll kill the infection. I’ll do it with attention. Prayerfully, if you like.

Paying attention, noticing: for Jamie it is almost a matter of life and death.

Jamie has said that poetry is about ‘bringing the quality of attention to the world’. She makes me wonder how things would change if we all honoured the quality of attention. It’s what lovers do, drinking in each tiny detail of the beloved; it’s what prophets do before they speak. ‘What do you see?’ the Lord asks Jeremiah, right after commissioning him as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:11).

Very young children have the habit. I remember our son, aged about three, needing to stop and crouch down every time he spotted an ant on the pavement.

In a system that would have us all busy with consumption, poets, children and prophets are rarely part of the mainstream. So perhaps one way to resist the culture is to copy their way of noticing.

You don’t have to be an award-winning poet to cultivate the quality of attention. This week I discovered the lovely Tree Following project on Loose and Leafy’s blog. Here’s what Loose and Leafy writes:

Each year, I choose a tree and see what it does:
when its leaves appear and when they fall
which twigs grow and which fall off
if it has seeds
and if any germinate and grow into new trees
what its bark looks like – when it’s wet and when it’s dry
whether anything grows on it – like lichen
whether creatures sit on – insects, birds, butterflies
what plants grow round it and what they do too.

I’m going to join in with Loose and Leafy, writing about a single tree every month for a year. I hope the practice will make me more attentive.

The idea of the Tree Following Project is that participants write a post about the tree on the 7th of every month and then link up with all the other tree followers on Loose and Leafy’s blog (more than 50 at the last count).

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The tree I have chosen is almost literally on our doorstep. I can see it from my bedroom window; it’s the first thing I notice every time I turn the corner for home. As it happens, it’s also my favourite variety of tree, the silver birch. I love the wintry white of the bark, the grace of the branches.

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But until now I’ve never really paid it proper attention. I feel a little like I’m setting out on an adventure.

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the singing bowl

singing bowl

I thought I knew about fear.

Fear was what you experienced before doing a parachute jump (the reason why I have never done one). Fear was for daredevil activities or life-threatening events like earthquakes or war or being stalked by a stranger on a lonely road at night.

Never, not once, did I think that fear could grab you when you were sitting in front of a computer screen, tapping out words to string into sentences, paragraphs, chapters – a whole book.

I almost feel too embarrassed to admit this, except that the more I read about writing the more I discover that fear is actually quite a common feature of the writing life.

Some people talk of the fear of the empty page or, perhaps a bit more understandably, the fear of not earning enough to pay the bills.

For me though I think a lot of the fear in writing for publication is rooted in the fear of exposure. Of being laid bare and found wanting. Of not being good enough.

Such fears can lead to paralysis. I have had mornings when my fingers have felt frozen over the keyboard. When reading the entire Internet seemed preferable to carving out more words.

I have been rescued by a poem.

More times than I can count now, Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘The Singing Bowl’ has opened up a space where the words can flow.

I share it here with his permission and in the hope that it might turn out to be a key for others to break through whatever is holding them back. I don’t think it needs to apply just to writing: I think you could use it for any task that seems daunting.

Malcolm wrote about the poem on his blog:

This poem was inspired by the beautiful Tibetan singing bowl … which trembles into sound, lovely sustained and resonant, as you run a ‘beater’ or even a finger, round its rim. The poem came to me as a word from the muse which was both about how to pray and how to fulfil my vocation as a poet. I hope you find it helpful and resonant too.

When I feel panicky at the start of a writing day, I use this poem as a meditation, starting by just trying to slow my breathing as I read. Then I read it again, maybe up to three more times and let the words sink in. Each time it reminds me that the place where we are is the right place to start, that there is no such thing as ordinary, that all life is holy because created and affirmed by God.

Then I can start to write. Partly because, as the poem says, my heart is ‘full of quietness’ but also because the profound effect of Malcolm’s words are the reassurance I need that in a world of pain, writing is valid, that words can change things and that people who feel called to keep stringing them into poems and books and essays and stories have important, life-giving work to do.

The Singing Bowl

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air.

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

Malcolm Guite

This poem is the title piece of Malcolm’s new book, which is out now and published by Canterbury Press. I also recommend highly his first collection, Sounding the Seasons.

Picture by KayVee.INC. Used under Creative Commons Licence.


sixteen

Today I bring you another Advent sonnet from Malcolm Guite. The title O Oriens translates as ‘O Dayspring’ and the line from Dante means ‘I saw light in the form of a river’. Malcolm writes movingly about the background to this sonnet on his blog here.

View across the Mawddach estuary, Snowdonia. Picture by Benjamin Dobson

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

Malcolm Guite

Cowbar Nab, north Yorkshire. Picture by Julian Dobson

four

It was the kind of cold and rainy afternoon that demands a log fire and many cups of tea.

One of my top discoveries of 2011 has been the poetry of Malcolm Guite, a poet, priest and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge. With his permission, I’m posting one of his sonnets here, part of a sequence for Advent. It seems silly for me to add any more words – if you love this as much as I do then go over to his blog where he generously shares many more profound and beautiful poems.

O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.

Malcolm Guite