by the Rev. Dr. Jason A. Poling
Priest-in-Charge, St. Andrew’s, Pasadena
The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite is a priest in the Church of England serving as Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge; his academic work includes Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination as well as chapters and essays in edited volumes. Guite is a well-published poet himself, whose work is available on his website as well as in multiplebooks.
During Coronatide, Guite is offering poems in response to each of the Psalms. Some are intimately spiritual, others reflective on the world around us; some have a light tone while others are profound, even dark. (Kind of like the Psalms themselves.) Each of these short (15-line) poems begins with the last line of the one before it, so as to form, as Guite puts it, “a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic.”
I first encountered Guite’s work a few years back at a conference (remember those?) where I met a scholar who had written his dissertation on C. S. Lewis’ poetry. He talked excitedly about the work of this English poet who had been his external reader. “Never heard of him,” I said. “Well,” this Baptist said, “you’re Anglican, you should.” Slightly offended, I went back to my hotel room that night and searched him on Google. By the time I forced myself to go to bed I had watched an hour and a half of his lectures and listened to him read at least a dozen of his poems (including one in spoken-word format, with a jazz combo backing him up).
Like the other arts, poetry has the capacity to, in Lewis’ own phrase, “steal past those watchful dragons” of our hardened hearts in such a way that we are able to encounter God afresh. That’s what I experienced among my colleagues last week, when in our biweekly Theological Reflection time we spent an hour simply reading some of Guite’s poems and reflecting on them. Amid the constant push to read about practical ministry concerns, and current theological controversies, and liturgical disputes, and, now, epidemiology, I find that more worthy texts get pushed to the side.
So I find that I have to almost forcibly put poetry (and other good literature) in front of my eyes, and make myself take the time to let it work on me. There are aids to this; Guite has annotated collections of poetry, with his own mixed in, for daily reading in the seasons of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter. We can also encounter poetry in the musical forms we call songs and hymns, which make them easier to memorize.
And don’t let yourself be discouraged by thinking about hours of reading misspent; instead, follow the good counsel Guite has offered: “Begin the song exactly where you are.”