Friday, 25 March 2011

Heaven in ordinary – Duffy, Herbert & Berryman

This morning was given over to a very stimulating session with the students on our Living the Story course. Jonathan Evens was leading the session on poetry and we looked at the work of Carol Ann Duffy, George Herbert and John Berryman. I don’t want to steal Jonathan's thunder and will put in a link if he choses to blog in more detail, but I do want to give a taste of what we covered. (Update: link to Jonathan's reflection on the session.)

carol-ann-duffy-image-LST063272_thumbFirst up was Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Prayer. As Jonathan explained, Duffy was once asked if she thinks poetry has to some extent taken the place of religion in our society. Her response was to say ‘It does for me: I don’t believe in God.’ So her sonnet Prayer has been described as the voice of a secular spirituality.
Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.
Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Pray for us now. Grade I piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.
Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.
Mean Time (Anvil, 1994)
herbertWe explored Duffy’s poem in relation to one of George Herbert’s poems on the subject Prayer (1). Not surprisingly more overtly Christian than Duffy, Herbert’s poem is no less rich with imagery and contains some phrases that have become part of our cultural landscape. It seemed to some of us as if Duffy’s Prayer was a reflection on Herbert’s phrase ‘Heaven in ordinarie’.
Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age.
          God's breath in man returning to his birth,
          The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
          Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
          The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.
          Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
          Heaven in ordinary, men well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
          Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
          The land of spices, something understood.
The Poetical Works Of George Herbert, ed. George Gilfillan. Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1853
berrymanLater in the session Jon invited the students to compare two poems by the American post-war confessional poet John Berryman (though the students didn’t know they were by the same author at the time). I hadn’t read Berryman so enjoyed engaging with something fresh and challenging. Again so much to explore in a short space of time and I look forward to spending more time reading Berryman’s work. The first poem is Dream Song 201 one of several hundred Berryman poems in the Dream Song cycle featuring the principal character Henry.
Hung by a thread more moments instant Henry’s mind
super-subtle, which he knew blunt & empty & incurious
but when he compared it with his fellows’
finding it keen & full, he didn’t know what to think
apart from typewriters & print & ink.
On the philosophical side
plus religious, he lay at a loss.
Mostly he knew the ones he would not follow
into their burning systems
or polar systems, Wittgenstein being boss,
Augustine general manager. A universal hollow
most of the rest seems;
so Henry in twilight is on his own:
marrying, childing, slogging, shelling taxes,
pondering, making.
It’s rained all day. His wife has been away
with genuine difficulty he fought madness
whose breast came close to breaking.
The second Berryman poem is called Eleven Addresses to the Lord (6)
Under new management, Your Majesty:
Thine. I have solo'd mine since childhood, since
my father's blow-it-all when I was twelve
blew out my most bright candle faith, and look at me.
I served at Mass six dawns a week from five,
adoring Father Boniface & you,
memorizing the Latin he explained.
Mostly we worked alone. One or two women.
Then my poor father frantic. Confusions & afflictions
followed my days. Wives left me.
Bankrupt I closed my doors. You pierced the roof
twice & again. Finally you opened my eyes.
My double nature fused in that point of time
three weeks ago day before yesterday.
Now, brooding thro' a history of the early Church,
I identify with everybody, even the heresiarchs.
As with the first two poems it seemed as if Dream Song 201 was a meditation on the line ‘Confusions & afflictions followed my days'’ from Eleven Addresses (6).

So, yet more examples of the way in which artists have engaged with Living the Story from within and without. One thing I immediately responded to was the way in which Duffy’s poem recognised the moments of gift or grace in the everyday. It reminded me of the need to step back and be alert to what is going on around me, instead of striving to see glimpses of heaven in the extraordinary. Of course the glimpses of heaven in the extraordinary are fantastic when they come along.

One final comment. The final stanza of Duffy's poem referencing 'the radio's prayer' reminded me of this classic from Blur.

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