Poems as Prayers: Malcolm Guite Discusses His Quarantine Quatrains
The English poet, priest, and musician discusses writing poetry during the age of the Coronavirus.
An extended version of this interview will appear in our Winter 2021 print issue, due out later this month. Also included: An essay on Marilynne Robinson’s career, a review of Rod Dreher’s new book, and much more.
It is easy to rhapsodize when speaking of Malcolm Guite. An English poet, priest, singer-songwriter, and author of several volumes of poetry, scholarship, and spiritual contemplation, Guite is that rare poet who writes intensely while living joyfully. In a literary landscape populated by subversive themes and free verse, Guite remains a jubilant composer of accessible formalist poetry with both intensely human and deeply spiritual themes. Although an academic by training, Guite is no elitist. He writes “from the church and for the church,” making his poetry readily available to all on his blog. During the troubled months of the international pandemic, Malcolm Guite has been living simply with his wife in their small village in the English countryside, where he has written a series of poetic contemplations on the sorrows and the joys of life in lockdown. I spoke with him about God, life, poetry, and pandemics.
Malcolm, 2020 has been quite an intense year worldwide. It's an international season of collective trauma. How has this season of widespread crisis impacted you as a poet?
I've certainly found that poetry—both reading and writing it—has come into its own in this crisis. Suddenly we have the time and the focus for it. It speaks into the depths in this crisis, asking fundamental questions about the shape of our lives, about when all our plans and dreams are suddenly cast aside. We have to exist in the moment and think, “who am I and why should I be this way?” We need the best resources available and certainly, the imaginative arts and the deep resources of faith are there to help us.
The very early days of our lockdown weren't gradual, but very sudden. One March day, the Prime Minister said, “everybody stay at home.” Suddenly everything stopped. Gradually we became aware that the skies were clearer. There were no jet trails; the air was purer. The constant brush and wash of the sound of traffic on nearby roads, which fringed and shadowed any attempted silence, was gone. The silence was suddenly there like a very deep gift. One heard the bird song much more. You felt a kind of kindred kindliness towards your neighbors because we were all going through the same sort of thing. So certainly the very things that are the conditions for writing poetry were suddenly much more present and available.
But of course, alongside that, there was a gradual awareness of the tragic side of everything that was going on. Even in our small village, one became aware of people who had fallen ill or people who knew people who had fallen ill. Then, for those who were suffering, there was the dreadful isolation from their loved one. That kind of sorrow needed to find a poetic expression.
How have you developed that poetic expression during the days of lockdown?
I found myself rereading various old favorite poems. One of those was the lovely little translation of a medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam. There's a translation made in the nineteenth century by Fitzgerald which has reflections on mortality, but also on the grace and beauty of the present moment. It has a kind of romantic element to it as well. There's a lovely bit where the poet addresses his beloved. They're in a little garden all by themselves on the edge of the wilderness and he suddenly realizes he doesn't need anything else. There's a famous verse and it goes:
Here with a Flask of Wine beneath the Bough,
A Loaf of Bread, a Book of Verse -- and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness --
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
I was rereading this, which is written in these beautiful quatrain forms; four lines chiming on just one rhyme on the unrhymed line. I felt drawn to write my own kind of quarantine quatrains—to reply across the centuries to this poet. I've just published it with a fine artist doing illustrations. We are offering a limited edition to raise money for the care workers’ charity here. I wrote it in seven parts and as the crisis deepened it became like a journal.
What aspects of lockdown did you contemplate in the Quarantine Quatrains?
I started with this celebration of nature and gradually moved into what it was like to have Zoom meetings. I’ll share one or two verses from the different sections that will give you a sense of my own journey as a poet through those early parts of lockdown. Here are the opening three verses. The original poem, the Rubaiyat begins:
AWAKE! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And lo! The Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light
I echoed that opening line. This is what I wrote for the beginning of lockdown.
Awake to what was once a busy day
When you would rush and hurry on your way
Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute
But time and tide have turned another way.
For now, like you, the day is yawning wide
And all its old events are set aside
It opens gently for you, takes its time
And holds for you -whatever you decide.
This morning’s light is brighter than it seems
Your room is raftered with its golden beams
The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep
And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams
After a couple of other sections, I talk about the strangeness of Zoom. On the one hand, we feel deeply isolated without it and yet at the same time, it teases you. You feel like your friends are there but they’re not quite. You open your heart to the possibilities of this deeper exchange and in the end, it’s only a screen. Here's a few little verses about Zoom that might resonate with your readers.
Some days I am diverted by a call:
The soft computer chime that summons all
To show a face to faces that we meet
Mirages, empty mirrors on the wall.
Alas that all the friends we ever knew
Whose lives were fragrant and whose touch was true
Can only meet us on some little screen
Then zoom away with scarcely an adieu.
The section finishes with the hope and promise that one day we’ll break bread and share wine together. I began with the celebration of the return of nature, but as the crisis progressed, the poem changed.
Every evening my wife and I would listen to the radio. Every evening they told us the number of people who were dying—and the number kept growing. I ended the poem with a more somber tone. It invites us to discover how faith meets this crisis. This is the final section—section seven of Quarantine Quatrains:
At close of day I hear the gentle rain
Whilst experts on the radio explain
Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,
Cyphers of unimaginable pain
Each evening they announce the deadly toll
And patient voices calmly call the roll
I hear the numbers, cannot know the names
Behind each number, mind and heart and soul
Behind each number one beloved face
A light in life whom no-one can replace,
Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,
A gleaning and a memory of grace
All loved and loving, carried to the grave
The ones whom every effort could not save
Amongst them all those carers whose strong love
Bought life for others with the lives they gave.
The sun sets and I find myself in prayer
Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share
Feeling for words of hope amidst despair
I voice my vespers through the quiet air:
O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,
Deep in the secret garden of the rose,
Raise over us the banner of your love
And raise us up beyond our last repose.
I hear this contrast of life and death: the paradox that they exist in the same space and that we feel them intensely at the same time, both the sorrow and the joy. I also hear the cradling of formal elements—the cadence and the iambs. The contrast and the paradox in the poem are held by the form.
The form is very dear to me. Perhaps the best way to explain my feel for rhythm and rhyme and the musical pattern of sound is if I tell you a story.
I once had the great pleasure and honor of interviewing the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney when he won the Wilfred Owen Memorial Prize. Of course, Owen was a great war poet. Giving Heaney that prize was a way of acknowledging that in his patient and steadfast witness to the eternal verities in the midst of the [Irish] troubles he too, in his own way, had been a war poet. So of course we talked about the poetry of Wilfred Owen. I asked Heaney about the way he read Wilford Owen. I started to recite Wilfred Owen's extraordinary “Anthem for Doomed Youth” / “what passing-bells for those who die as cattle.” Heaney’s eyes lit up and he took it up with his own voice. He recited them by memory:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
And then he stopped to look at me and said, “It's the music that makes that both poignant and bearable—the music as it speaks into atrocity.” And he said, “I think of the musical elements in a poem—the assonance, the meter, the rhyme—all play with sound as being a bit like the joists under a floorboard or the springing under a dance floor that you don't see it at first, but it's there holding the weight and sustaining the step.”
As he looked at me he just suddenly came out of nowhere with this great line. He said, “And I think the greater the weight of grief a line of poetry is asked to bear the more musically must it be under sprung the joists beneath it must be. There has to be a beauty to sustain the grief.” I thought it was such a beautiful image. I learned a lot from that conversation. It confirmed my view that I should continue to care about meter and rhyme, and to find in the form a way of both sustaining and honoring the subject of the verse.
I think that's beautiful. You also have conversations in the Quarantine Quatrains that reply across the centuries to Omar Khayyam, T.S. Eliot, and others.
A number of poetic allusions all the way through. I've got one where I have a conversation with Yeats, a poet whom I love. I was thinking about Yeats’ famous poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Yeats is talking about his home. He's in London and he's “treading the pavements grey,” but always in his heart, he hears the water lapping. “I hear it lapping in the deep, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” So I wrote one of my Quarantine Quatrains about being in my garden on a Sunday morning, feeling the sense of Sabbath rest, but in absolute stillness. At that time we were seeing pictures in the news of Piccadilly Circus and Marble Arch and all these empty London streets. Yeats had been in London when he wrote “The Lake of Isle of Innisfree.” He was reaching out from London into that deep silence on the Lake Isle. So I entered into a conversation.
From Marble Arch and all along The Mall
Only the pigeons still stand sentinel
And all the streets that thronged with rush and fret
Are soaked in silence almost magical.
No needs to find the Isle of Innisfree,
Or seek with Brendan Islands in the sea
For now the town and countryside alike
Partake the Sabbath rest of Galilee
And all that smudge of noise, the muffled roar
Of distant rush hour traffic is no more
The ‘roadway and the pavement grey’ both keep
A greater silence in the deep hearts core.
That’s lovely. I resonate with how the Quarantine Quatrains engage with shared suffering throughout the world. We have an opportunity right now as individuals and as an international community to participate in shared suffering and to bear it on behalf of others.
If you think about it, there could not be a more vivid demonstration of the truth that although we're all individuals and separate we are one humanity. We're all physically connected. Since the virus is spread by touch and breath, there is a chain of physical human touch and connection unbroken which actually binds us together.
Now, sadly, that touch is actually a chain of illness and suffering, but there's absolutely no reason why there shouldn't be a similar chain of love and redemption. We are not so separate from one another as we once thought. No country is isolated from another and no individual is really isolated from their community.
We have to see this revelation of the commonness of our humanity—which has come to us in a shadowed form—and we have to readdress it and speak light, a common light, a shared light, back into the shadow.
How can those of us who have felt lost under the shadow experience that illuminating redemption?
I've found that I often reread passages that I have known and loved but have lain fallow in my mind. I've been reading a lot of the poet John Donne, both the poetry and the prose meditations. He wrote a little book which was effectively his own sort of pandemic journal, a prayer journal, called Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, which he wrote when the plague came to London in the early seventeenth century. He was a parish priest at that point and stayed in London rather than going off to the countryside as some people did. That is where the famous passage that everybody quotes comes from: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; // It tolls for thee.” It tolls for every man.
He says: “any man’s death diminishes me, / Because I am involved in mankind.” Everybody quotes that famous petrarch: “No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man if a piece of the continent” but they don’t quite have the end of it. The end of it is a wonderful new image: the image of a book. To paraphrase, he says that when a person dies a page is not torn out of a bound volume of the book of life, but is wrought out of the book of our life here. Each page is translated into a better language so that that same page may be open forever as we will always be open forever to one another in that library, where every book lies open. Of course, he is referring to heaven. It's a wonderful idea that we are somehow bound together in a volume. Death is a kind of translation so that everything we are is not lost, but re-expressed in an eternal language.
That's the language of the church. Your poetry often reflects on the liturgical life of the church. What has it been like in the pandemic to be disconnected from the church?
That has been a great challenge for all of us. I've often felt that although it's wonderful to have virtual meetings, I feel very strongly that the physical presence of one with another—and of our Lord with us—through the sacrament of communion is essential. . . . [B]ut I also recognize that in extremis we have to honor and love one another by not spreading disease. So we had to close down our churches.
I found that music became a huge resource. We gathered beautiful music and poetry together to enrich the liturgy in as many ways as we could. But really I was waiting for that moment of return. We've been able to return for a bit, although, sadly, I think we may be going into another fairly strict lockdown. Return may have just been an interlude.
I am so moved by your poetic record of this international crisis. That's one of the functions of poetry over the centuries. As we suffer and engage in the mysteries of being human there's somebody keeping a record of those paradoxes and contradictions and creating beauty out of them so that in the darkness, we can see threads of light
Think about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and other poets taking on the immense crisis of the first world war. They found a way to speak of the pity of war, but also just the sheer humanity of those who gave their lives.
There needed to be poets there. Of course, it is the same with a writer like Heaney in the course of the Irish troubles. When the Good Friday peace agreement was signed, politicians and journalists were quoting Seamus Heaney’s poetry. It is extraordinary how it spoke to them, and the same is true of a poet like Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Lithuanian and Nobel Prize winner, who wrote his poetry in exile. We always need poets in crisis.
What have you experienced in terms of writing in this season versus writing in more settled times? Does it have a different kind of weight?
There's always a time when you're writing, when suddenly it becomes intense and necessary to write. The combination of an emptier diary and a sense of shared crisis made the concentration of writing easier.
One of the things that I found in the pattern of the Daily Prayers within the Church of England is that the core of morning and evening prayer is the Psalms. You say two or three Psalms at each of those offices and eventually, over the course of a month or so, you work your way through the Psalter. I suddenly found those Psalms coming alive for me in the crisis. De Profundis: “Out of the deep I have called to you, Lord hear my voice.”
There's so much in the Psalms about people being fearful for their lives, about the sense of having been abandoned, about yearning for God to come back and to reassure—and then also wonderful moments of reassurance and depth of praise and the sense of things being transfigured. All of them have got this tremendous sense of being rooted in something more than the passing of events in your world. The Psalms are the poetry book of the Bible embedded in the heart of the Scriptures.
So after I'd finished the Quarantine Quatrains I found myself writing a series of personal poetic responses to the book of Psalms. That project occupied the rest of my lockdown. It felt like a spiritual necessity. It felt like needing to breathe while you're swimming or running. Every psalm was a new breath in, and every poem was a breath out. It became a completely natural pattern to my life. I've just completed a sequence of 150 poems. It's a kind of prayer journal. As I wrote it, I found that more and more of the Psalms were speaking into the crisis for me.
It has long been a deeply held sense in my soul that poetry and prayer are nearly the same thing.
They are two sides of the same coin. Seamus Heaney has been cropping up a lot in this conversation, but he's one of the great poets. He has a sequence called “Station Island” which he wrote at one of the worst points of the Irish troubles—poems that gradually move their way towards hope. There's a bit in one of these poems where he remembers having been to confession. The Father Confessor spoke about the need “to salvage everything, to re-envisage / the zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift / mistakenly abased . . . / ‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance / translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’ ”
In the poem, he goes on to give you the translation of John of the Cross’ “although it is the night.”
What a wonderful thing for a priest to say in spiritual counsel to a poet. Read poems as prayers. When I read that poem, I'd been a follower of Seamus Heaney since I’d discovered him as a teenager in the seventies. But in the mid-eighties, that poem struck me with the force of revelation. Up till then I hadn't quite realized my priestly vocation yet, but I had my church life sort of in one hand and my poetic life in the other. They weren't in sync. They weren’t speaking to each other. Reading that poem of Heaney’s opened up the communication doors, as it were, between those sides of my life with fruitful results.
An extended version of this interview is available in the forthcoming print issue.
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Heidi White is managing editor of the FORMA and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.