Rowan Williams

I recently went to quite an interesting talk - question and answer session really - with the poet Fiona Sampson and Rowan Williams, titled ‘poetry and faith - language under pressure’. While I didn’t come away with any deep and lasting insights, there were some things he said that I wanted to write down.

Incidentally, he came across as warm and Donnish with a mellifluous voice and agile, sinuous thoughts...seemingly far away from didactic religiosity.

The first point RW made was that poetry, and faith, are driven “by an impulse to say more than is there” - and not just an expression of where we are already. It is exploratory, he said, and calls out for “response, speech, engagement”. I suppose that’s the same for all art?
He talked of the freight of words, of piling the pressure on language by using form, metaphor and ritual, a sense of “we’re not there yet”. And he also suggested that doctrine is a history of discarded solutions, rather than the perfect formula, and what is left is the “least stupid thing”
Hesitation in language is, he said, “a way of drawing back, an expectant humility - you are looking to deliver more than what is there.” Thus, the “most serious theological utterance happens when you’ve run out of what you are going to say ... this allows us to hover over semantic territory - we don’t have to allow it to settle”.
He talked about attention to ‘breath units’ in the Book of Common Prayer and how rhythm leads us - “you are listening and your ear is leading you sub-consciously” and language can be reduced to the “stress and unstress, the in and out”
Serious poetry is, he said, an attempt to view a mystery as an “invitation ... an agony of pressure to discover what you will never exhaust”.
Like loving humanly, loving someone in their limits and mortality, poets must “write humanly ... when you come to the end, somehow you haven’t”.
“Every time you make a choice in a poem, you are pushing something away - good poetry has a shadow possibility. There is more than one way of doing this.”
And, interestingly, for surely much of his job is acting, with his robed persona a channel for others to watch and respond to, he warned: “you have to watch the runaway ego in writing and in prayer - to watch the temptations from both ends.”
When someone in the audience asked about joy in poetry, RW talked of words “getting up and dancing, sometimes in an undignified manner” but how joy can also be terrifying. That made me think of the sublime, and manifestations of it, which can induce a deference and awe in the presence of greatness - a greatness other than beauty. A sort of faith perhaps?

IMHO, talk is talk, skirting round the real thing, and it is the art itself that holds the truth..sometimes wordlessly

RW's words made me think of this poem by the English poet Colin Oliver, called Boundless, from the collection Stepping into Brilliant Air


by Colin Oliver

Like the wind searching,
lifting feathers round
the sparrow's neck,
lifting leaves in a wave
across the bean field,
I find no place
where I can say,
here my being ends.


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