In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Poet on the Cliff


Let’s look again at St Aldhelm’s chapel, a small square Norman building on a  cliff-edge. It stands at the very tip of a promontory on the Dorset coast called –    a bit confusingly – St Alban’s Head.

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The chapel is small and dark and inside it is very damp. This is because the door into it is always open and of course the sea is close, down below. Also there is no electricity to the place, so never any artificial light or heat.

I have given poetry readings in the chapel at various times in my life, to small gatherings of people sitting on the rather hard benches there. I can’t think who is the more eccentric – me for wanting to read in that place or them for being willing to join me there. But of course that’s not really true. It’s a wonderful wonderful place for words to be telling in. For words do tell in there. And of course one feels duty bound to use words that are worthy of the setting and somehow speak for it or in accord with it, or join what the place is already saying itself, just by standing there through the centuries. It actually feels like a responsibility and weighs on you a bit.

I once carefully scattered some of my mother’s ashes on the grass outside the chapel and the wind took her up and sent her dancing out over the sea. I might ask if I can join her there sometime.

I gave a reading in the chapel on the 14th of this month, during a still and beautiful Autumn afternoon. Just before the reading began, we saw a few swallows rushing about overhead, maybe the last of the year in this country. And there were still some bees about. I think in the Summer they nest inside the chapel walls. But during the afternoon I read, they were inside the chapel itself, on the wing, but interested only in the walls, nudging up against them as if trying to push them over. Their steady buzzing felt profoundly companionable.

The reading began with poems which sought to explore exactly where we were, in that particular location at that particular time in 2017, quite close to the Christian festival of All Soul’s, quite close to the Brexit blockading of our cliffs. I felt a bit like a bee myself, nudging and bouncing off the various aspects and levels of our position. First, the interior of the chapel. Then further out into the Dorset landscape. A theme of the reading was stone and – as a climax – words, the false and the true. For poetry is just breath turned into words but the power of the word is without limit and in the beginning through to the end the words we speak reflect an elemental struggle between truth and lie.

My friends Tom Burgess and John McClorinan also read that afternoon and Hannah McClorinan played the Sarabande from Bach’s cello suite number 5.

Some of the poems I read in St Aldhelm’s chapel are shared with the “Poems for the Campaign” collection described in the previous post.

I am going to take the liberty of quoting some feedback I received after the reading, almost less for the praise it included, which of course I find immensely gratifying, than for the quality and profundity of the feedback in its own right :

“It was indeed a wonderful occasion and day. The poetry recital restored the chapel to its function – existence considered sub specie aeternitatis, the currents that run through life that need to be brought to the surface. It felt like a very authentic church service (not riven by doubt about ancient views of the world). I was very struck by your poetry’s reframing of life in larger temporal and spatial scales, exploring interdependencies but holding the human subject in view  – poetry recalling science but poetry nonetheless. I have often thought that poetry or poetics might be the future of (some) religion, because in fact it has always been central to religion (I think quite a lot about religion – I studied Theology and Religious Studies at Clare before medical training later).  It was also lovely to meet your friends and family  – a very special occasion…”

The writer is pointing to a great chasm here, I feel. A great fissure running through our time, our societies, each one of us. Can poetry fill that howling fault-line ? Can poetry be a match for Trump, for Brexit, these various versions of human withdrawal into brutishness and delusion, dwarfed and dehumanised as we are by our towers and temples of glittering technology ? Actually, I fear not.

Here are all the St Aldhelm’s poems, ordered as we performed them that lovely afternoon.