‘You never quite know what’s going to count as a religious poem’: Rowan Williams on his anthology of spiritual poetry
“Poetry is one of the things that religion does to you … I believe that good poetry comes from the same sort of place as religious faith.” Thus spoke Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, and an established poet in his own right, at Berwick literary festival on Saturday.
He was talking about A Century of Poetry, 100 poems for searching the heart, an anthology that he has edited, after being “nagged” for several years to do so. As he told a packed audience at Berwick Baptist Church: “I didn’t want to do an anthology of devotional poetry … You never quite know what’s going to count as a religious poem.”
Poets in the anthology include WH Auden, Charles Causley, Imtiaz Dharker, TS Eliot, UA Fanthorpe, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Geoffrey Hill, Elizabeth Jennings, Gwyneth Lewis, Les Murray, Alice Oswald, Ruth Padel, Stevie Smith, Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas, Derek Walcott, and Sylvia Plath.
Williams, who was archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-12, and then became Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, said one of the most “uncomfortable” poems that he had chosen for the anthology was ‘The Real Hero’, by Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai, about the story of Abraham’s obedience to the divine command to sacrifice his son. It was written against the background of the Israeli invasion of 1982.
Each poem in the anthology is accompanied by valuable explanatory comments, and Williams says in the book: “There was debate in Israel over this, and there were those who felt that the lives of young soldiers were being put at risk in a conflict that was not understood; a feeling that sacrifices were being imposed not chosen.” The parallel with the current horrific choices being faced in Israel and Gaza was clearly intended by Williams, who told his audience: “It pinpoints the heroism of those who have no choice. Who’s been volunteered to die, by whom?”
It certainly tapped into the palpable grief felt by audience members around me, who were also Quakers, at the current crisis in the Middle East. I had earlier overheard conversations about working on projects in Jerusalem and in Jordan.
Williams also focused on another “unexpected” poem in the anthology, ‘Saint Judas’ by American poet James Wright. He said that in the sonnet Judas is on his way to hang himself after betraying Jesus, but is allowed to forget his guilt for a moment “by the instinctive act of love” he feels for a man he finds beaten and dying by the roadside. Williams said: “He loves for no reward, because he knows he is damned. Is this what holiness looks like?”
These are tough theological questions, and Williams aimed to lighten the mood towards the end of the reading by conceding that he clearly had to include such familiar poets as TS Eliot, RS Thomas, and John Betjeman in the anthology. He read the Betjeman poem ‘Norfolk’, of which he comments in the book: “He can channel with great imaginative sympathy the voices of people who have deep-rooted faith, and he can also express a naked fear, shame and guilt impervious to the reassurances of belief.”
He also made “no apology” for concluding by reading TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’ – a poem so familiar, and yet the way Williams read it, in his beautiful, measured, and civilised voice, remarkably moving.
On the way into the event, I didn’t buy the anthology, figuring that there wasn’t room for the hefty hardback in my rucksack. On the way out I made sure I had a copy.