Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge, England. He is a priest, chaplain, teacher and author. His books include What Do Christians Believe? and Faith Hope and Poetry. His latest collection of sonnets, Sounding the Seasons, has recently been released in a Kindle edition.
Kevin Belmonte interviewed Malcolm for this week’s Fridays with Friends.
Kevin Belmonte: What/who/where are your consistent sources of inspiration?
Malcolm Guite: Ah! How long have you got? Bob Dylan once said ‘Open your ears, and you’re influenced!’ and in one sense everything I read and hear, especially poetry which I love, and tends to stay with me after one reading. Everything is in there somewhere and must contribute in some way to my feel for language and the way I write.
But in specific terms for this book (Sounding the Seasons) there are certain clear and conscious influences and ‘past masters’ from whom I’m drawing. First and foremost George Herbert. Another longhaired Anglican poet-priest who went to Cambridge and liked to write poems, play guitar and sing!
But the comparisons end there. Herbert was a consummate master of the poetic art and also, as it happens, a saint. But though one can’t hope to come close to him in either art or sanctity one can always be inspired to try. George Herbert’s book The Temple gave me an example of how writing honestly about the highs and lows, gifts and struggles of living the Christian life can bring gifts of clarity and hope to oneself and others. His poems in The Temple about the actual life we live in and through our worship in church, poems like ‘The Windows’ and ‘Love Bade me Welcome’ and his great sonnet ‘Prayer’ have been an inspiration.
His older contemporary John Donne (still another long-haired, bearded, Anglican priest-poet) was also an inspiration. Donne’s Holy Sonnets set the template for Christian writing that is honest about passion and eros and isn’t afraid to confront darkness and death.
Finally, a less well known, but important influence for me was John Keble the 19th Century poet priest whose book of poems The Christian Year, which came out in 1827, was one of the most important and popular books of devotion in the nineteenth century and showed that a shared poetic response to the feasts of the Christian year could really build faith.
The Temple came out in the early seventeenth century, The Christian Year in the early nineteenth century, as we got to the early twenty-first century, I thought, ‘One of these comes along around every two hundred years—now its my turn!’
Of course I can’t really emulate men like them, but at least I can have a go! If you want a ‘where’ answer to that question, I’d have to say there’s a lovely place in Wales called Gladstone’s Library (http://www.st-deiniols.com), where many of the poems were written, and what they sometimes call the ‘Celtic fringe’ of these islands; Ireland, Scotland and Wales, have always been inspiring places to me.
KB: What artists (musicians, poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, etc) are you following/do you recommend?
MG: I assume we are talking about contemporary artists here. Amongst the poets I would say first Seamus Heaney, whose poetry I have read since my teens and whose whole vision and approach is deep in my blood.
Amongst American poets I am a huge fan of Luci Shaw (http://www.lucishaw.com), her language is so clear, her images so lucid, but in that lucidity there is extraordinary depth. She has the ability to describe something in the natural world in a way which does complete justice to its ‘isness’ its particular quiddity, and at the same time allows it to become in the mind of the reader, something translucent, something that speaks of qualities and truths beyond itself.
Amongst contemporary visual artists I am inspired, in America by the work of Lia Chavez (http://www.liachavez.com) who uses photographs and images of our present mortal body to evoke and suggest the eternal beauty of the resurrection body, Bruce Herman (http://bruceherman.com), whose images have, like Luci Shaw’s poetry, this extraordinary combination of complete fidelity to the gritty ‘thisness’ of what is here whilst at the same time offering the soul infinite riches, Makoto Fujimara (http://www.makotofujimura.com) is an amazing contemporary artist who has made me think again about the sheer particularity of colour and surface, I normally go for more representational work but there is something about the intensity of his paintings that always makes me look again and always rewards the return.
On this side of the pond I have been fortunate to work with Rebecca Merry (http://www.rebeccamerry.com) and Margot Krebs Neale (https://www.facebook.com/MargotKrebsNeale?fref=ts), a painter and photographer who have both interpreted my poems and in turn sent me back to writing in a new way. as for musicians, music of all kinds is a huge part of my life and I think poetry is an essentially musical art.
Of course like many of my generation Dylan, Cohen, and Young have been and continue to be a sound track of my life, but amongst a younger generation, I have recently discovered and then had the thrill of working with Steve Bell, there’s a young Seattle songwriter and musician Eric Miller (http://ericmillersongs.com) who has really impressed me with a winning combination of craft and honesty.
On this side of the pond, there’s a very thoughtful and poetic songwriter Alan Franks (http://www.alanfranks.com) whom I listen to a lot. He has a certain combination of English whimst, melancholy undertow and yet ultimate courage that I admire. I was blown away when he wrote a positive review of Sounding the Seasons for The Times (of London).
KB: How can readers of All Nine get involved in what you’re doing?
MG: Sounding the Seasons was written to be read aloud, round dinner tables with friends, in churches, in private prayer and down the pub. I’d be thrilled if people just read it and shared it with friends. All the poems are freely available on my blog where you can also hear recordings of me reading them (though of course I’d be glad if people bought the book as well as this might mean I could take time to write more!).
It’s easy to find and follow my blog (http://malcolmguite.wordpress.com) and I also do quite a lot of public speaking and readings, I come to the U.S. about twice a year, and I try to put all the info about that up on my blog in advance. The other thing I do is write and sing songs. All my albums are available on iTunes, through cdbaby and on spotify so I should be fairly easy to find. If you start typing my name I come up pretty quickly on google—the advantage of having a weird name!