Thursday, 21 June 2012

Hurray for Rowan Williams

I went to an excellent talk by Rowan Williams -- in the dialogue format with another poet -- where he talked about language, poetry and translation. Because I went to his difficult Clark lectures on aesthetics some years back in Cambridge, which were published as Grace and Necessity, I was able to follow more than otherwise. I do like the archbishop. He's good at gentle self-deprecating humour, and he is so startlingly but unostentatiously bright. His adoption of Simone Weil's idea that one should always approach other humans with hesitation, e.g. a sort of expectant humility, is something you can actually see him doing as well talking about. It means not putting a name or label on a person but instead being open to them as a human. The Franciscans who used to live in Cambridge were like that. I suppose it's part of the reason why he seems undefinite to the world in general, his refusal to condemn. And certainly many Anglicans (and journalists) would like him to do a bit more condemning -- my evangelical relatives on my father's side don't really approve of him. I think he's just what we need. The Church of England is sometimes called the only organisation that exists for the benefit of its non-members, and I think he provides a good sign for both the church and the non-church. The church needs to be just a bit skew-whiff from the world. It needs not to copy the name-calling style of modern politics. It needs to measure its success by things that are neither worldly nor unworldly but aworldly, or refuse to measure its success at all.

Also it was cool to hear him talk about the poetry culture of his native Wales. I hadn't realised that he was brought up bilingual in Welsh and English. And I enjoyed that he talked intelligently about Geoffrey Hill. An elderly bishop used to bring Hill into lunch sometimes when I was a research fellow. I liked that bishop, since deceased, and a few times actually sat next to Geoffrey Hill. Whereupon I found myself completely unable to say anything at all intelligent to him about his work, much as I like it. It was one of those moments that seems frustratingly bigger than itself, and actually emblematic of a whole part of life. Maybe I should write a poem about it.


  1. PS I see that it's mentioned in today's Graun (The Week in Books, Review section). John Dugdale describes him as "scornfully dismissing" certain modern liturgies, which doesn't fit in with my recollection of Dr William's attitude. He's not a very scornful man.

  2. Many thanks for this insightful account; it does explain a lot - especially why RW tends to be so often misinterpreted by the media (who like the black/white or cut/dried). And you've made me re-examine not only my take on RW but also some of my own attitudes.

    PS Yes, do write a poem on what you now see as an embarrassingly botched encounter. GH probably understood perfectly, but painting word pictures from your recollections will probably prove a helpful exercise for you.

  3. I liked that said Offa. Sing it again.

  4. I liked that said Offa. Sing it again.

  5. @Minnie, thanks! I do think that Rowan Williams deserves careful attention. He has said a lot of good stuff, and his inability to be digested into soundbites is, as they say in computer programming, a feature not a bug.

    But now I think about it, writing a poem on my failure to talk to Geoffrey Hill would be very hard since it would be all about inarticulacy. I can only think of one poem about inarticulacy, by Robert Graves, who is one of my favourite poets: The Cool Web

    @Oliver -- Overlord of the M5! -- a good epithet for a king sometimes described as a "Mercian octopus".