This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.

Rowan Williams read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10th August 2014. 

by Samuel Tongue

The event is well-nigh sold out, testifying to the popularity of a man who, whatever one’s views on organised religion, manages to appeal to a wide range of people with his thoughtful cultural commentary and committed humble faith. This is a former Archbishop, born to a Welsh-speaking family in Ystradgynlais, just outside Swansea, educated at Oxford, who taught theology at both Oxford and Cambridge, has published on Dostoevsky, was arrested for singing psalms on the runway of an American airbase and whose gentle persona resulted in the cuddly “Rowan Bear,” complete with mitre and all the right “archepiscopal gear.”

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon The Lord Williams of Oystermouth arrives quietly and without fanfare, dressed in clerical black, shirt open at the collar. Enthroned as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, serving until December 2012, he ministered at a time of troubled controversy and frustration on all sides of the Anglican Communion. Since January 2013, Williams has been Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and, as if to mark this change in creative direction, Carcanet has both reissued The Poems of Rowan Williams (itself a gathering of poems from After Silent Centuries [1994] and Remembering Jerusalem [2001]) and published a new collection, The Other Mountain (2014). Tonight, Williams reads from both Cacarnet publications and Headwaters (Perpetua, 2008).

Such is the importance of poetry to Williams that he organised his enthronement to fall on George Herbert’s feast day (February 27th). Along with Herbert, discernible and noted influences are John Donne, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Geoffrey Hill. What this leads to in Williams’ own poetry is intellectual density, allusive (and elusive) meanings, and a philosophy of language that situates his poetic voice between the discipline of form and a careful waiting for utterance.

Growing up with Welsh as his first language and going on to acquire proficiency in many other languages, notably focussing on Russian, Williams is keenly aware that words are not yoked to things in any simplistic fashion. One of the first clusters of poems that he reads from The Other Mountain are tributes to the Welsh poet Waldo Williams (1904—1971), whose work he has also translated in previous collections. Firstly, he reads his own translation of Pa beth yw dyn? (‘What is man?’ Or ‘What is it to be human?’, as other translators such as Menna Elfyn have it) with its insistent, almost child-like questioning. I quote here from Elfyn’s translation as Williams’ book was unavailable at the time of writing: “What is it to sing? To receive breath / From the genius of creation. // What are state affairs? A craft / That’s still only crawling?” [1]

Williams then offers four poems for Waldo, the last ‘A View’ echoing this form of poetic antiphon, the question and answer structure allowing him to create a polyphonic texture, circling as it moves forward. Williams is always in conversation, sometimes through such a form as displayed here, often through translation, and most keenly in his wide-ranging interest and deep compassion for other people. In ‘Nagasaki: Midori’s Rosary’ he explores the terrible irony of Takashi Nagai, a radiologist, surviving the nuclear blast in which his wife Midori is killed, but dying, years later, of leukaemia:

 […] In the radiology lab,
Takashi fiddles, listening to the ticking bomb
in his blood cells, thinks, once, piercingly,
of her hands and small mouth, […]

Midori’s rosary beads have melted into “a single mass / around the shadow with its blackened hands / carved with their little weeping lips.” The beads now function as a kind of relic to the horror of such massive destruction meted out on people, a relic to the particularity of a human life.

Such poetry strikes at the heart and the head, the eye and the ear. At times however, this latest collection has a high metaphysical tone, a lyric that doesn’t quite remain as rooted in the dirt, blood, and bone as some of his previous work. On occasion, the metaphysical reach and hard-edged abstract imagery can leave the listener behind, rooted to the spot, the intellect of the poet advancing into the heavens. One cluster of poems brings together Joseph Brodsky, Ovid, and the psalmist beside the rivers of Babylon, to explore the theme of cultural and linguistic exile. Image becomes idea becomes image becomes idea, sometimes within one sentence. When questioned as to the art of poetry later, Williams emphasises that the sound of poetry is fundamental; poems can work on the page yet must perform well on the ear. But to such a learned imagination, the page can sometimes take precedence.

Yet, when this fierce intellect is applied to the exercise of disciplined form, sparks fly. Before reading his translation of ‘Sin,’ Williams explains how the strict metre of the bard David Gwenallt Jones (1899—1968) required some linguistic leaps of himself; the results are striking:

Take off the business suit, the old-school tie,
The gown, the cap, drop the reviews, awards,
Certificates, stand naked in your sty,
A little carnivore, clothed in dried turds.


We cannot hear, the alien voices high
And hard, singing salvation, grace, life, dawn.
Like wolves, we lift our snouts: Blood, blood, we cry,
The blood that bought us so we need not die.

Williams studied Russian in order to read Dostoevsky and Orthodox theology; alongside Brodsky, he is also attracted to the poets Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, offering them poetic responses, too. When questioned as to how he copes with the process of Russian translation, he explains that it is a “condensed” and economical language, loaded with inflection and rhyme that extends further than English. However, when a poem “suggests” a poem in English, he works hard to ensure that the later piece is “transparent” to the earlier, a process full of “frustration and joy.” This accords well with how he answers a question on whether the “beauty” of poetry is in its meaning or syntax: as he says, “poetry is a tightly rolled ball of perception, […] a way of finding ordered words [which] reveal […] not a message but a new place to be.” For Williams, reality is shot through with paradoxes that do not ultimately defeat meaning-making; the poet continues to put himself in the way of, in Henry Vaughan’s words, “the deep but dazzling darkness” of language and of faith.

Although the chair Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library, specifically asked that questions were directed towards Rowan Williams, the poet, rather than Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, an audience member asks which poem Williams would claim as a “spiritual triumph.” He notes that direct expression of spiritual experience never enters unmediated into his work, that good art and good poetry cannot be doctrinal or didactic in this way. He dislikes the epithet “religious poet,” preferring to be a poet for “whom religion matters immensely.” And, as an example, he finishes back down in the dirt and grime of an older poem, in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with the women polishing ‘The Stone of Anointing.’ It is “sprung like cramped muscle,”

       […] And only when
the stone falls still will their tired polished

faces look back at them: ready to receive
Christ laid on them like a cloth. [2]

Poet, priest, pastor, and scholar all coalesce around this point; in Rowan Williams’ life and work, these elements form one substance, one blood, one bone.



[1] See http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/181322 for Elfyn’s full translation.

[2] This is taken from The Poems of Rowan Williams, reissued by Carcanet in 2014.

One response to “EIBF 2014: ROWAN WILLIAMS”

  1. […] bei allem Geschriebenen stets mit Händen zu greifen ist. Williams meinte jedoch beim vergangenen Edinburgh International Book Festival im August, er fühle sich nicht als ein religiöser Dichter, sondern als ein Dichter, dem Religion […]

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