Dr  Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

A tour of the Archive with Dr Rowan Williams

Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

Poetry happens at a sort of junction in the mind when new combinations start up, words and pictures start connecting in unexpected ways. It takes you into what can feel like anarchic territory, and that's one reason for trying to give it some ballast by forms and structures. Several of the poems I've chosen are about birth, one way or another - about the start of new life with all its dangers. But I've also chosen a couple that are a bit like incantations, reminding us of that aspect of poetry that is a bit like magic spells. And, to stop us being too solemn about it, a little light relief too.  

Prayer Before Birth

Louis MacNeice

This is a spell of sorts, a protective charm. What will make life possible and worthwhile for the silent but beseeching child in the womb? Not only protection, but wisdom, enough wisdom to see through 'wise lies' and to manage 'the parts I must play' without forgetting my job of becoming a real self that can suffer as well as think. 'Do not make me a stone'. Like Anglo-Saxon verse, this poem plays with rhymes and alliteration to build up a ritual feeling, an insistent music; then ends with a jolt, the musical line suddenly shortened.

Waking with Russell

Don Paterson

And after birth? This poem pivots on the simple picture of a father staring at his son - a few days old - as they lie on the same pillow, and it thinks through the strangeness of this new scrap of life giving the adult something of massive and incalculable preciousness, just by being there - 'the true gift never leaves the giver'. Paterson is a contemporary poet I always enjoy, low-key and economical, very disciplined, very full of warm and close-packed feeling.

The Piano

Gillian Clarke

I have to declare an interest: Gillian Clarke is Welsh, one of my favourites among Welsh poets writing in English. More about children, this time listening to a son playing the piano and remembering how he was born with small deformities like extra fingers. The child, like the whole world of art and music, is an extravagance, an excess - something added gratuitously to the world 'as if two hands were not enough'. So the poem becomes a wonderful exploration of this 'extra' quality, the music playing in the middle of the night taking the mother back literally to 'the room he was born in'.

Journey of the Magi

T. S. Eliot

Another sort of birth meditation, this time about a particular birth, that of Jesus Christ. It begins famously with a passage from a seventeenth-century sermon ('All poets imitate', said Eliot, 'great poets plagiarise'), and ends with a carefully calculated set of anticlimaxes - very Eliot. What happens when a birth - Jesus's 'birth', as the poet starts re-discovering Christian faith - changes everything? The bizarre fact is that it can feel as if nothing has really changed, except that you have a sense that no one else has noticed what has happened - because something certainly has. 'Birth or death?' A new start that is felt only as the death of all that has been familiar; and yet the old world goes on, galloping aimlessly like the old white horse. Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone's questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world. The flatness of the rhythms and phrasing, the utterly prosaic way of describing a miracle, all contribute to what turns out to be an intensely imagined and challenging poem that I first read as a boy and that still moves and disturbs me as much as it did then.


James Fenton

Births are risky things, as we've by now plenty of poetic evidence for believing. Religion may begin as Eliot's profound new seeing, but it turns into violence all too soon, and Fenton gives us a superb evocation of the tragedy of the modern Holy Land, torn apart by 'warrior archaeologists', people who use the sacred past as a destructive weapon. The poem moves skilfully between an almost flippant register and an insistent and deep rhythm of ironic lament. It evokes with painful exactness the experiences of pretty well any traveller to Jerusalem in recent decades - the airport security questions, the glib travelogues of guides. And it ends, with stark economy, describing what happens in this kind of religious and civil conflict. No-one has anywhere to live any more, literally. 'I have destroyed your home. You have destroyed my home.'

April the Sixteenth

George Mackay Brown

Pilgrimage starts, though, in a plain and overwhelming instinct to touch a holy bit of ground; and it isn't always like Jerusalem. Brown, an astonishing and utterly individual writer, in prose as much as poetry, celebrated the harsh but compellingly beautiful landscape of Orkney and its history. One of his favourite subjects is the local mediaeval martyr, St Magnus, and this poem simply imagines the local Orkney people bringing what they can to him on his feast day, the very poor finding something to offer, even the 'fishless fishermen', reminding us of Christ's apostles. A sentence like 'many lambs were born in the snow' is typical Brown; no comment; we are just left to see the island winter, with nothing to offset its severity except the bare reality of a death that has opened up a new horizon. We're still in the realms of birth and risk and so of dangerous creation. And this again is a bit of an incantation, just putting before us a succession of archaic ritual 'stills' while nevertheless giving a sense of real vitality.

Strugnell's Haiku

Wendy Cope

A final touch of light relief, though not unconnected to the rest... Wendy Cope is without doubt the wittiest of contemporary English poets, and says a lot of extremely serious things through painfully funny parodies and fantasy riffs on some phrase or image. Her imagined would-be poet, Jason Strugnell, who writes fluently and badly in the style of most major modern poets (Ted Hughes, Larkin and others), is trying his hand at the most economical and delicate idiom of all, the haiku. He's got the idea - seventeen syllables, a single image to capture; unfortunately he hasn't got anything to say that isn't numbingly obvious. Technique isn't everything. Strugnell's problem seems to be that he is always looking at poetry in order to write poetry, not allowing the edge of risky new combinations of seeing and hearing to upset and change him.

Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Douglas Williams was born in Swansea in 1950. He has held a number of academic posts, including Professor of Theology at Oxford University, and was elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002. Dr Williams has written a number of books on the history of theology and spirituality, and published collections of articles and sermons as well as two books of poetry. His interests include music, fiction and languages.

Enjoy new recordings of classic poems from the past read by contemporary poets

On being brought from...

Phyllis Wheatley

read by Mary Jo Salter

The Voice

Thomas Hardy

read by Anthony Thwaite