Monday 22 September 2008

Headwaters: poems by Rowan Williams

At last! I’ve been waiting eagerly for Rowan Williams’ new book of poems, and it’s finally here: Headwaters (Oxford: Perpetua Press, 2008), 72 pp. The book includes 25 collected poems, plus a sequence of sonnets responding to ten of Shakespeare’s plays, plus Williams’ striking translations of several Welsh and Russian poems. (It doesn’t seem to be available yet in the US, but it can be ordered direct from the publisher, or from Abebooks, or from

I’ve only read through the collection once so far, but I can tell I’ll be spending a lot more time with these poems. Here’s one of my favourites – an astonishing poem entitled “Sin,” translated from the Welsh of D. Gwenallt Jones:

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.
The snot that slowly fills our passages
Seeps up from hollows where the dead beasts lie;
Dumb stamping dances spell our messages,
We only know what makes our arrows fly.
Lost in the wood, we sometimes glimpse the sky
Between the branches, and the words drop down
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.


Anonymous said...

For those who don't know the poetry of D. Gwenallt Jones, overshadowed as he was by R. S. Thomas (whose poem "A Lecturer" is a eulogy to Gwenallt), here is an excerpt from the foreward of a small collection, preceded by a couple of essays, entitled Sensuous Glory: The Poetic Vision of D. Gwenallt Jones (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2000), written by - Rowan Williams!

"Some figures - T. S. Eliot, Thomas Merton - become voices for far more than their own individual experience; they encapsulate the struggles of a whole era, a whole class of people, and create a distinctive imaginative world. For anyone who grew up in twentieth century Wales, Gwenallt has something of this character. His personal voice is matured in the context of an industrialism careless of life and welfare, first finding itself in the language of Marxist critique and then falling into the rhythm and cadence of a bleak but honest and impassioned Christianity, with its vision of humanity, reduced almost to animality (echoes of King Lear), scenting the redeeming blood from far off and howling with longing - one of Gwenallt's most outrageous and unforgettable images."

Williams' translation of "Sin" is markedly different from the one in the collection by Patrick Thomas: it's very much earthier - ruddier, ruder - and proposes assonances and rhymes absent in Thomas' rendering (but there in the Welsh?).

By the way, need we be reminded that the particular social and cultural location of Rowan Williams - his roots, where he's coming from, i.e. from the Swansea valley in south Wales - might be a significant factor in tracing the universal sweep of his theology?

Anonymous said...

stunning poem, I need to read more. thanks Ben... and Kim for commentary. By the way do you folk think the last line is a reference to the kind of sacrificial violence Girard analyses, or is an oblique link to the self-sacrifice of Christ?

Anonymous said...

Here are links (TinyUrl) to several more poems from "HeadWaters".
They are from the Church Times.

J. A. Frazer Crocker, Jr.

MM said...

This reference to Rowan's poetic life reminds me that he is off to Lourdes tomorrow, where he will preach... recently recommended on a similar note is his title "Ponder these Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin" (Canterbury Press)

goodfornowt said...

"The blood that bought us so we need not die."

But surely, in every sense, we need to die.

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