Hanging Pictures on the Wall

Added about a year ago by Richard S. Briggs

GUEST BLOG: A good poem is like a picture on a wall, says Richard Briggs.

Now I love art galleries. But I have never been good at hanging pictures around the house. I am not speaking of my practical difficulties with that most complex of tools—a hammer—or the intricacies of banging a nail into a wall, which frequently defeats me. No, the issue has always been situating the picture properly in relationship to other pictures, windows, furniture, the size and lighting of the room, and so forth. In other words: much of what makes a picture work for the viewer is the context that allows it to be seen well. The words of poetry, it seems to me, are a bit like that. Where prose pours its words out on to the page, piling their way up to make a point, poetry hangs back, lets the space around the words be as significant as the words themselves, and then hangs its points—its picture—elegantly on the wall.

Poetry is about economy of expression. See clearly and say briefly. The seeing may relate to an idea, a place, an experience, an image, or even a person. Then let initial word-images come to mind that capture an angle on that idea or experience. There is no way to force that initial expression.

I then find that once a line or two has come to mind, the structure (or lack of structure) of the poem is set. If rhyming and scanning come in at the beginning, then I need to carry them through. If they do not, then the poem unwinds in its own free-form way.

I have been writing poetry for longer than I have been writing books. Still, people are often surprised when I tell them that I have been working on a poem. It is a very different kind of writing. But I have come to love it. I think I first wrote poetry around the age of 13, as a schoolboy. I remember the day when our English teacher asked for the annual “poem about spring” one March, and my good friend Alex and I co-wrote a poem called ‘Not Spring’. I can still remember how it began:

Not Spring comes but thrice a year
Bringing with it Christmas cheer
Summer gladness, winter woes
Always with us till it goes.

There were further verses, until it ended with “This is the time for everything / I am so glad it is Not Spring”. We looked and saw what we had done; and behold, it was marvellous in our eyes. None of the poems in my new book, Not of This Worldview, are quite like that 13-year old’s effort (at least, I do not think they are), but many years later, if I am a poet at all, it may be in part because of the creative joy of that moment. Arguably more significantly, that creative joy became coupled eventually with God’s gracious gift of eyes to see, which helped me to capture the glimpses underlying many of the poems in this new book. After all this time writing so many different kinds of theological book, I cannot remember being quite so pleased to see a book come to fruition. 

Two other things in particular served to spark the book into being. One was a wonderful conference at Durham’s Ushaw College called New Song: Biblical Hebrew Poetry as Jewish and Christian Scripture for the 21st Century in the summer of 2019. It was the first time I had attended a poetry reading; the first time I had chatted to “working poets”; and the first time in years that I had thought seriously about writing or publishing poetry myself. I am co-editing the papers from the conference, and we are including contemporary poems among the responses. It all felt life-giving, and made me ask whether I should be going further with my own poetic interests.

Then, secondly, I became very ill. I spent several months in 2020 undergoing medical treatment, spending two or three weeks in hospital, and having to recuperate for a long period afterwards. I had whole days where I … did nothing. It was like being spiritually re-booted. I would not want to undergo the illness again, but the ensuing time of recovery came with many unexpected blessings. I did not jump straight back into writing the theological books and papers that normally keep me busy. Instead, I found myself dozing in bed in the afternoon, and pondering some of the strange ways that I was seeing things from fresh angles in a season of enforced rest.

And suddenly it was poetry that came pouring out.

Many years of unprocessed experiences and feelings clamoured for attention—with a few words here, an image there, an amusing rhyme that highlighted an emotion, an understated comparison that made several points at once. I began to look forward to afternoons with a bed and a notepad, not forcing the writing but letting it voice some of the extraordinary mystery of being alive in God’s world, on good days and bad (of which I had a fresh stock of experiences to draw from).

Gradually, slowly, I realised I was finally hanging pictures on the wall—poems that settle into their own expansive space on the page, and say “Look at it like this!” or “Stop, breathe deeply, and notice!” So welcome to the opening of my much-delayed poetic exhibition. Browse around the gallery. Linger and move on. And if you readers start to notice some of the same shadings and surprises that I have noticed as I make my way through God’s ever-creative kingdom, then I shall be happy.

Richard S. Briggs teaches the Old Testament at Cranmer Hall in St John’s College in Durham and is the Prior of the Community of St Cuthbert based at St Nic’s Church in Durham marketplace. His new collection of poems, Not of This Worldview: Poetry for the Kingdom Among Us, seeks to let poetry open our eyes and ears to the strange and elusive work of God among us. Get your copy today.

Image: Kristin Briggs

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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