A World Aflame with Words

Andrew & Malcolm at Camp Allen. Image copyright Lancia E. Smith, 2011

A World Aflame with Words:

Musing on Malcolm Guite’s “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier”

Note: By day, I work as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, I covet such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send my way; here I offer some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter. Originally guest-posted on Kelly Belmonte’s fantastic site, All Nine. Many thanks to Holly Ordway and Katie Hornell for kind and late-night editorial help!

As another school year closes and graduations descend upon us, I’ve found myself thinking about beginnings and endings. The sermon I heard Sunday marked another such end, as we celebrate the last Sunday in Easter and look towards Pentecost next week, the longest season of the church calendar. Endings and beginnings. Words, in the form of greeting cards and speeches and yearbook signings, fond farewells and a welcome in to the summer season. I’m changing jobs, moving to a different high school next year, and so as I draw this year to a close, thoughts of my first day in a new place fill me even as I face the last moments with these good people, some of whom I shall surely never see again.

Ah, that first day of school. As a teacher, I love that day. I’ve found nothing in the world so potent with possibility as that first-day-of-class terror. Not my fear, anxious though I always am, but the fear of my students. Thick and palpable, I can almost feel it as I walk into the room and write my name on the board. Potent with possibility. And a faint whiff of panic.

It’s always puzzled me that so many teachers let such a powerful moment slip by. So many of us follow the same format: we pass out a syllabus and then proceed to read the most stultifying prose known to man to these unwitting students in such terrific terror. As if they cannot read, at least well enough to register for and find their way to our classes. As if we need a way to lose their attention at once, providing them papers full of rules and deadlines. “Dead lines” indeed—a sort of crisp white boundary to immediately insert between themselves and us. Such a promising moment, so sadly squandered.

Fully confident of the fact that I have plenty of time, however inadvertently, to bore them in the future, I seize this first moment that I open my mouth before them and then dare something different. I stare at them a moment and then begin telling them about my dear friend, the Reverend Doctor Malcolm Guite of Girton College, Cambridge. He looks like a half-sized, happy Hagrid, rides a Harley, plays guitar and sings lead in a pub band, and writes poetry in form. Everything you want in an Anglican priest, no?

One day at Girton College, one of Malcolm’s poems gummed up the Xerox rather badly and elicited this terse comment from the woman in charge of said copy machine: “Dr. Guite, your poetry is jamming my machine!” After freeing his verses (haha!) from the maw of the copier, Malcolm recognized that she had uttered a perfect line of iambic pentameter: “My poetry is jamming your machine.” He walked away musing, and soon thereafter produced the following villanelle.

I cannot begin to say how grateful I am that he did. I quote it to bookend the entire class. Each start and end of term, the opening words my students hear out of my mouth on the very first day of class and the last thing they hear as they head for the door come in the form of this poem. These lines for me perfectly take advantage of those vital moments of creative fear or of weary accomplishment. I have memorized through years of good use (and suggest you do the same):

On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier

My poetry is jamming your machine

It broke the photo-copier, I’m to blame,

With pictures copied from a world unseen.

My poem is in the works -I’m on the scene

We free my verse, and I confess my shame,

My poetry is jamming your machine.

Though you berate me with what might have been,

You stop to read the poem, just the same,

And pictures, copied from a world unseen,

Subvert the icons on your mental screen

And open windows with a whispered name;

My poetry is jamming your machine.

For chosen words can change the things they mean

And set the once-familiar world aflame

With pictures copied from a world unseen

The mental props give way, on which you lean

The world you see will never be the same,

My poetry is jamming your machine

With pictures copied from a world unseen.

Let’s look at the poem. Several phrases of course leap out right away. These “pictures copied from a world unseen” slyly suggests several things at once. To those of us involved in the daily struggle to grow inside ourselves some kind of a spiritual life, this phrase might suggest the next world, new life. Heaven peeking through the thin places of the world. C. S. Lewis writes that the scriptures are “rustling with the rumor” that a new world awaits us. And the creative arts, poetry, architecture, dance, all the products of all the Nine Muses, these are the pictures we imperfectly create of a world we long to see.

Next I love the quite cunning phrase “we free my verse” all the more because I’ve never known Malcolm to write free verse at all. I feel justifiably certain he’d write EXCELLENT free verse; that he’d suggest it in so complex a form as a villanelle points to the sheer weight of gleeful creativity this poet brings to bear in his outstanding work.

“Subvert the icons on your mental screen” of course points to what both art and the Holy Spirit long to do—turn over the tables in our temples and present the world a new way for us to see into ourselves and into the lives of others. New eyes. Flipping things around. The irony, the paradox of a savior in a stable. And the subtle invitation to turn from the outer screens that bombard us daily and to pay close attention to the images inside. New eyes.

And new ears too, for here again Malcolm’s sensuous spirituality slips in and “opens windows with a whispered name.” I think I know that name. Do you? Might it be my name? Might it be yours? Might it be the name at which we all will kneel in joy and wonder one day?

And now we come to the heart of the poem, of course: “chosen words can change the things they mean.” Isn’t that what all of us who labor in language long on our best days to do? I exhort my students never to underestimate the power of language to change the world, because from where I stand, ultimately, language offers us the only thing that ever does so.

In class as I round my recitation toward home, I pick out the most reluctant and least-likely faces and make eye contact, and even point a little, pressing home the truth that “the world you see will never be the same” for having allowed my poetry to jam up their machines. And by now, even the dullest among them realize that we are speaking here of more than machines, that a profound and purposeful metaphor has slipped into their soul by way of words.

Their “machine” may be an Xbox or an iPod, or a football field or a lifelong loathing of English class. It may prove something more primal, like fear of failing, or years of disapproval in the form of red-pen corrections. I tell my students that the books we read are not boring. Properly contextualized and opened up, any book one finds in the current school curricula might well offer wonders and beauties, riches of several kinds. Perhaps the machine that this poetry will jam is their too-quick dismissal of a beauty that takes time and silence to unfold.

I exhort my freshmen reading Shakespeare for the first time that this searching for its sunken treasure takes time, and effort, and silence. A dictionary, and no distractions. A pencil to parse out the pages. And believe it or not, when they push open their lives to make a space for the poetry of the play to arise, they find themselves both powerful in their ability to understand, delighted by the cleverness of it all, and even sensitive to the searing truths that the Bard always touches upon. After opening one passage recently, one young man literally shook in his seat for the joy of it all—both because of the lovely, intricate delight in the excellence of expression and meaningfulness, and because of the proud sense of power that he had understood it. He shook in his seat for joy. A world had opened up before him, and the world he saw the day before will certainly never be the same.

And so, as I face final classes this week, I shall recite this poem again to them, and pray somehow that for more than just one, my poetry has jammed their machines. Although it may smolder awhile before each knows what to do with it, I hope they have found in their reading, in my poetry that I’ve pressed upon them, a spark that just may set their whole worlds aflame. And, come fall, we’ll try it all again.

Until then, next Sunday on Pentecost many of the churchfolk I know will wear clothes of yellow and red to remember the fire that comes down till it sits on our heads—and sets the world aflame, with pictures copied from a world unseen. Thank you, Malcolm. Your poetry is jamming our machines.

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