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Blog entries on Religious themes in poetry

I've always liked reading and teaching the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though I'll admit to being challenged by the quirky use of rhythm and language that has made his work so distinctive. Like Emily Dickinson he's definitely one of a kind!
Recently RTE 1's Drama on One series featured an unusual drama based on Hopkin's poetry. No Worst There is None was described as 'a sonic journey into the mind of Gerard Manley Hopkins as he approaches death', presented by the Stomach Box theatre group. It was an effective combination of readings from Hopkins' poems and letters, finishing suitably with the poem that gave the programme its title.
The drama concentrated on the latter end of Hopkins' life and he was far from content. He spoke of the 'wicked thoughts' that assailed him, the 'old habits' he couldn't shake, some 'dangerous subject' he dwelt too much on, the laziness that led to 'wasted time'. If he tried to make excuses for himself he felt guilty about the rationalising. Though he was at times 'pitched past pitch of grief' he had some happy moments, times when he felt he was the 'most placidist soul in the world'. The drama ended with him declaring 'I'm happy' at the end of his life, though after all the angst that preceded it, this felt a bit arbitrary, and I though the drama could have created more of a basis for this to make it seem less random.
It was indeed a 'sonic journey', with poetry reading interspersed with sound effects, echoes and songs from the singers of Dublin Choral Foundation and St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir. The solo singing was effective, but the children singing gave it somehow an eerie and unsettling feeling, which may well have been the intention. Anyone not familiar with Hopkins may well have found the whole experiences somewhere between intriguing and freaky!
It was helpful that this production was followed immediately by a short programme, Hopkins and the Sonnet, in which Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman of Glenstal Abbey reflected on Hopkins' pain filled 'terrible sonnets', which he described as 'therapeutic' and not originally intended for publication. He provided some interesting historical background - how Hopkins was alienated in England because he had become Catholic and in Ireland because he was English! He ended up mainly correcting the copies of students in Newman's new university in Dublin. No wonder he had dark thoughts!
Abbot Hederman gave a more rounded view of the Hopkins from his giving up on poetry on becoming a Jesuit, through his return to the art with 'Wreck of the Deutchland' a tribute to a group of nuns who had died in a shipping accident, to his dark moments later in life. Though describing the poet as a 'psychosexual mess' at one stage, he stressed that one needed to consider Hopkins, not primarily from a psychological angle, but by considering his life and work in terms of his 'great relationship with God', the relationship that led him to a final happiness at the end.
You can listen back to these programmes here.

This week is Catholic Schools Week in Ireland. The resource materials have been sent to schools but are also available here. The secondary schools booklet includes a poem St Brigid, A Blessing by Christy Kenneally. I tried it in a few classes today and it went well I think. For the feast of the Presentation tomorrow T.S. Eliot's Song for Simeon might be useful , but probably too complex to use as a prayer. In the resource materials there are also prayers, readings, full services, fun activities and even recipes! Would be interested in hearing from anyone trying some interesting activities this week.

It's rather unseasonal I know, but I've being doing Patrick Kavanagh's poem Advent with a 5th year English class. Sometimes I think I teach more religion in English class. I introduce Advent as a sort of mini-Lent, a time of fasting before the feasting of Christmas. Thus we have the "dry black bread" and the "sugarless tea", symbols of the self-denial that can make us spiritually fit for Christmas (hinted at in imagery like "stables where time begins"). And there is a reward - the recovery of innocence and freshness. Kavanagh makes the need for repentance clear: "We have tested and tasted too much". There is a sense that the poet has overindulged, has become satiated with experience, like a person who feels uncomfortably bloated after too much food or fizzy drink, and so needs to cut back. But Kavanagh is concerned more with inner well-being: "penance will charm back the luxury of a child's soul". And then there will be a change of perspective, once again he will be able to see things as he did when he was a child, he will rediscover "the newness that was in a every stale thing", for example "the spirit-shocking/ Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill". Towards the end of the poem Kavanagh opts for an experiential approach to religion, rather than one that is too analytical/intellectual (Artists 1 - Theologians 0). He wants to experience God and His creation with the heart rather than the head: "we shall not ask for reason's payment Nor analyse God's breath in common statement". Ironically he rejects another kind of experience - that of sin). He might seem to have a thing against knowledge, but he seems to be reacting against his own over indulgence, negative experiences, knowledge of sin: "The knowledge we stole but could not use". It's not too much of a jump to see a link with the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Now the "wages" of sin are to be "thrown into the dust-bin" so that Kavanagh can move spiritually refreshed into Christmas and the new year: "Christ comes with a January flower".

Have started on my module about religious themes in poetry with Transition Year students. Fortunately the course poems for Leaving Cert 2011 are available so I'm able to include the incentive that these poems relate directly to their Leaving Cert course. Kavanagh and Hopkins are on for that year so I'm spoiled for choice - started with three Kavanagh poems - Advent, Canal Bank Walk and A Christmas Childhood. It was hard to get the students' enthusiasm going, but their discussion of the poems was perceptive. Hopkins next week! That'll be an even greater challenge.

Last week I returned to religious themes in poetry with a few more poems. Continued with Patrick Kavanagh from previous class - this time with Advent (text here) and Canal Bank Walk (text here). Advent is complex enough but many of the students were able to grasp the complexities - themes like innocence and the desire to "pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech". Also got to Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot (text here), an excellent poem about a journey - such a powerful motif. It wasn't very seasonal in April, but I stressed the journey symbolism and dealt with Eliot's journey of faith. Got good answers on why the Magi would not have felt at home when they return to their home places, with "an alien people clutching their Gods". Next up, some modern performance poetry, which is great fun as I get the students to act out the poems, to perform them in front of the class, having allowed some preparation time.

On Friday last I started on what will probably be the final module of my religion and arts programme with Transition Year students (c 15 year olds) - religious themes in poetry.
I started with the Leaving Cert course material these students will probably meet next year in 5th year. The course for Leaving Cert 2010 is available at the SLSS website. Knowing it's for Leaving Cert gives the students a little extra interest - religious poetry not being such an attractive proposition to them. But I think it went will, with quite a bit of interaction, helped by the fact that nearly half class were gone on work experience to the army!
First up was poetry on the Ordinary level course. We started with Milton's On His Blindness (text here) which was useful to discuss images of God, poetry as a way of serving God, the parable of the talents and more. Next was Vaughn's poem Peace (text here) with it's unusual military imagery, suggesting the security of Heaven. We discussed the very different image of God in this poem, the idea of the battle against evil, even how The Legion of Mary uses the Roman military terminology for its organisational structure. Last of all we looked at A Christmas Childhood (text here) by Patrick Kavanagh, rather unseasonable, but useful for discussion of innocence and childhood memories. One student remembered a special Winnie the Pooh teddy from a past Christmas! Next week it will be the Higher level poetry and then some modern performance poetry with religious themes. For more see my article The Search for Meaning in Poetry

Have started to do the poetry of Phillip Larkin in English class. His poem Church Going is certainly not devotional, but raises some interesting ideas - here the poet hasn't much time for religion, reckons that soon all church buildings will "fall completely out of use", and yet feels strangely drawn to churches, in these buildings, despite everything, he finds meaning in the modern world - "A serious house on serious earth it is,/In whose blent air all our compulsions meet someone will forever be surprising/A hunger in himself to be more serious gravitating with it to this ground". He returns to church in An Arundel Tomb, and again is ambiguous, certainly not as sure as Donne about the immortality of love - "Our almost-instinct, almost true:/What will survive of us is love". Yet in The Explosion, he celebrates a heavenly vision reportedly seen by wives of miners killed in a mine explosion: "The dead go on before us, they/Are sitting in God's house in comfort,/We shall see them face to face ". Admittedly he does distance himself from this somewhat by noting that this was a quote from the vision, but overall the poem is very positive. For a fuller treatment of Church Going click here.

Two relevant classes to catch up on - first of all I finished the work on the modern performance poetry. By a coincidence the Diocesan Advisor arrived that day (thanks for the help and encouragement Marianne) and sat in on the class. Thankfully the lads behaved well. First student up performed Home Improvements by Godfrey Rust - a poem that had Jesus visiting a comfortable family, "turning the small talk into conversation", and when the couple tried to impress him with their plans for house improvements he wanted something more radical - "and smiling in a most alarming way said/I've had a much better idea/and started smashing down the walls". Next up was Will the Real Jesus Please Get Lost by Gordon Bailey. The narrator wanted a Jesus tailored to his own cushy ways, not the One who died on the cross and made challenges - "I can't accept a Christ who will not water down his claims". In class the performer seemed to miss the irony, but in the discussion that followed another student challenged him. In this work on the poetry I rely particularly on three poets - Godfrey Rust, Gerard Kelly and Gordon Bailey. I use Kelly's collection Rebel Without Applause, but there is also a collection of his material on the internet (click here) . Rust's latest collection is Welcome to the Real World, and some of his poems are also available on the net (click here ). Bailey's collection, Stuff and Nonsense, is harder to find.

Started doing poetry with religious themes with the Transition Year class and they were bubbling over with ideas. At first I did some material from the Leaving Cert English course (for 2009!). Unfortunately Hopkins and Kavanagh aren't on, but today Phillip Larkin's The Explosion and Church Going sparked some great discussion. We did ramble somewhat from the poems into discussion of the afterlife, but that made for a satisfying class. Neither of these poems is specifically religious and certainly not devotional. But Larkin seems open to faith. In Church Going he is the non-believer or non-practicer visiting a church, not a participant but drawn there by something of value. He wonders what will become of churches when religious practice declines (he imagines it disappearing entirely) - will they be museums or places of superstition? Yet he finds they are places that acknowledge the serious things of life, what's deep in the human heart. The Explosion deals with a real-life mining accident where apparently the miner's wives had a comforting vision that assured them that dead husbands were safe in heaven. Thought I'd get more done than two poems - it was a double class!