Rowan Williams - Former Archbishop of Canterbury

Rowan Williams In Conversation

Rowan Williams is one of Wales’ most recognisable public figures. Born in Swansea in the 1950s, he is today not only a former Archbishop of Canterbury but also a world-renowned scholar, theologian and poet. The publication of his Collected Poems contains in its breadth both previously published poetry and a considerable body of new work. Gary Raymond sat down with Dr Williams over Zoom to discuss his eclectic inspirations, the form and craft of poetry and the real-world impact of language in driving the direction of activism. 

Gary Raymond: I’ve been really enjoying the Collected Poems. I think it’s a really wonderful book. It must have been a really exciting prospect to bring all these poems from across your life together in one book.

Rowan Williams: It was; the opportunity of weeding through stuff that I’d written thirty or forty years ago and thinking well, do I still think that I would  feel that? It was also an opportunity to tack on some of the things I’ve written in the last three or four years. So yes, I was immensely grateful to Michael Schmidt at Carcanet who has been a very, very good and a very perceptive editor. Because he’s been perfectly capable of sending back stuff and saying, “Are you sure you really want to say that? Do you think that line really works?” And that’s such a gift in an editor.

GR: I’m really interested in that idea of going back to work that you did a long time ago. I always think of Gore Vidal, who spent like the last ten years of his life rewriting his early novels.

RW: Yes, I think there’s a limit to how much you should let yourself rewrite. It is what it is because of it happening then. I’m not quite sure it’s entirely fair to the reader. You do want to see how somebody grows. I think it’s better to see how somebody changes rather than seeing stuff polished because certainly when I read stuff I wrote in my 20s or 30s, I think, Oh, how did I let myself get away with that? But it has to stand.

GR: I’m quite interested in how your poetry has been part of the conversation that you found with yourself in with your faith. That going back to your early work is looking at where you’ve come from, I suppose.

RW: Very much so, yes. I guess that suddenly from my 20s this was part of the way I made sense to myself, of my own identity and as a religious believer and as a priest. And although, as I’ve said more than once, I never wanted to be a religious poet to a certain notion of devotional good, I knew that because poetry mattered to me, this was one of the things that would be part of my exploring. So yes, it’s not just all this stuff I wrote when I was 25. It’s also that this is just who I was when I was 25. And who I thought God was, and who I thought other people were.

GR: What is  the function of poetry for you?

RW: Above all, I think the function of poetry is to  make language open up; that is, to give the message that the language we use, and so the people we are the speakers we are, are more than we think. So, you put language under certain sorts of pressure; you put it into laboratory conditions. You do rather odd things to it; you make it rhyme, you put it into symmetrical shapes, you stretch it with metaphors. And the amazing thing is that it opens up and flowers, and connections appear that you hadn’t realized; echoes are heard.

And the importance of poetry, therefore, in the whole human world, is that it pushes back against any sort of reductive functionalist view of what human beings are like. It’s one way of saying human beings are always more than you think. I would see it, in that sense, as very much a social exercise. Not in the sense that you always write poetry about social and political matters. That’s  very boring. But that’s the implication. The social and political implication of the fact that human beings write poetry is a big one.

GR: You’ve said elsewhere that, the thing that makes great poetry is the silence that it generates. And I’m interested in that idea off the back of what you’ve just said.

RW: I think silence has a social quality. In the sense that when you’re silent with somebody you love and trust, that’s a very significant form of communication. When you think I don’t know what to say to somebody, that can be a recognition of the mysteriousness, the strangeness of the other, and therefore of the reality of the other. If I’m always chattering away, if I always think I know what words to use, I will be a major nuisance. And, you know, clergy are often that kind of nuisance.

It’s just as the short silence at the end of a really good concert tells you a great deal. Before people start clapping. There’s the moment where people are just thinking… then they start clapping. So, at the end of some really great poems, there ought to be that which is discernible. And I’ve written about the poetry of George Herbert, the great 17th century poet, who has always been one of my heroes, as you might expect, and the way in which he can end up with a short monosyllabic line that leaves you, as it were, with the brakes on, on the edge of a cliff. He’s the master of monosyllables. So, I did sit and eat.

GR: I think if people were to think of you or describe you they would think of you as a very thoughtful, cerebral man, that you only speak when you have something to say. That really came through in reading the poetry. It felt very easy for me having known you as a public figure for most of my life to hear your voice through that poetry.

RW: That’s really interesting. And it reminds me of something one reviewer said of an earlier collection of mine: that he couldn’t see that there was such a thing as a typical Rowan Williams poem. And I’m not sure he entirely meant it as a compliment. My friend, Wyn Thomas in Swansea wrote about my work that some of it was, he said, very simple and straightforward and some of it was a bit Byzantine and overly rich. And I know what he’s talking about.

I do find that each poem just is the poem.  There are some which present themselves in a way which requires a bit of formality and have conscious elaborateness. There are others where you just have to work and work and work for the directness, you know that it’s got to be direct and monosyllabic. It comes back to what presents and I use that language of things presenting themselves because you’ll know as a writer that there are things which arrive. And the question then is, Well, where have they come from? Where are they going to? Here’s a line, here’s an image, where does it live?

Very occasionally, a poem will come almost in a rush. And I’ll scribble it down. I think that’s pretty much where it needs to be. But there are others such as the longish poem about the early Christian martyr, “Felicity”, the slave girl in North Africa, where I really had to work to find the language that would be appropriate for a non-literate, enslaved person in North Africa, in the ancient world. That’s a hard task, but I knew it had to be boiled down and boiled down and boiled down.

GR: When was the moment when you sat down to actually commit it to paper?

RW: I think that would probably have been a good five or more years in. I’d read the original text which is the prison diaries of Perpetua, who was Felicity’s Mistress, and died with her in the arena. I just wanted to let that simmer. So, a good few years after that and I wrote on trains, because that felt like a safe space. A good long train journey, for me, has always been an opportunity to take the notebook out. And this is difficult to explain a little bit; I began to see what the pace would be of the story. I knew it would be a long rather than a short poem. I knew it would be that sort of voice. I knew a little bit how to go back and how to go forward in it.

GR: How do you know when something is finished?

RW: I think with the sonnet sequence in the Collected, I never wanted to rewrite or start again, but I just didn’t want it out there. Because I knew it wasn’t done. It wasn’t cooked. And I didn’t at all know how to get it cooked until, actually, some people began to ask was I going to publish? And it was my first publisher, in fact, Hugo Brunner, who suggested doing a collection. And I thought, well, maybe now’s the time to sit down with the sonnet sequence again and see if it goes anywhere.

But the question of how you know if it’s finished, I like the dictum, which I think is WH Auden’s, that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Auden also has this wonderful image somewhere where he says that some poems, some ideas, come along, and you say, not yet, my love. And another comes along, when you say too late, my dear. I look at my notebooks and occasionally see a sketch or an idea or a couple of lines. And realise, well, that was something that never went anywhere. Because it didn’t find its time.

GR: The process must be quite different for a commission.

RW: Yes, that’s right. Suddenly, if you’re writing words to be set to music, there’s a different set of issues there. The little sequence called “the shortest day” written as the commemoration of the Aberfan tragedy. That was possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever been asked to do, for obvious reasons. And I find myself going round and round it in my mind. It was emotionally very difficult and risky because what right do I have to step into that experience? And I could only say, Well, I’ve been asked to, I’ve been asked in. And that’s my task. And just as when you set out to write a sonnet, there’s the constraint, the strictness of the form actually brings things out that you didn’t know were there. So that task of writing for that experience brings up more than you knew was there.

GR: You’ve touched on a big conversation that’s happening at the moment and has been for the last few years, about what right do people have to tell stories of other people’s experiences? How do you feel about that, particularly after your experience with the  Aberfan poem? Have there been other experiences where you’ve gone, No, that’s, that’s not for me?

RW: I can’t think of anything directly like that. But on the general point, it seems to be absolutely self-evident that if any kind of artist can’t, in some way, inhabit a stranger’s perspective, then the art isn’t real or interesting. If all you can ever do is write out of your own experience, then something is missing. But that has to be said alongside the bare fact of existing power relations. What are you doing when you write in another’s voice? Are you robbing them of their voice? Or are you augmenting it? Are you taking away? Or are you supporting it? Are you capturing it? Or are you liberating it? And it seems to me that those are really important questions that you have to ask yourself, and other people have to ask of you. So, it’s a good debate to have. And it’s not one where there’s a silver bullet answer. 

I’ve just emerged from nine months of being a judge for the Booker Prize. So, I’ve been wading through novels. And reading some novels and thinking, yeah, now, where are they coming from? And occasionally, I’ve come across a novel where I’ve said to myself, yep, they’re writing from inside their own experience. But to such an extent, that it’s become purely self-reflexive. It hasn’t. It hasn’t got energy, because it’s too constrained by that. And then occasionally, you look at another kind of writing and think they haven’t. They’ve tried to take someone else’s voice and they haven’t made the effort.

But I suppose the case that I’ve found most challenging recently for myself as a writer, is a commission I’ve been working on about David Jones, you know, that great hero of mine. And I wanted to write a bit about Jones’s very complicated relationship with Petra Gill, daughter of Eric Gill, the sculptor; and we know now that Gill sexually abused his daughters and Petra among them, and I wanted Petra to be a character in this play. How do I speak, or cause someone to speak, from that place of abuse? I run it past people who know a bit more about this than I did. And it still feels risky. And I’m not quite sure how well it’s come off. I suppose at the end of the day, all you could do is say, Well, an artist who never goes beyond their own experience is not doing their job. An artist who is just appropriating for their own purposes is not doing their job. And you wobble along the tightrope between those concerns.

GR: I wanted to talk a little bit about David Jones, because I wanted to talk about some of the influences on you as a poet. But also I wanted to ask – as a priest and a poet that comes from Wales – if you had to work to escape the shadow of RS Thomas?

RW: Yes, well, I think definitely. Obviously, I read quantities of his verse when I was a sixth former, I guess. And then when I was a student, and yes, he’s always been a huge presence. And his voice has never been one I’ve wanted to try and imitate because it’s everywhere. It’s around every corner. It’s a bit like my first efforts when I was at school, trying to write poetry, when of course, all I produced was imitations of Dylan Thomas. I was at school in Swansea, I was taught English by somebody who’d been at school with Dylan Thomas and was quite prepared to talk about him. I read and loved the poetry as one does at 16 or 17. And, of course, I produced lots and lots of inferior imitations. How to get away from that? And yes, I’ve got away from RS too.

GR: Where did you go to get away from them? You’ve mentioned Auden a few times.

RW: Auden, yes, certainly. I loved Elliot, as a student. I came rather late to Auden, but really began immersing myself in him in my mid 20s. He was very, very important because Auden was a very different kind of poet for good and ill. Formally, he’s absolutely brilliant. He can mess around with any number of verse forms, syllabic forms, metres, and still say something. And there are poems of his like the famous, “lay your sleeping head, my love”, or later the poem about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which really stick with you. And I just find myself brought up short by Auden’s hard work. He labours at what he does. And I think, to put it very, very crudely, if you try and imitate Dylan Thomas, you just tend to turn the tap on. Let the music flow. If you’ve read too much RS Thomas, you’re inclined to think we’ll just have lots of run on lines and short stock. Lots of imagery and you’re home and dry. Auden told me to sit with it and work. Language needs attention, it needs labour and formation and patience. And that was an important moment. It dried up a tendency to be too gushing. It made me work a bit at producing some more formal pieces like the sonnet sequence. Okay, so what can you do with a sonnet? Let’s see.

And then I guess, a bit later, when I first really started reading Geoffrey Hill. I don’t know if I could say that Geoffrey was an influence, exactly. But he was certainly an inspiration. And again, like Auden, somebody who clearly has a massive lyrical gift, and is always keeping his eyes open to stop it running away with him. I think in the latest collections you can see Geoffrey Hill almost deliberately pulling against his own instincts to be dry and difficult. And then occasionally, like the parting of the clouds, you have one of these unbelievably musical lyrical lines coming through, like the stuff he was writing in the 1970s.

I had the huge privilege of knowing him a bit in the last decade or so and I think as a critical writer, as well as a poet, he’s still one of those I look to as a kind of touchstone.

GR: Auden, to me, always felt like you were sitting down having a conversation. I mean, in the most, you know, in the highest terms, but still, you’re having a conversation, whereas RS Thomas and Dylan Thomas always felt like they were lecturing you or declaiming at you.

I was really taken with a sequence of poems in the middle of the collection that deal directly with monuments and gravestones. I was taken with your poems on Rilke and Tolstoy. I think it’s interesting in the way that we’ve just talked about how you create a poem and what your different processes can be. But these seem to me both quite immediate responses to having visited their final places – Rilke’s grave and Astapovo Station. You’ve managed to stop the poems in this section being just simply elegiac; you’ve worked quite hard at finding different angles to talk about the things you want to talk about.

RW: I’m glad you like those, because I do, if I’m allowed to say so? It was a curious period, because all of that cluster really came out when both my parents were dying, and they died within a couple of weeks of each other. And that concentrates the mind a bit. Yes, I was also reading a couple of biographies. And just noting the irony of how the deaths of some people like Tolstoy, and how that almost comes to be a sort of summation of their lives. And yes, I wanted to think about what the dying said about them as persons and as creative persons. So, with Tolstoy that it’s a genuine quotation, “how do the poor die”; he asked this as he was dying because he was always, bless him, trying to get inside the experience of the poor (back to our earlier conversation) without quite managing it. And, and there’s this extraordinary fact that his  death was a public event. That was one of the first Pathé newsreels.

GR: I didn’t realise that.

RW: We actually have film footage of Countess Tolstoy arriving at the station and being turned away from the door. Unbelievable, isn’t it? So, I wanted to memorialise that and see something of Tolstoy’s tragedy.

With Rilke, I think it was the image of the river flowing; the two kingdoms. And suddenly the image came of the Old Testament story of the river, the river Jordan being dried up for Joshua, to walk through it. And before the water came back, the memorial stones being set in the riverbed, and then the prayer is made and the river washes back. I don’t know quite why that came through. But it did.

GR: That’s interesting how those sequence of poems are tied together by you know, the idea of death, but also mortality, but how they tie together things as intimate and personal as your family experience, but also something as large and intimate as your relationship with the writers of the past.

RW: And, I suppose also the little sequence of poems for the death of Julian Rose, that belongs in a particular day with a particular landscape. Julian, who I still think of as one of the great philosophers of the last era, Julian was dying, we all knew that we’d been invited – some of us friends – to visit her one particular day for a final discussion of some of their philosophical work, and arrived to find she had already died. But a long, long journey from South Wales, in December is the framing of that, and a return journey with lots of disruption and delays and, and so that’s where the day begins with going up through the mist by the Severn on the train, it ends with sitting in the waiting room at Swindon.

GR: What do you think the role of the poet is today in a modern society? I see a kind of parallel with the constant conversation that has been going on for decades about the role of the Church in modern society. I think there are definite parallels between those two things. And as poets in the past have been regarded as philosophical guides, perhaps, in some sense, in a secular sense, as opposed to what’s going on in the church. But also, over the last few years, seeing a real increase in activist anthologies and activist collections. I think I’ve had just this year alone three or four anthologies of climate change poetry come across my desk for review. So, I do wonder what the role of the poet is in all this?

RW: Yes, good question. I think I’d go back to what I was saying earlier that the point of poetry is continually prising open language to say, there’s more than you thought. And as I said earlier, that in itself is a political event, because it resists that kind of packaging and managing spirits that so often prevails, and the dehumanising of others, and the speech of others. And I think that is indeed what the church is there for; I think the church exists primarily to say to every human being, your nature and your destiny are more extraordinary and more beautiful and more surprising than you could begin to imagine. Because you are made in the image of God. Frequently it doesn’t, of course; but that’s what it’s there for.

And there’s one level at which, as with poetry, you don’t absolutely have to have a mass following for that to be true. You just need it there. It’s nice to have a mass following. It’d be nice if, you know, millions of people bought poetry books, but you know, they don’t. 

If the poet knows their business, if the church knows its business, then it will indeed end up saying some things about these contemporary issues. But that doesn’t define it. It’s the act of writing, the act of praying; these are the things that really make the difference.

And I suppose to put it personally, my own commitments around climate change grow from precisely the sense of the kind of world we’re  in and the kind of beings we are and the kind of language we ought to be using. I want to be, as much as I can, on the front line of advocacy around climate issues. Because of those commitments, I don’t necessarily therefore feel an obligation to preach every Sunday about climate change, or to write poems about climate change.

GR: You remind me of something that I was reading about in the run up to Cop26. It was an interview with a climate science journalist who was saying that the importance of these conferences is not what happens at the conference, or the pledges that are made. The importance is what it does to the language surrounding the subject. It was really interesting, because we have watched lots of coverage of Cop26 over the last two weeks, and, you know, the media talking about what is being achieved and what isn’t being achieved. But this writer was making the point that what the Paris Accord did was put in black and white that two degree mark, and that was a major achievement. That feeds out. That changes the game. Language is what the Cop conferences are there to change.

RW: That is a very interesting way of putting it and I think it connects with the idea that if you’re going to resist climate change, or whatever other kind of injustice or atrocity you’re facing in the world, you actually need to have a positive story to tell about where we might be and who we are. You can’t just be solving problems. Because that’s a flatlining kind of exercise. You need to be talking about what is an appropriate and enriching life for human beings to live in the world as it is. You’ve got to have a language that changes, that pushes, that enlarges.

I was in Glasgow on the first Monday, speaking at a Christian Aid event connected with Cop26. And the conclusion of that event was a wonderful black gospel choir from London, doing some singing for us. And I thought that actually told us why we were there. More than any number of statistics.


Rowan Williams’ Collected Poems available via Carcanet Press. 

Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.

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