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Rowan Williams on Writing - Heffers Bookshop event

The Archbishop at Heffers Bookshop

Thursday 21st February 2008

Dr Rowan Williams gave an insight on his thoughts and experiences on writing, from lectures to poetry. Questions and answers followed.


Welcome everybody. Before I introduce the Archbishop, I would just like to say thank you, firstly, to you for coming this evening. It has been tremendously exciting to be able to launch a two year series of events entitled 'A world to believe in' starting with a three-day visit from the two Archbishops. This is a programme coordinated by the local Cambridge Churches College Chapels and appropriately coincides with the 800th anniversary of the university. It hopes to open up debate by confronting crucial questions of our time relating to faith, humanity and the future. And in this respect do feel free to take a card as you go out summarising the emphasis for each term and the ideas which we will engage with. The card also includes a prayer that we will use throughout this programme, so thank you for coming. Thank you too to Heffer's who have not only kindly agreed to support the programme by providing books and literature to inform our debates but who have also provided opportunities such as tonight, to engage with those responsible for these writings, so thank you. But of course the biggest thank you goes to the Archbishop, but before I hand over to him I would like to say a few words about him. There is so much say, so I will limit myself. I welcome the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who is renowned for his many books on theology and for facing up to hard issues, but who is also a highly respected published poet and it is about his writing that for a short time he will speak tonight. After which there will be an opportunity for you to ask questions around this theme. The Archbishop will also be very happy to sign some books this evening before departing to his next engagement. Thank you, Archbishop.

Archbishop of Canterbury

Well let me repeat those words of thanks particularly to Heffer's for their hospitality this evening. It is a great delight always to be in Heffer's even if at the moment I am deeply frustrated because I can't go around and buy things. We'll remedy that at some point. Thank you very much for the welcome and thank you all for coming. It is always a bit difficult on an occasion like this to know exactly what to talk about as it is not as if I have got a new book I want to market or any particularly impressive new ideas I want to share with you this evening. It has been a long day but I thought what I might do is two things, very briefly. First to say a little word about some of the things that have fed into the writing of theology over the years and then, as was hinted, to say a little bit about the actual process of writing when it is imaginative writing that is in question, particularly poetry. I started out as a theologian thinking that it would be fairly straight forward to write large books about Christian doctrine. I'd spent quite a few years reading them as a student and, you know, it looked fairly straight forward. You started at page one and you went on until you stopped and in some cases, as with the work of the great Karl Barth, it was a very long time between the beginning and the end. And somewhere along the line, I suppose, I wouldn't say I lost my nerve as that's not it, but I began to realise some of the dangers of writing large books about Christian doctrine is in the risk of supposing that when you have done it you might think that you've done it. My doctoral research was on Vladimir Losky, the great 20th century Russian émigré theologian who lived in Paris, and Losky was somebody who instilled in his readers and his students a very strong conviction that you needed to be restrained in what you aimed to say about God. There was always going to be more that you could be saying and you needed to be very keenly and very acutely aware of that "more", and if that meant that you said less, well, good. And as the years went by, I found myself, yes, writing a fair bit about theology but never really being able to go very much beyond writing relatively short essays on the subject because of this - I hope its a - godly fear of rabbiting on too much with the fantasy of thinking you've got it wrapped up. I don't know but maybe one day I will find it in me to write a big book such as I fantasised about when I was a student – but I rather doubt it. But the other aspect of this writing that I found - perhaps more and more marked as the years have gone on - is something which will be familiar to anybody who has ever tried to do serious writing, and that is the sense in which you only discover what you have to say in the doing of it. Saunders Lewis, the Welsh poet, used to quote somebody saying – a child saying – "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" and I have always resonated rather with that. And that means that for me in writing even a straight forward prose essay or a short book or a lecture, there is that awkward moment when, if you like, the engine is turning over a bit and you are wondering exactly at what point you are going to discover what the argument is. That's a warning really about the first four pages of everything I have ever written! But I think, again, it will ring bells in some of those who are trying to write. Writing isn't translating something in here onto the page. Writing is an act. If it were just transference, no doubt you could plug in the electrodes and something would neatly type up what was going on inside your head. I hope we never get to that point and I very much doubt that we ever will. But meanwhile writing is an act, it is an action of self-discovery and an action of trying to put something into being and so it is true of prose as with poetry. But I start with that because I think it might help an orientation to some of how I have tried to write theology over the years and some of the slight unease I feel about being over-ambitious about that kind of writing. Nobody gets that balance right and I read some things I have written over the years about theology and think "how did I know that?" or "why did I think that?" or "how did I ever persuade myself I knew that?" and I think of some lines of the Roman Catholic writer Ronald Knox who said, "When I read things I wrote 20 years ago I have two feelings: one is how terrible it is and the other is that I couldn't even do it that well now." One of the more recent volumes that appeared of mine is called 'Wrestling with Angels' and it was edited by Mike Higton who has written what I find a very illuminating book about my theology, full of "Oh so that's what I meant" moments. And in that, Mike has put together a number of essays written since the 1970s and I found it quite an education and quite a sobering thing to read those again and to see how at a particular moment in the heat of a particular argument you're inexorably pulled towards that kind of overstatement and then you have to wait until the pressure comes to the other kind of overstatement. I hope all that doesn't sound too negative because actually when I find writing difficult I don't find it depressing because of that sense of discovery. And that's where I just want to move over a little bit into talking for a few minutes about imaginative writing, about what I try to do in the way of poetry. All being well, there is another collection of poems coming out in about 3 months. And there above all, there's that sense that you will not know until you start writing what the writing is going to be. I use that phrase very generally because there are times when something forms itself reasonably fully in your thought before you get hold of the pen, but even there the action of writing is an action of discovery. The very look of a word, sometimes, when you have got it down, will tell you something about what you can and can't do. The very look of a line will tell you what you can and can't do and of course that other act which is reading what you have written out loud will tell you something about what you can and can't do. There are many occasions where I have thought "Yes, that sounds fine" and put it down and neither the look nor the sound will do. W. H. Auden said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned" and I think those who do that kind of writing again will recognise a bit of what that's about.

I said in introducing one of my earlier books of poetry that I didn't want to think of myself or be thought of as a religious poet. A religious poet sounds like a kind of sub-species of poet, a specialist, and therefore not to be taken too seriously. And when I go to bookshops in the United States of America I often see a section of 'fiction' and a section of 'religious fiction' and my heart really sinks because if you have to cordon off religious fiction, something very terrible is going on. It means "Don't expect this to be judged by the same standards as the rest" and I think that is why I am a bit afraid of the term 'religious poetry'. In a quite important sense I would rather be judged a bad poet than a religious poet because I'm a poet (I hope) who happens to be a religious believer and who therefore in writing his humanity, writes that dimension of humanity and I would hope that what I write then has integrity as writing, not as something religious in its own right.

In a little book I published a couple of years ago based on lectures given here, a book called 'Grace and Necessity' I wrote a bit about the American writer Flannery O'Connor - that wonderful, grotesque, funny, horrible, southern gothic Catholic writer – what a mixture – who repeatedly said in her own lifetime, "I don't want to be a Catholic writer, I just want to be a writer" and who insisted it was no good creating a kind of sub-division of religious writing because writing itself was the religious action. It was the act of faith and hope and love that was involved in getting things onto paper and trying to communicate. And I think that is utterly, utterly right that religiousness of writing which is "I don't yet understand, I want to explore something, I'm feeling my way, I'm searching for words, I'm tentatively putting one stone forward so that I can test my foot on it," - that dimension, that is a deeply religious action, utterly opposed to a technocratic view of the world, of language and of humanity which says "Everybody knows what the problems are, everybody knows what the answers are and when you've answered the question, you're done." Resisting that is one of the things that good writing is always about. And it's there too. Going back to where I started you could say "All good writing has a theological dimension to it". All good writing of prose, as much as the poetry has a theological dimension – it's trusting, somehow, that language will hold you up as you explore the world you're in.

I grew up (as most of you know) in Wales and was therefore in part the inheritor of a hugely complicated Welsh poetic tradition. For those of you who don't know, there are 24 classical metrical forms that you have to use when you are writing proper Welsh poetry. In the 15th century somebody called Dafydd ab Edmwnd invented two more forms which were so complicated that only Dafydd ab Edmwnd ever wrote anything in them! But these complex forms are again, in a funny way, an expression of faith. "I'm going to write a poem", says the classical Welsh poet, "around these very, very tight sophisticated structures and I am going to trust that by the almost chance facts of rhyme and assonance and echo, I am going to find meaning." As I look at the pattern of assonance, rhyming, criss-crossing patterns you find in many Welsh poems then I say, "Well I have got to have that sound in that position, I have as a poet to make an act of trust that when I get to that point it will make sense to have that sound there" – and that's an amazing adventure. And though I very seldom find myself writing that kind of technical stuff, I can see with some enthusiasm and some joy why it matters and I can relate it to what's true to all sorts of writing styles and patterns. And I go back to the same point again - writing is, in some measure, an act of faith in language and therefore for me at least, there is an element of God in the whole process of intelligent and imaginative communication.

So, I think that is probably enough from me. Whether I've managed any intelligent or imaginative communication in the last ten minutes I don't know but I am very happy to shut up at this point and if you want to ask a few questions, please feel free to do so.


As regards to the welsh poets, I grew up with Dylan Thomas and the liberation that he gave not only to welsh poetry but English poetry and all poetry in fact and when you listen to "Fern Hill" read by the great man himself or any of these other poems, you think that poetry has a new dimension that we didn't have in the days of Eliot and Auden, partly because of the passion, the love behind the poetry, the love of the sound the love of the nature. Are you formed in any way by the passion for Dylan Thomas or have you put him to one side because he's such a strong personality?

He is. In some ways I think too strong a personality because I absorbed him very, very deeply and enthusiastically when I was about 17. I fell completely besottedly for Dylan Thomas at that age because that's an age when indentation and richness really resonate for you. And a few years later I felt I desperately needed a sustained diet of Eliot to calm me down! I then discovered Auden in a big way who for me is still one of the great influences, because I found in Auden a musicality – a surprising musicality - which is combined with an enormous amount of technical skill and verve, and somehow managed not to be quite as relentlessly self-referential as Dylan Thomas can be. And yet when I go back to "Fern Hill" I can't resist it. To me it's a little bit like Tchaikovsky – my better self tells me that there's nothing much after the death of Bach to worry about, my unregenerate self says "Yes but go on put on the 'Pathetique' and wallow". But music matters in poetry, and as I was hinting, getting the sound right is a phenomenally difficult stretching thing and what Dylan Thomas does so apparently effortlessly although it it's not at all effortless, is to sustain that level of musicality, so much so that it becomes a kind of tick almost, and I wish he'd, well... he died really young. He would've found another voice I think because good poets always do. I was taught English in school by somebody who'd been at school with Dylan Thomas so you had to absorb it in Swansea it was part of being an adolescent in Swansea – you came to terms with the Dylan Thomas myth.

When do you have time to write for lectures and poems?

You'd probably have to ask my colleagues from Lambeth Palace about that! It's very difficult with what you might call 'commission writing' when I have to write a lecture about something. It's just a matter of being sensible about the timetable, trying to find out an adequate time both to think it and to write it, and just occasionally there's not enough time for the former and only just time for the latter! And there's more and more of that "I don't know what I think yet". Poetry though I find I can't plan. I can't say "Well I've got a morning free I'll get on with some poems" because it is very unpredictable and the obligation to do it will take over. But I do find plane journeys very good for writing poems, or polishing poems or thinking through, because in a plane you're nowhere in particular for a while. And it quite helps when you're doing that sort of writing to be nowhere in particular.

Your first volume of poetry ends with a number of rather magnificent translations from the Welsh of Ann Griffiths and Waldo Williams. I wonder first of all if you could say something about the discipline and the act of translating, and then I wonder if you could tell us if you have done any translations from the Russian for the new book.

Yes well a little bit about translating: I've always found translating really fascinating and when my parents died and I cleared out the house I found some of my old school books. I found some bits of translation from Latin poetry that I was doing in the 6th form and remembered the delight of doing that work because the challenges: Can I, in some sense, embody something of the same process and movement that's there in that medium, in another medium? A poem is an event that unfolds, that takes you from one place to another verbally that does all sorts of things on the way and therefore when you're translating you're not just looking for a set of equivalents, you're looking for a movement. And when I'm translating poetry from another language, what I'm looking for in the original is "What's the movement here?", and that means stepping back quite a lot, trying to use the plane journeys and so forth, to get a sense of what's below or around the actual wording to find the movement, what Jacques Maritain the French Catholic critic call the 'pulsions' – that's a nice word the 'pulsions' – of a poem. So that's part of what's going on in the process of translating from any language.

With Welsh poetry I found it a particular challenge really to deal with some of those who write in very technical form in Welsh, which can't be reproduced at all in English without sounding utterly ridiculous, and there the challenge of getting the movement is even more complex.

One of the poems from Waldo Williams that I translated was a very well known poem of his called "Mewn Dau Gae""Between Two Fields" - a long poem, and it's been translated once or twice in the last fifty years, and it's a great sort of visionary not totally unlike a "Fern Hill" sort of poem, but it's got a lot of technical Welsh things in it, and the argument of it, the movement of it is pretty complex. And a few years ago I was asked to write an essay for a collection of pieces in Welsh about the centenary of this particular poet and what I did was to write an essay on the process of translating this poem, going through stanza-by-stanza saying "This, this is where I felt the argument was going and these were the choices of words of this point and this point and this point" and this is why I went for this and I find it quite interesting to go over it and explain to myself what's happening.

You ask about translation from other languages and yes I have actually pushed the boat out this time and done some translations from a Russian poet called Inna Lisnianskaya who is, for me, one of the great little known Russian names of the last fifty years or so. And because Russian is a language which poetically invests hugely in compression - you don't have articles for one thing, and you can say a huge amount in three or four words on a line - there the challenge of the translation is keeping some of the economy and looking at one or two of my translations of her I thought "Oh dear, her lines are that size (small) and mine are that size (bigger) but she's been an absolute joy to do and I think she's, as I said, one of the great neglected names. It's difficult stuff, marvellous, very much in the tradition of Akhmatova about whom she writes.

You said earlier about you don't know in a foreign play what is going to come but I wondered whether there is an element of the Jeremiah, "I can't keep quiet, I have to say, there is something I want to say" and I wondered that with different kinds of writing where that tends to come in?

That's a very good question - the element of compulsion? Where does it come in? With poetry obviously you don't write a poem just to flex the muscles. You write it because something is asking to be said and that doesn't happen in quite the same way when you are writing prose but I have found writing some theological essays and lectures and short books that there may be at some early stage a very strong sense that there is one thing here, which I have got to get over somehow or got to get in somewhere. When I used to take sermon classes in the days gone by for theological students, having listened to some apprentice sermons, I'd say, "Perhaps what you need to do is ask yourself: what would you say in a burning house? What would you say if you had forty-five seconds? What do you absolutely have to say about this text or this subject or this festival? Start there and work around it, rather than starting by saying: I've got to fill up twelve minutes. And you just keep pouring and mixing and the sludge slowly stirs around but start with "Is there one thing" and sometimes – not always – but sometimes when I'm writing an essay or a lecture there may be one thing like that which I feel I need to say, so yes there is an element of compulsion there.

Several things you said this evening made me reflect on my own inability and difficulty with finishing off or abandoning pieces of work. I'm not speaking of poetry I'm thinking of more of the theological and those types of essays. And part of the problem is that I can see what a bit reflection how to be criticised and where the weak points are, and yet wanting to patch everything up sometimes kills the piece. I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit about the idea of putting something out there when there's a risk involved and you know that there might be criticism.

Yes, mysteriously it rings a bell!

I think when we write in risk-averse ways, I think we're doing less than justice to the proper element of conversation and exchange that writing ought to be part of. Sometimes I feel when I've written a piece and someone says, "Well you didn't mention so-and-so", my instinct is to say – and I think it's a defensible one – "Well no, of course not. This is part of a conversation and I'm not saying it's not important but go on, tell me what you want to say, and maybe there'll be something else beyond that." But because we're in a rather performance and production-dominated mode, in intellectual life as in society generally, there is a certain tightness about, which might make people feel "Well I can't let this out until I've dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't' and caught the seams and blocked the windows" you know, and it's to do also what I sometimes notice as a culture in some kinds of book reviewing where the primary purpose of the review is to say why this is not adequate rather than to say "Well this is how the conversation might go forward" and Mike Higton noted that I used the word 'conversation' quite a lot, some things I write in, I do because I believe that's crucial for a healthy intellectual life. I guess that one of the things which I found slightly liberating about being away from strictly academic life for the last fifteen years or so has been: I don't have to be quite so fussy about footnotes these days. People expect archbishops to sound off unjustifiably and so don't necessarily want everything footnoted! It's not entirely serious as a point but I think you may see what I mean, that the kind of essay which gives off an air of anxiety – "Have I covered myself?" doesn't always move things forward intellectually. And interestingly, we had two conversations today about risk in different ways, and the role of risk in academic life and how things don't move unless, whether you're in sciences or humanities, there's a real apprehension and understanding of the positive side of risk so...courage!

You spoke very movingly about the role of searching and a general quest, spiritual quest element of writing. I was wondering maybe you say a little bit more about the way that the contemplative aspect of your life that you've written so much about has also played in or not played in to your practise of writing. Maybe even the way that the recursive and experimental is kind of an extension of the contemplative life. Would that be fair to say?

At best I think that's true. There are different kinds of theological writing even within the kind of spread I've been responsible for in my time. But there are certainly moments and dimensions of it where it's to do with preparing myself for, deepen the capacity for. Listen, that the writing itself works into you. Or that there is something which I feel I have listened to needs to find a way out. And writing something a bit technical about doctrinal controversies in the 4th Century or whatever doesn't have a great deal of appeal about it but I find that there are some writers who bid you to engagement in a way which makes you question yourself, and St Augustine has always been for me not so much an object of study but somebody I just want to be in the company of, to open up the bits of myself that I'm trying to connect with and allow to express themselves. So, there's a dimension in that.

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