David Hart has won several major prizes, including the National Poetry Competition 1994 and the recent Common Ground/Blue Nose Poets Field Days competition. His poems were published in 1999 as Setting the poem to words (Five Seasons Press)
Poet in Residence at Worcester Cathedral, David Hart set out to investigate through poetry, the spiritual. Read his poems.
On this web site last Autumn, before the residency began, I said my aim was 'to investigate the spiritual by means of poetry'. Now, about 5 months into my 6-month period at the cathedral, I am further even than I was then from knowing what it means. To have set up a statement of intent at all, though, has been important. I have had it there to refer back to as a kind of gauge of what has happened in practice.
I am aware, for instance, that I have been facing in several different directions. As a poet I have entered the life of the cathedral as an outsider. I'm an oddity, and probably should be. Not that I have felt the 'poetry world' was standing with me; there hasn't been much of a strong tradition of narrowly defined 'religious poetry' this century, not in the mainstream anyway. The thought has become embarrassing even.
Nor does the Church - or the many strands of it - know what to do with poetry. Much bad poetry - and some good - has been inherited by way of hymns. The Bible (in English in the King James version anyway) is as much as anything a book of poems. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a poetic book all right, has given way to the indifferent language of the new liturgies. So it isn't obvious to the Church now what poetry is or what a poet is for.
Now, writing this for the Poetry Society site, facing this way, I feel I am in some sense representing the cathedral, not that there is any one way of doing that.
My poems have responded to this diversity. And of course to a building that represents a thousand years or so of history. King John is in the quire, so is Prince Arthur in his chantry, the bones of the founding saints, Oswald and Wulfstan, may still be there somewhere. The sculptures, stained glass, monuments and inscriptions, not to mention the manuscripts in the library, are examples of centuries of art work and language. What a tradition to write in!
Perhaps I can quote from the final letter I have sent out recently to writers on the mailing list, especially intended for those who have been attending the workshops:
My emphasis has been on the keeping of a record by means of poetry and of the making of discoveries. By a record I mean a noticing of and listening to the everyday that might also lead to experiments with metaphor, imaginative speculation, projection, historical reconstruction, throwing this or that idea into (sometimes comic) relief, and so on. Not least is it in such a place - or in such a world, on such a planet - an experiment in wondering who is this 'I' who writes, in relation to the everyday and to the whole cosmic story. I am more sure than I was that there is no necessary split in poetry between sacred and secular, between corporeal and spiritual. We are what we are.
But it does make a difference, clearly, where we are, what we do, who we are with, what we read, what we notice, what adventures we send ourselves on or accept when they come our way, what we do with any of this experience, and it makes a difference whether we are training ourselves in poetry, if poetry is what we want to happen. This doing-allowing, deciding-accepting, knowing-not knowing, breathing out and breathing in, of necessity runs through it all. I don't speak as one who is in decisive control of any of this, only because presently and temporarily I have had the platform.
The collaboration with other writers has been an important part of the residency. There is now a strong core group of people whose poems these past months are certainly worth publication and there will, it seems, be a book of them.
For myself, the most unexpected result of being at the cathedral has been comic poetry I have found myself writing. I haven't set out consciously to write this way, but it has again and again appeared as an appropriate way to respond.
There's some serious stuff, too, not least coming out of my own revisiting the 'God' question, and the question of what a cathedral's - any church's - purpose is, and what language we can find for that now. Or, indeed, whether the cathedral is a religious place at all, or only an 'empty tomb' a museum and concert hall. I have called my poems along the way 'fragments', imagining they would be worked eventually into a sequence; but it may be that fragments is all that they can appropriately be.
- David Hart, April 1999