Quaker poets – Listen to Them Breathing

by Jay Clark
Listen to Them Breathing is a rich and insightful radio programme in which Sibyl Ruth, a Quaker and poet, talks to others about how they see their Quakerism and poetry influence and challenge one another. One of Ruth’s own poems, as well as those by Dorothy Nimmo, UA Fanthorpe and Philip Gross are read out throughout the programme.

Early in the programme, Rosie Bailey reads out a poem called ‘Friend’s Meeting House, Frenchay’ by her partner, UA Fanthorpe, who died in 2009. It talks about the ‘rare herb of silence’ that grows like a vine over the Quaker forebears, and, like a vine prising apart bricks and plaster, the herb is not gentle. Fanthorpe describes It is a ‘savage marauder’ with ‘massing, insistent shoots’ that delves into people until ‘flesh melts into walking forms of green’. It’s a horrific image, suggesting half-human shapes, contorted with ivy and moss and is a challenging poem to begin the programme; while telling us that the silence can transform, it also suggests real horror at the price that witness can make us pay. It is a poem that brings out a fierce side to Quakerism, that Bailey also sees in the poet Dorothy Nimmo, whose poem ‘Pottery Lesson’ presents a hard and honest search to express truth.

The programme elegantly draws out intersecting lines between Quaker worship and poetry, that have taken some of the poets interviewed years to discern. Philip Gross says: ‘I spent twenty years seriously being a poet and seriously being a Quaker, and it never dawned on me that they might be aspects of the same thing’. Personally, this brings me back to the idea of expressing silence in words.Throughout the programme, poets talk about making space through silence, and bringing out words from private and uncensored places within us. If we can describe what poetry and worship share, it seems to be about finding words when the ‘safe scaffolding of much-loved formulae have been rubbed away’, to return to UA Fanthorpe.

Although it might sound strange, the poets interviewed suggest that poetry can be a form of Quaker plain speaking. At the beginning of the programme, Ruth voices her childhood self describing meeting for worship: ‘When we’re gone the grown-ups might get up and say things, but it’s not really them talking, it’s God. This is called ministry.’ It sounds absurd, and Ruth suggests that poetry can ask the questions about worship that she wanted to ask as a child: where does the voice you hear in meeting come from? Is it really God, or are we just making it up? The idea of plain and uncomfortable speech appears in Ruth’s own poem, ‘Song of Jean’, in which when Jean stands up to speak, often and long, in meeting for worship, she ‘drives away false peace, awakens us’.

Ruth also talks to Dorothy Nimmo’s publishers, Ann and Peter Sansom, who run poetry workshops. Ann describes the reassurance she gives to writers in the workshops, telling them they don’t have to share their first efforts with anyone else, or even read them back themselves. She says that the first poems create a space to listen to yourself, and trust what comes to you, a space in which you’re not answering to anyone. In words that describe the delight and mystery of meeting for worship and creative though, Sansom says that if you listen closely in these spaces ‘you’re not going to tell yourself something that you already know’.

Listen to Them Breathing is available to listen again on bbc iplayer until Sunday 21/08/2011.


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