Thursday, October 23, 2014

On September 24, 2014, the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite concluded a month-long stay as the Divinity School's first artist-in-residence with a lecture on Samuel T. Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."  The lecture grew out of the research Guite conducted while at Duke and gave the audience a glimpse of a new spiritual biography he is writing which uses the poem to frame often-neglected dimensions of Coleridge's spiritual and theological development.  While at Duke, Guite met individualy with many students and faculty, performed his music and poetry as part of the Dean's Songwriter Series, and gave several other public lectures, including a sermon at Goodson chapel.  Guite also composed a new song and several poems, one of which is included below in Guite's reflection concerning his time at Duke.

Guite writes: "Generative Generosity: Some Reflections from Your Artist in Residence"

It's been a fortnight now since I left Duke and returned to England, and I have had a chance to reflect on the rich experience of my stay with you.  My first reflection is on the generosity and warmth of the welcome you gave me.  It was not simply that I was given time and space to work, and a platform from which to share that work by the Divinity School as an institution, but also that the individuals and groups within it --- particular faculty, groups of students, formal and informal, from Th.Ds to ad hoc poetry groups --- all went out of their way to reach out to me, respond to my work, show me their own and engage in our common task of apprehending God's Mystery with all the powers of our imagination as well as our reason.

This warm welcome, this informed and engaged desire to meet with me and respond, meant that I spent more time 'active' than 'passive,' more time working with students and faculty, more time meeting people personally, than I had originally envisaged.  But this turned out to be a very good thing --- not only because I am gregarious and like such company, but also because the generous commitment and engagement I encountered here proved also to be generative for me, generative of new thinking and new images for my writing, both academic and poetic, as I hope some of it has proved or will prove generative for you.

Let me give you some examples.  My opening lecture was on Herbert's poem "Love" and that led to a series of conversations and reflections on courtesy, on what it is to be an attentive and generous host.  Towards the end of my stay, I suddenly realized in the course of conversation with Ellen Davis that this idea of a host welcoming and making their guests comfortable was just the image I needed to understand my own poetic process --- not that I marshal words and order them about, but rather that I try to make a space and extend an invitation that will welcome them; that I listen carefully to the words that arrive early, ask them to invite their friends; that my craft as a poet in form and rhyme is more about planning a good seating arrangement to make the most of my word-guests , than it is like T.S. Eliot's military image of 'a raid on the inarticulate.' All this was clarified in a context in which I myself was a guest being made comfortable and allowed to flourish.

In fact, looking back, I have found that, for all the social whirl it sometimes seemed, I was enabled by this residency to achieve a lot.  I composed and delivered two new lectures reflecting on poetry and theology.  I had a chance to work on performing both poetry and songs to disparate audiences.  I composed three new sonnets --- the start of a whole new series on the sayings of Jesus --- and I even managed to write a new song.  Perhaps the best way of summing up my reflections on the experience of 'generative generosity' at Duke is in the words of a sonnet about Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three strangers at Mamre.  I composed this sonnet after I returned home, but I realized, even as I did so, that it was drawing on insights and experience of my time at Duke:

Abraham and Sarah at Mamre
They practice hospitality; their hearts
Have opened like a secret source, free flowing
Only as they take another's part.
Stopped in themselves, and in their own unknowing.
But unlocked by these strangers in their need,
They breathe again, and courtesy, set free,
Begets the unexpected; generosity
Begetting generation, as the seed
Of promise springs and laughs in Sarah's womb.

Made whole by their own hospitality,
And like the rooted oak whose shade makes room
For this refreshing genesis at Mamre,
One couple, bringing comfort to their guests,
Becomes our wellspring in the wilderness.