Saintly Poetry in the Cathedral

How do you respond to a free morning? This was my opening writing prompt for our poetry workshop, as eleven of us sat around the big circular table in Chester Cathedral’s Library, a clear November sun shining through the windows. For some, the beauty of a free morning is its potential for spontaneity. For others, planned activities are the way make the most of this valuable time.

As in life, so on the page. Some of us prefer to read and write poetry in clearly defined forms, with regular patterns of rhyme, rhythm and stanza. Others are drawn to freer verse expressions, seeing set form as inhibiting creativity rather than challenging craft. Over the rmorning we explored the various poetic forms to see what possibilities they might open up for our writing.

The Cathedral’s Cloister Windows were our inspiration. These depict over 100 Saints in stained glass who form a bright succession through the Churches’ calendar and round the Cloisters’ four walks – walks much less chilly since the windows were installed in the 1920’s. Each saint is a poem in glass, framed by stone as they stand in their own distinctive clothing, against a background and amid images highlighting aspects of their lives.

The first task for any poet is to pay attention. Several of us realised how easy it is to walk past these figures with scarcely a glimpse in their direction; or even just to try to peer through them into the Cloister Garden beyond. 

Some of us already knew a thing or two about these Saints, having taken a look at the colourful record of them on Chester Cathedral’s website .  Others came in discovery mode, which can be valuable in itself: Too much knowledge may complicate our creative response. Looking for what we know can sometimes get in the way of responding to what we see. 

But whatever the starting point, attentiveness opens up a relationship with what we are observing. Our responses and questionings can suggest our route into a poem. One was struck by how pale, serious and slightly ghostly these Saints’ faces looked. Others were impressed by their number and variety, and found themselves asking what it takes to become a Saint. Another questioned whether the raising to life of a dead goose was the best use of St Werbergh’s miraculous powers.

Turning to frame our responses in poetic forms opened up other lines of enquiry: the hunt for the word that would unite sound and meaning in a perfect fit;  feeling for the right tone,  and resolving issues of punctuation and line breaks. No wonder our morning seemed to fly past!

Below are some samples of poems produced – an Acrostic form poem on Saint Werberga, couplets on Saint Stephen, and an Alphabet poem on the experience of the writing workshop itself. Thanks to all who came and took part, and shared their poems with us. Until the next time… 

 

St Werburga

Sainted woman

Turned towards the light

Wise though young

Elevated to protect Chester

Round and within its city walls

Building faith and trust

Uniting God’s flock

Royal birth not withstanding

Gentleness and humility, an

Abbess for Chester and its people.

Pauline Bell

 

Stephen

Stephen was a young man when they took him out to die.

The sun shone round his tonsured head, the birds were in the sky.

Did he look about the places he had held so very dear?

Did he think about his life and death without a trace of fear?

O Stephen, so blameless, so young and so alone,

Would I that day have looked and shrugged and cast the first hard stone?

Janet Kite

 

 

On Attending a Poetry Workshop at Chester Cathedral

A – Anxiety soon assuaged

B – Beauteous aged setting

C – Careful encouragement from

D – Dedicated tutor

E – Easy pace to contemplate

F – Forgotten saints with

G – Ghostly faces wrapped in stained glass

H – Helpful other ‘students’ offering

I – Illuminating interjections

J – Joyful and some jaded memories surfaced

K – Kept to task as time ticked by

L – Looked anew at known and unknown Saints

M – Memories of local folk engraved below

N – Noticing the cloistered context

O – Outcomes unexpected

P – Pleasure at first attempts

Q – Questioning of Saints’ reality

R – Realization that we too could pen a poem

S – Suddenly time slipping

T – Thanks to thoughtful tutor, not

U  – Undervaluing our abilities of

V – Verses conjured from somewhere

W – Welcoming new skills and

X – Extra surprising self actualization 

Y – Years and age irrelevant

Z – Zero lost, much gained

Jenny Dunlop 

 

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  • About Julia

    Julia

    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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