Poetry Chronicle 9: David Scott
Many poets are natural priests, especially the godless ones. At worst they develop into gurus or shamans; at best they preach their cause as teachers, and practice what they teach. Their pose arises from an artificial conception that poetry is an hieratic art. But the tradition of the poet as an actual priest, doing the parish rounds and minding his flock, is far thornier and much more remarkable. The church is a sharp vocation.
Poetry and the priesthood are callings which sit all too shakily on the scales of responsibility and guilt. Does one finally outweigh the other as with Gerard Manley Hopkins? Do they circle each other like opposing magnets as with R.S. Thomas? Or are they matched in weight, informing and balancing each other, as in the poetry of George Herbert?
David Scott manages a quite brilliant balance between the two, and his poetry and life are a consilience of those vocations. Scott is Rector of St Lawrence and St Swithun in Winchester, and Warden of the Diocesan School of Spirituality. Previously he had served for eleven years as a parish priest in North Cumbria, smack on the margins and saltmarshes of Solway and Scotland, a zone of stripped fells and bare beauty, where the chief companion is the weather. While he was there he not only ministered with fidelity to his parishioners, but wrote his first books of poetry. Scott was one of the leading spirits of the group called the New Lakes Poets that included, among others, Geoffrey Holloway, Christopher Pilling and William Scammell, and which has recently nurtured the talent of Jacob Polley. There is a fine poem about William Scammell’s funeral in this book, at which Scott presided: ‘It was in your will / for me to have the final word’.
David Scott is not by anyone’s description a career poet (an oxymoron anyway), but what he has published has always been weighted very well and chosen carefully in order to advantage the poems, if not the poet’s profile on the poetry circuit. A five year wait between A Quiet Gathering (1984) and Playing for England (1989); another eleven years until a flowering of new work in Selected Poems (1998); a further seven years’ slow harvest until Piecing Together. His patience is plain. This is not a poet in a dash, nor does he need to be. Nor is he in any need of special effects of poetics or language:
Some poems I write in ink
and they get written with a lot
of furrowing of the brow, and often miss
but some I write in juice of a lemon
quickly in my heart
and hope that one day someone’s
warmth will iron the secrets into poems
with effortless art.
‘Written in Juice of Lemon’
The lingering wait between collections is always worth it. David Scott writes poems as plain as pleasure: a pleasure in perception of the world, a pleasure in being human. Even when that perception sees right through people he remains patient, but he stays watchful, is never complacent. His God is a much firmer, a far wilder thing: a God of the world, a God of the weather: ‘I would look for signs of weather / at the edges of your clothes … I would glance to notice shifts of sun and shadow / of the alternating poetry and prose in you.’ (‘Meeting St John of the Cross’). For the morality of Scott’s perception is conditional, and his morality more elemental than the usual Sunday morning understanding of faith. In one poem (‘Eyes’), David Scott asks, ‘God of the one strand of hair, are you also / God of the one look, of the glance, of the glimpse?’
Faith is seen in glimpses; faith is a startled and startleable thing. But there is an assuredness also, not only the knowledge of a place in the world, but also a trust that, ‘… one day all will be known / in the deepest bank of the world’s meaning / and on that day our eyes will feast’. The ways Scott sees, and sees beyond, has a great deal in common with the dawn deer in his poem ‘First Thing’ (and notice how skilfully the deer’s movement awakes the commas and full-stops with their footfalls):
One young deer
on the path to the wood
three more together.
How it stopped me
even inside the house
my shirt in my hands
every bit of my body
wired up for watching
every bit of theirs radar
for the merest blink.
Air rigid between us,
they moved first,
sensuous as waking.
Wired up for watching, Scott’s naturalness of perception is strength, and his apparently effortless poems ‘written in lemon juice’ already have plenty of implicit fire to come alive on the page. But the clear art of David Scott’s poetry is wider than a waiting for small perceptions and miniature epiphanies. His first two books were praised for their humility, for reticence, for underplaying, as though these were virtues that came with the ground of an English parsonage. Such praise stereotypes him, locks his work indoors, and tames it. David Scott’s mental parsonage isn’t the homely living of Mr Collins of Pride and Prejudice, but the open-air curacy of a Patrick Brontë:
‘Yes’ was the shape of the farmhouse.
‘Yes’ were the trunks of the trees.
‘Yes’ was the gate on its hinges.
‘Yes’ brought the world to its knees.
‘A David Jones Annunciation’
There is a progression from his last book. Piecing Together has starker aims, which are scarier and riskier. The fine elegy for William Scammell concludes with conditions, self-questioning, rather than conventional consolations: ‘… we gathered round in groups to weep or cry, and hug, / and wonder how or why, to reminisce, / awkwardly, or not, or maybe, without you.’ An encounter with a ‘healer’ leaves him with ‘the indent of a wing along my side’. Again and again, it is the elemental and conditional voice of faith that can find its voices in the movement of wind on a meadow, or the recurring call of a song-thrush: falling off the end of the gospel,
afraid. This year I may learn to fall
and not fear, and find myself lifted
to watch the face of forgiveness rise
with such silence and uncanny grace,
that with the thrush, high in the holly tree,
I will sing, unique… unique… unique.
… I am with the women,
There is one poem in this fine collection that really lets all the weather in, the epic and panoptic ‘Skelling Michael: A Pilgrimage’, in which the poet voyages ‘on the top of an illuminated wave’ to the West Irish island ‘where we have to imagine the monks / watching the sky with nothing / between themselves and heaven… when the elements took leave of God’s control / and became something other’. In this poem the terrors of faith are made real and electric but, importantly, they are made human. The monks’ homesickness and despair and their ‘crazy love of Christ’ are honoured and balanced in language, where language is the rock, where language is the space in which meditation and prayer hazard illumination.
I am grateful to “P.N. Review” in which a version of this piece recently appeared.