Rowan Williams, known by many as a theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury (2002–12), is also an accomplished playwright and poet. His Collected Poems and a collection of three of his plays, Shakeshafte & Other Plays, were both published in 2021. He has also written extensively on the relationship between faith and art in books such as Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love and Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. He received the Denise Levertov Award from Image in 2022.
Shane McCrae is a celebrated contemporary poet whose award-winning collections include In the Language of My Captor, The Gilded Auction Block, Sometimes I Never Suffered, and Cain Named the Animal. As poetry editor, he curates the poetry in Image’s pages.
Their conversation took place in a basement studio at Seattle Pacific University on April 6, 2022. McCrae admitted he was too timid to wear his Rowan Williams T-shirt, so he came sporting a Geoffrey Hill number, an expression of their shared appreciation for a Christian modernist. They were interviewed by editor in chief James K.A. Smith.
Image: It’s a treat to have the two of you in a room together: a theologian who is also a poet, and a poet who is well versed in theology. How do you each see this space between theology and poetry? Are there ways that poetry informs a theological imagination? Are there ways that theology is a fund for poetic reflection and creativity? Is there a kind of chemical reaction between the two in your lives and work?
Rowan Williams: I was thinking back to my first reflections on this, when I was in high school. When I was seventeen, I had a sense that what I was studying in literature was actually much closer to what mattered to me about faith than what I was reading in religious studies, oddly enough. Because in literature I was watching what happens to human language in strange, borderline situations. And it does odd things. It turns on its head, does handsprings, contorts itself. It slips behind walls and puts its head over the top and waves, and sort of messes around. And I thought, that’s not wholly unlike what’s happening in theology. Something extraordinary impacts on the world of human imagination, and language goes into a bit of a meltdown, but it also comes out with new connections, new strengths, new resources. On my own initiative, as a teenager, I was reading poets who are perhaps not obvious candidates here—people like Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare, a bit of Eliot, and of course our own local mandarin in South Wales, Dylan Thomas—and watching what happens to language there and thinking, yeah, I recognize that.
Image: Did that affect how you approached religious studies and theology? Did it give you a vision for how theology could be different?
RW: I think it did. It made me look for those borderline areas in the world of the imagination. It gave me an extra interest in languages. In those days, in Cambridge, when you were starting theology, you had to learn Greek and Hebrew. And with that came a linguistic abundance, a multivocal sense of approaching Scriptures. And I was also interested in the way scriptural story and doctrine fleshed themselves out in the visual arts, in verbal arts. All of my best friends during my undergraduate years at Cambridge were doing English, and we used to sit and talk about Middle English poetry and the mystery plays, that sort of thing, because that seemed to me to be doing the same kind of job as the theology I was studying. And when I was a graduate student, again, some of my best friends were working in those areas. That was certainly a point where drama as well as poetry became important to me.
Image: Your attention to metaphor and the way language works is characteristic of your scholarly and theological work as well. It’s the potency of language that you seek.
RW: That’s right. I think I’m trying to grasp the fact that language does not start out boring and functional and then acquire a few decorations to make it bearable. It’s not like a very dull sermon where you have to put in a few illustrations to keep people listening. Language begins with oddity and extravagance. It begins with far more words for things than you can cope with. It makes connections far outside what you can predict. And if some scholars are right, that as a species we sang before we spoke, that tells you something again. The idea that metaphor is a latecomer and an optional extra is completely against what we know of how language evolves. Language narrows down from a primitive exuberance rather than moving out from a primitive functionality
All of that connects very clearly with a book I’m battling my way through at the moment, Iain McGilchrist’s latest, The Matter with Things. Iain, who’s trained in literature, psychotherapy, and neuroscience and has been a practicing physician as well as a writer, set out his stall a few years ago in a book about the two hemispheres of the brain, The Master and His Emissary. In it he talks about the way the left hemisphere dominates in our culture as a narrowly focused, short-term, problem-solving set of mechanisms, which is completely lost without the right brain’s capacity to scan horizons, to make connections, to suspect, to intuit, to read faces, tones, and scenes, and to see patterns. And also, the right brain knows what it doesn’t know, whereas the left brain unfortunately doesn’t, which is why it’s a bit disastrous, culturally speaking. Look around you.
So all of that feeds into a sense that metaphor, the capacity to connect, to see something through the lens of another so that you fill out the full dimensionality of what’s in front of you—that’s what really matters.
Image: Shane, your path to poetry is different, via law school and all kinds of things. But it strikes me that you and Rowan share a sensibility in this space between theology and poetry. How has that worked itself out for you?
Shane McCrae: I came to a sense of myself as a Christian around the time I came to a sense of myself as a formalist poet. My relationship with theology and my relationship with poetry are, in some ways, both searching for ways to think, spaces in which to think. When I started writing sonnets, it became much easier to think in poetry; whereas when I was surrounded by what people think of as freedom and could make whatever decisions I wanted—my lines could be as long or as short as I wanted and bear no necessary relationship to each other—it was very difficult to do any kind of thinking. I was constantly worrying about the wrong things.
I tend to think of theological questions as doing that sort of mental work. Theology is another space in which it is possible to think, because there is a framework against which my thoughts are bouncing and by which they’re being shaped. Thinking about Jesus, thinking about God, is in some ways a lot like thinking about a sestina, because you have parameters. I know, generally speaking, how a sestina works; I can kind of talk about it. But how I think through my relationship with those parameters is new every time I encounter them. It’s shaped by the sestina being what a sestina is in some abstract way. And so I can approach it and think about it, and it thinks back. That’s how it works for me.
RW: I love what you say about the form talking back. That captures something absolutely essential. You bring what you bring. The form then makes you do things you didn’t know you could do, tells you things you didn’t know. I remember when I was in my twenties, trying to write a sonnet sequence, and when I’d just come to the last couplet of the second sonnet, thinking, oh my God, I know what that last line is going to be. I had no idea that was where the sequence was going, but the form had spoken. The form had pushed back.
The analogy with doctrinal structure is really interesting and very close. Interesting things in human speech and culture are about tension. I don’t mean nail-biting tension, but that attunement, that tonus, as the Stoics called it, where you’ve got the string pitched just right, tempered and tight enough to pluck a sound from it. And for something to have tone, it has to be pinned down somewhere. There are all sorts of things you can do with it once you’ve got it pinned down. And sometimes I think of hard doctrinal formulations as being a bit like that. They’re pinning strings. They’re tacking down something from which you then can actually abstract.
SM: That’s one of the things I find most exciting about working in form—when it makes you do things you didn’t know you could do. I’m in the middle of this right now with a sonnet, actually. I’m very close to the end, but I can’t figure it out. I have a general sense of where I want to go—and in a way, that’s part of the problem, because I’m not giving it enough room to say exactly whatever it is that it wants to say. This may be difficult to communicate to anybody who hasn’t experienced it, but there’s a feeling of companionship when you’re stuck with a thing that you’re making and you know, in a formal sense, what it’s going to look like when it’s done, but you don’t know how to finish the conversation with it. So it’s in some part of your head at all times, talking to you, and you can’t quite figure out how to answer it, but it’s there. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling.
RW: It is, isn’t it? And people talk about the “afflatus” of poetic inspiration, as if it were just a stream of something pouring in rather than a discovery, like brushing the dust off a half-buried building or feeling something under the surface and thinking, oh, that’s what I was digging for. You never quite know what the shape will be, what the face will be, that emerges.
Image: Given both of your sympathies with formalism, I wonder if you could speak to those, like me, who love poetry deeply, and are even willing to be stretched by “difficult” poetry, but don’t have the catalog of forms in our heads. Do you think readers of poetry need to be masters of form to be beneficiaries of form? Sometimes, reading a poem like “Crossing” in Rowan’s new Collected Poems, it’s almost like my soul knows there’s a form at work, but I can’t put my finger on it.
RW: I don’t think readers need to have an examination list of prosodic technicalities to get them through. It’s more a matter of what expectations they bring to a poem. Do I expect a stream of vaguely pictorial uplift, or do I expect to be made to work a bit, not in the sense of laboring away to get a message out of it, but to work so that I can sense something of resonance? You are describing, I think, that feeling you often get that says, there is something here. There’s a set of echoes or harmonics that I’m not quite getting yet, but I can see where they’re going. And it’s when you’ve got that rather inchoate sense of harmonics that you also see the deliberate or sometimes not so deliberate points of jarring, the points at which a poet will put in something that wrenches the harmonics a bit so that you sit up and pay attention. An awareness that that’s what you’re going to encounter in a poem worth reading is part of what you need.
Image: So perhaps a reader’s familiarity with form expands their capacity to receive a poem’s full effect. If I, as a reader, am apprenticing myself to understand forms, then the repertoire of expectation I can bring to a poem, and therefore my availability to the sort of exercise it’s asking me to go through, is also expanded.
RW: “Repertoire of expectation” is good. That’s very much it.
SM: I would add something that may seem a little counterintuitive and possibly like a terrible thing for a poet to say. One of the difficulties that we have with poetry, particularly general readers (and I have to smile at my own optimism when I say “general readers” and “poetry” in the same sentence), is that because poetry is most often in words, it deceives us into thinking that we need to understand it, that that is what our relationship is supposed to be.
Although I don’t tell my students this, I would encourage people to read poetry quickly. I always read it much more quickly than I read prose. I’ve never underlined a book of poetry in my life. I don’t think a poem is meant to be understood in the way that an essay is meant to be understood. I could read extremely slowly, pen in hand, and pick everything apart, but then, instead of beginning a relationship with a thing, I’m ending it. The best poems stay with you your whole life, and that relationship changes as you reencounter the poem. And part of what keeps that relationship alive is not trying to comprehend the poem. And besides, if the poem is truly successful, it will always defeat your comprehension. Partly because a truly successful poem will have defeated the comprehension of the poet as the poet wrote it, and so it is going to be unresolvable.
RW: I sometimes think of this as the “no last reading” principle. You can never say of a poem, okay, I’ve got that now; I can tick that off the list and throw it away. Just as there’s no last performance of a work of music or a drama, so no last reading of a poem. And that means when you go back, different patterns and connections and levels appear. I was thinking as you spoke of revisiting poems I became familiar with forty or fifty years ago and suddenly hearing something that I hadn’t before. A few years ago, for some reason I was looking again at Milton’s Comus. Back at university, I was in a dramatic performance of it. I played the elder brother, the most boring character in it. And I was caught by the musicality of it, not so much the ideas but the sounds: where thou art sitting under the glassy, cool, translucent wave. Somebody once asked me what I thought was the most beautiful line in English poetry. I said, under the glassy, cool, translucent wave. The vowels, the consonants, the sheer movement of that line is utterly flawless. And you don’t always notice that on the first reading. You hear it. At some level it goes in, and then you return and think, that’s why I remember it. That’s why it’s there after all these years.
Image: I want to go back to something Rowan was saying earlier—that in poetry we’re experiencing language doing something other than just meaning or explaining or conveying. The poem is something to be experienced. I think there’s something about the experience of faith that primes us for linguistic encounters where meaning both eludes us and overwhelms us, where language is an experience of both connection and dissonance. I wonder if both of you bring different experiences of “otherness” to language that would shape you in that way. I’m thinking of being Welsh in Britain, Rowan; or Shane, your experience of being Black in the United States. Did those experiences prime you to be attuned to language in unique ways?
SM: Maybe; I mean, I guess. But part of it was also that—it’s not necessary to get too far into it—I was kidnapped as a toddler and raised by my kidnappers. So there was always a sense that I didn’t quite fit in wherever I was. I understood that young people often don’t feel like they fit in, and so I chalked it up to that, but there always seemed to be something deeper to it. Not that I was any deeper than any other angst-ridden teenager, but there was something that wasn’t quite comprehended by this idea that youngsters don’t fit in.
It wasn’t until I discovered poetry that I figured out a place where that feeling fit for me. And I was very fortunate to be entirely alone with poetry for the first few years, until I went to college. Nobody in my family was scholarly in any way. They hadn’t gone to college. We were pretty poor. I was intellectually isolated. I had friends who were skateboarders, and I was a high school dropout and teenage parent, and all these things put me in a really small box. But my advantage was that I had a lot of academic anxiety, so I read everything because I wanted to keep up with my imagined peers. I remember starting community college and telling my English professor that I had just finished The Faerie Queene. And he just didn’t know what to think about that. I didn’t have anybody telling me what I should read, so I read everything. But doing all of that work, trying to figure out if I could have a relationship with poetry—it didn’t take my sense of outsiderness away, but it gave it a container that it fit into. It has never gone away.
RW: For me to talk about outsider experience sounds a bit fraudulent, given that I’ve been in very establishment positions for a lot of my life, but I think two things have contributed along the line. One is the bare fact of having a very serious illness when I was a small child and being stuck on my own at home for quite a lot of time. I started reading obsessively from the age of four or five, and had the experience of another world opening up through that.
And then, as you say, being Welsh and growing up in a bilingual family, you’re always aware that there’s another way of saying things, and that really does open up something. Even in the rather prosaic world of high school history, we had a compulsory module on Welsh history alongside British history, and again, you emerge thinking, there’s more than one way of telling this story. You gain a sense that the world is odder than you thought.
If poetry has nothing else to say, it says this: this world is much more peculiar than you imagine. There’s more of it than you can get your head round in any one sentence, any one form of speech, any one rhythm of speech. There’s always more. And that’s a theological point, because it spills over into a sense that the world is there because of the extravagance, the excess of divine wisdom.
Image: Let’s talk a bit about the obliqueness of the way art works. Rowan, I recently reread your Dostoevsky book, in which you say, “Christ…can only be…represented in fiction through the oblique reflection of his face in those who are moving toward him.” I find this such a powerful image and caution.
I was thinking about that as I finished reading your play Shakeshafte, which feels very Dostoevskian to me. You do a marvelous job of creating a dramatic literary space in which everybody’s faith and doubt is given room to live. I thought it was courageous that you refused resolution for the characters. Is that intentional? Do you think faithful art sometimes even requires the refusal of resolution?
RW: Well, thank you. You have got one of the points that I was trying to make, which is not at all that there’s no truth out there to be discovered. Quite the contrary. In fact, what if the truth is so strange and so capacious that you’ve got to have more than one voice to get anywhere near it? And if that’s true, you’ve got to give all those voices space. In one of the images I used in the play, the young Shakeshafte protests to the older Jesuit martyr Campion that he can’t shut out the voices; he’s got to let them have their head. And that’s the beginning of his vocation as a dramatist, really.
If you trust that the truth is immense and durable and stands up to exploration, you can take the risk of letting that space hang around. You don’t have to resolve it. You don’t have to tie it down. You can let it work. I suppose in Shakeshafte I hoped something would come through of the fact that these two very different characters—the older Jesuit and the young, uncertain teenager who’s feeling his way toward being William Shakespeare—understand each other in a way that nobody else does, that the martyr and the poet do touch somewhere.
Image: That refusal of easy resolution requires a great act of trust on the part of a creator. It strikes me that that could be a more faithful kind of making than the work of religious artists who think they always have to communicate a message or truth or finalization.
RW: As you speak, I realize that one of the influences on that play, which I hadn’t fully registered, is a novel by H.F.M. Prescott called The Man on a Donkey. It’s a massive historical novel written in the 1950s and set in the middle of the sixteenth century—the Pilgrimage of Grace, the suppression of the monasteries, the Reformation era—and it takes you through how five different characters are experiencing this religious upheaval. One of them is a bitter, unsuccessful Catholic priest; one is a young aristocrat; one is an aging warrior; and one of the most beautifully realized characters is the prioress of a nunnery at Marrick in North Yorkshire. She’s a vastly competent, completely irreligious figure who is dedicated to keeping the priory alive whatever happens.
All these characters mix and blend, and running through their stories is the figure of a serving maid at the priory, Malle, who’s supposed by everybody to be half-witted. Mysteriously, it gets around that Malle is having visions of Christ. And everybody wants to know what she’s seeing, because there must be a message. And one by one—it’s very skillfully done—they all go to see her and ask, what was shown you? What was said to you? And she comes up with these rather spine-chilling single sentences. There was a great wind of light blowing, and sore pain. And that’s it.
As the story evolves, terrible things happen to a lot of the characters. By the end, some have died, or been executed, or exiled. At the very end, the priory has been destroyed, and all that’s left is the old convent chaplain sitting by the side of the river with Malle, making paper boats and putting them out to sail. And the old priest says, “I suppose that’s all we can say. We make the boats, we put them on the river, and God’s current takes them somewhere.”
Image: The tenuousness and fragility of a life lived in faith.
RW: That’s right. You don’t have to be anxious about tying it up yourself. Because that’s the theological equivalent of the casting couch, really. You’re forcing something, exploiting something, reducing something. When I think back, the kinds of conversation and interaction that happen in that novel are what I was pushing for in the play.
The “man on the donkey” is Jesus, of course, who is seen obliquely by all of them. There’s a very strange episode near the middle of the book when an unexpected visitor comes to the priory, a traveling workman. Malle sees him and thinks, “Oh, it’s Jesus.” The prioress sees him and thinks, “There goes one of those troublemakers we don’t need any of in this place.” And so on. It’s left very much open. Is this really Jesus wandering around North Yorkshire in 1535?
Image: Shane, you are very much writing for the poetry world; in many ways you’re a poet for other poets, engaged in a conversation that not all Image readers will be familiar with. And yet the heaven/hell and angel sequences of some of your poetry are such an interesting invocation in our secular age. Is what you’re doing there analogous to what we were just talking about with Rowan?
SM: Well, sure. I think obliqueness is fundamental to the way both art and religion function. And I can talk about it with regard to poetry, particularly editing poetry at Image and what I’m looking for when I’m reading the poems we get. It goes back to something you mentioned earlier about religious artists thinking they need to give you an answer. That’s exactly what they don’t need to do. If you’re going to be a religious poet, one of the things you have to resign yourself to—at least with regard to the thing that is central your life, the thing you take most seriously, your faith—a kind of an agony, because you have to allow your poems to say things about your faith that you don’t want to say. If you don’t, then you’re not being true to the art, and you’re really not being true to the faith either.
I think this idea that religious poets need to give you answers obscures our reading. I saw an essay the other day asking the question, “Geoffrey Hill: Christian modernist?” Plenty of thinkers are surprised at the idea of Geoffrey Hill as religious poet. And to me, it’s so obvious: he’s a seriously religious poet. That’s why you can’t tell. If you could just tell by looking, then he wouldn’t be being a serious Christian poet. You have to endure those difficulties.
Thinking about Shakeshafte, which I loved as well, and the writing of that period and obliqueness in art: when I was going to do a PhD in early modern English literature, what I wanted to write my dissertation about (I was discouraged because people thought it wasn’t a very good idea) was a notion I had that, because in the early modern period the Bible was being translated into English and people were wrestling with it in a personal way, and relatively large numbers of people were confronting its inconsistencies, the Bible became a sort of machine for making people deal with contradictions.
If you’re trying to sort out and harmonize the Gospels, then you’re doing the wrong thing with them. Dealing with the contradictions is a way of shaping a mind to think about God, about life, about other people, but it also gets you thinking about language. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the greatest writing in English was happening alongside this huge translation project, when people were having to deal with how the Bible isn’t as consistent as they’d been told, and they had to think their way through it. If everything in the Bible agreed, I don’t think it would be a useful book. Where faith and poetry both work is in getting people to accept that things don’t line up in an easy way. And by learning that, ideally, we learn how to be with each other and how to be in a relationship with God.
RW: The obliqueness that we’re talking about is very much what the Bible itself models, isn’t it?
Because the Old Testament isn’t a story about things that God did in the way that Greek myth might be a story about things that Zeus did. It’s not a biography of some heavenly individual doing stuff. It’s a story of all these lives and histories touched by something utterly in excess of reality. You learn to talk about God by talking about them. And Jesus himself, in telling parables, doesn’t give descriptions of God. He doesn’t simply market ideas about God. He says, “There was a man who had two sons,” or “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” and you come sideways or slant into the reality, because that’s how you avoid the temptation of tying it all up and being finished with it.
Image: I would love to hear: what are your hopes for poetry?
SM: You mentioned earlier that you thought of this as a softball question, and I wanted to say that, for a poet, this is a big, painful, hardball question.
I would like poems to do what we’ve been talking about—for the poem to do whatever it can toward holding itself open in a relationship with a reader. When my first book was being published, all I wanted—and I still want this—was that it would be useful to somebody. And for me that meant maybe somebody killed a spider with it, you know? However it is useful, that’s exciting to me.
Poems can be useful by requiring of one, if one wants to have a relationship with a poem, that that relationship stays alive, that it stays vital. Engaging with poems in that way helps people stay vital. It helps our minds stay alive. And I think that as long as human beings keep their minds alive, they tend toward treating each other well.
RW: Amen to all of that. And I’d add that I’m hoping poetry goes on giving us music and difficulty. Music, because that is how we quite literally tune in to something that is given, something that is real. It’s a way of finding the truth, poetry. But also difficulty, which tells you it’s not all about you. It’s not about what you think you can cope with. It’s not about what you’ve already got in the bank, literally and metaphorically. It’s about wrestling with a reality that is always pulling you open. And as Shane says, if you are trying to deal with a reality that is pulling you open, you can’t just shut the doors against the otherness of other persons, the otherness of the world. You can’t just assume you’ve got a privileged place that allows you to dictate from on high. You can’t suppose that what’s good and safe for you is completely independent of what’s good and safe for everybody else. It’s perhaps putting it a bit strongly, but there has to be a sense in which poetry is about a path to compassion.
Photos: Sara Arrigoni