BBC Radio 4:John Bell - 03/01/17

You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.

Having travelled from the south to the north on New Year's Day, when I got home, I relaxed in a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and turned on the radio.

I recognised the voice first – it was that of Jeremy Irons, but not the T.S. Eliot poems he was reading. Texts such as Animula and The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, were not ones with which I was familiar.

But as I listened I realised that I rarely heard the whole poem. Rather one word or phrase like ' the drug of dreams ' would draw me into thoughts or memories, into an inner world which I had not visited for some time.

I recognised and enjoyed The Journey of the Magi, a poem about the Wise Men coming to see the infant Jesus. But afterwards I spent a long time thinking about how, for these men, this birth which they came to celebrate was, as Eliot suggested, like a death – a death of old systems, old beliefs, old understandings of what God and the world were about.

Poetry does that. It slows us down. It makes us think. We can't race through it. I can happily spend an hour or two reading a novel, turning page after page, trying to get to the end of a long chapter before I lay the book down. But I would never read fifty pages of poetry in one go. Poetry demands a different kind of attention. It only delivers of itself, the more we let the words seep into us.

This realisation has changed the way I read the poems in the Bible called the Psalms.

Rather than treat them as historical narratives, I read them slowly, feeling for what connections there may be between the writer's experience and my own and toying playfully with the natural as well as the mental images. One day I got a surprise when I was reading the best known psalm in the world, psalm 23, verses I remember my grandmother singing to me when I was only two years old.

It begins ' The Lord is my shepherd' – a very pastoral image for God. But half way through the image changes. ' You have spread a table for me ' It was only in pondering these words that l realised in this five versed poem, we have two images of God – one male, the Shepherd, and one female – the table setter.

So this year, starting today when the demands of work and business become all-important again, I have decided in the face of breaking news and instant messaging to read poetry - both sacred and secular - slowly, as a reminder that truth is not the same as either factual information or emotional reaction. ..and that life was meant to be deep and not shallow.

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