24 June 2016

poetry friday: fanfare for the makers.

Recently I've been watching BBC2 sitcom Rev. It focuses on Adam Smallbone, the hapless vicar of St. Saviour's in the Marshes, an inner-city London church. It's a bit, a very little bit, like a contemporary version of Susan Howatch's Starbridge novels if they were funnier and much less sexy and everyone in them was a great deal less competent. Adam's a disaster of a person, and he definitely doesn't deserve his wife (played by Olivia Colman, who continues—marvelously—to be in everything), but he's trying really hard and for all its cynicism the show takes his faith and his calling seriously. There's terrifying Evangelicals, terrifying overachieving curates, and a terrifying Archdeacon. And Adam's own congregation, which is as terrifying as it is tiny. It's not a perfect show: like many comedies it needs more sympathetic women, and Adam desperately needs to shape up. Still, I like it a lot. I couldn't possibly choose a favorite episode. Maybe the Christmas episode? But I love the one with the Evangelicals; not sure if I've actually met Darren, but he's definitely a friend of a friend.

At some stage I'm going to do a proper post about the show, with screencaps and analysis and all that nonsense. At the moment though, I just want to share a poem that Adam quotes a few lines of in the first season: "Fanfare for the Makers," by Louis MacNeice. I've not read much (any) MacNeice and haven't a volume of his poetry on hand. Fortunately, this show has fans who've put the poem on the internet. I source from one such:
A cloud of witnesses. To whom? To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.

To all the things we are not remembered by,
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not notice when we die,
Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.

So fanfare for the Makers: who compose
A book of words or deeds who runs may write
As many who do run, as a family grows
At times like sunflowers turning towards the light.

As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
As sometimes one man's kindness pervades

A room or house or village, as sometimes
Merely to tighten screws or sharpen blades
Can catch a meaning, as to hear the chimes

At midnight means to share them, as one man
In old age plants an avenue of limes
And before they bloom can smell them, before they span

The road can walk beneath the perfected arch,
The merest greenprint when the lives began
Of those who walk there with him, as in default

Of coffee men grind acorns, as in despite
Of all assaults conscripts counter assault,
As mothers sit up late night after night

Moulding a life, as miners day by day
Descend blind shafts, as a boy may flaunt his kite
In an empty nonchalant sky, as anglers play

Their fish, as workers work and can take pride
In spending sweat before they draw their pay.
As horsemen fashion horses while they ride,

As climbers climb a peak because it is there,
As life can be confirmed even in suicide:
To make is such. Let us make. And set the weather fair.
It's an ode to the world at large, and to all the quiet loves and competencies that fill it and keep it running. I love that although it's about making, MacNeice doesn't restrict the definition of that to things we would conventionally recognize as quote creativity unquote. The whole world is full of creative acts if you know where to look for them, and it's only unfortunate that so many people don't. "Molding a life," your own or a child's, is a creative act. The reference to suicide at the end—well, I don't know quite what to do with that, except to recognize that it takes some thinking and that it's a poem worth thinking about. (A poem about which it is worthwhile to think.—Ed.)

And to return to Rev: There's a scene in a later episode where Adam is discussing preferment with his reader Nigel, and says that he really isn't interested in being a bishop or a dean—he just wants to be a good parish priest. Nigel doesn't believe him of course, but the line rang very true to me. I think the use of this poem expresses something fundamental about Adam, or about who he'd like to be. (Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God's help.) This celebration of the tiny vital things that make up the world reminds me of another favorite, Charles Reznikoff's "Te Deum":
Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
(I'm trying to keep length here under control, but see also "Alive Together" and "Doing Laundry on the Last Day of the World" and "Great Things Have Happened." I often think how good I would be at compiling anthologies.)

This seems to be an animating principle for a lot of fiction I love—it's at the heart of Call the Midwife and of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels, and it's there in Connie Wills' insistence that "History was indeed controlled by blind forces, as well as character and courage and treachery and love. And accident and random chance. And stray bullets and telegrams and tips. And cats." (The particular line is from To Say Nothing of the Dog, but Willis affirms the principle over and over again.) It reminds me too of Ursula Vernon's recent essay on gardening and how "often it comes down to one person who kept something small but important from being lost forever."

And so what we have is making, in all its forms. What is there to do but make, what but "compose / a book of words" or "tighten screws or sharpen blades" or even to plant "an avenue of limes"? What but find our own work and do it quietly, lovingly, just as well as ever we can? What but witness, and bless, a world that doesn't seem to notice us? It's not about saving the world, exactly, except perhaps in the sense that he who saves one life saves the world entire—it's about delivering a child, planting seeds in a garden you never get to see, rescuing a cat. (NB: rescuing a cat is the plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog. Read it; it's good.) Let us make. And set the weather fair.



  1. Wow, all those poems were new to me except "Great Things Have Happened." Nice post. :-)

  2. I just wish there was the thumbs up button here...like in face book. I'm going to go let these words stir in me a while.
    Thank you.

  3. I'll have to look for Rev! And also, To Say Nothing of the Dog for I'm intrigued by "And cats." It kind of reminds me of something I heard at the Mass Poetry Festival two months ago. I'm quoting from my blog post about the panel discussion with Laurin Becker Macios, David Rivard, and Charles Simic.

    Macios studied under Rivard and Simic at UNH and shared that once, after reading a poem in class, Simic told her, "It's a great poem, I think it needs a cat in it."

    Everything needs a cat!

    1. Cats are always necessary! And Rev, as I probably should have mentioned in the post, is free on Hulu.

  4. Lovely poem and lovely post.