Michael Rosen visits St Beuno’s to discover Hopkins poetry

Michael Symmons Roberts (l) and Michael Rosen (r) at St Beuno's
Michael Symmons Roberts (l) and Michael Rosen (r) at St Beuno's

Celebrated author, and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths,  University of London, Michael Rosen, recently visited St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales to rediscover how Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ created his new style of poetry.

He was joined by award-winning poet and fiction writer, Michael Symmons Robert. The visit to St Beuno’s was for a new radio programme called ‘The First Jazz Poet’, in which BBC Radio 4 listeners will hear both Rosen and Symmons exploring and reflecting on their journey through various places at the spirituality centre.

Michael Rosen commented: “I was stunned by Hopkins’ experimental breaking and re-making of the English language and heard in these new rhythms similarities with the jazz of musicians like Miles Davies.  How was it that Hopkins could reject the long established pattern of poetry, with its metrical feet, and instead use the principal of the beat of music?  How could he have been so inventive with poetry fifty years ahead of his time, before 20th Century Modernist poets discovered how they could take these risks too?  It’s hard to hear Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” without hearing the presence of Hopkins behind it. For Seamus Heaney, Hopkins was ‘the main man’. ”

Brian McClorry SJ, a spiritual director on the St Beuno’s team, recounts how he gave Rosen and Roberts some background information with the help of St Beuno’s plumbing:  “ ‘Was he happy to get here?’ they asked, and I said yes but he did notice some drawbacks. Very soon, the day after he arrived, Hopkins wrote home to his father: ‘pipes of affliction convey lukewarm water of affliction to some of the rooms, others more fortunate have fires.’ As I ended the quotation there was a brief moment of silence. Just as the silence became clearly ‘silence’, with a fine sense of occasion our water pipes began to recall their responsibilities, and did their duty with remarkable acoustical precision: clang, clang, clump, clang, clump and so on. And on. Time passed. The recording continued, the furry microphone all agog. The pipes persisted in their marginally varied dirge, oracle, warning, announcement, grudging promise. Quite appropriately, the recording was done in the Hopkins’ Gallery.”

Although it is now a retreat centre, in the 1870s St Beuno's was the seminary where Hopkins studied Theology. Both Rosen and Roberts walked through the field and woods and looked out over the Vale of Clwyd, as Hopkins would have done, soaking up the atmosphere and landscape which so strongly influenced him and inspried him to create the new rhythms which changed the sound of poetry forever. 

Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ converted to Catholicism and took his first vows as a Jesuit in 1868. He was a composer and sketch artist but is best remembered for his innovative poetry.

Michael Rosen was born in Harrow, North London and is a prominent figure in the children’s book world. A former Children's Laureate, he is well known for his work as an author, poet, scriptwriter and performer.  As well as lecturing and teaching in universities on children’s literature, he is a regular contributor to BBC radio..

The First Jazz Poet will be aired on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 1st of October at 4.30PM as part of the regular Poetry Please programme.