Ep. 23 | Dr. Malcolm Guite – Keys To The Imagination
~ Dr. Malcolm Guite
This is part one of a two part conversation with Dr. Malcolm Guite. In this episode, Dr. Guite describes his vibrant childhood journey from Nigeria to Cambridge and his parent’s presentation of ‘life’ as a stage for wonder, poetry and imagination. Dr.Guite sees creativity as essential to our health. He says, “Starving and repressing a person’s imagination is just as bad as starving and repressing their body. Possibly worse.”
Dr. Malcolm GuiteDr. Malcolm Guite is an English Poet, a Cambridge Professor, a respected academic author, as well as an Anglican Priest. Raised in Nigeria by parents who embraced language and literature, Malcolm was nurtured through diversity of culture and rich appreciation for the imagination.
Malcolm is described as a “questing poet whose poems point to places of possibilities in everything, from the common place to the transcendent”. His unique observations demonstrate a passion for living vibrantly within the complexities of life.
Dr. Malcolm Guite: Wikipedia
Dr Malcom Guite: Amazon
Transcript: Ep. 23 | Dr. Malcolm Guite | Keys To The Imagination
Rachel Cram – Malcolm, thank you so much for coming into the studio today.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Rachel Cram – I know you’re in the middle of a very busy North American tour but we’ve got your whiskey in front of you, your coffee and your water so
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yes, yes. That’s fine thank you. Coming to the end of the tour actually so that’s nice. I’m in this demob-happy as we say in England, when you’re just about to be released you say, “Oh I’m gonna be free!”
Rachel Cram – OK. Well I hope you feel free as we talked today.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – I’m going to start with a question that we often begin our interviews with, a question prompted by the sentiments of Aristotle when he said, “Give me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.” Is there Malcolm, a story or an experience from your childhood that has shaped the adult that you are today?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – If I look back to my earliest memories up to seven I wouldn’t say it was a single thing but I think there were certain constant elements of my childhood that have shaped me. The first and most obvious one was that I was born and brought up in Africa, in Nigeria and it was very much a kind of multicultural, multi racial thing.
My dad was a professor at the university there teaching a generation of young Nigerians who were going to eventually take the independence of the country forward. Some great literary figures; Chinua Achebe was one of them. And so the house was always full of people with different races and languages.
I loved Africa. I loved the drama of it. I particularly loved the big thunderstorms. One of my very earliest memories is a thunderstorm and torrential rain, and the rain bouncing off, and just having an irrepressible desire to go out and jump around in it. Which I did in fact. I took my clothes off and went around and jumped in the rain. And my dad would probably think that wasn’t proper behavior. But my mother totally understood it.
Rachel Cram – Your Mom loves poetry too, is that correct?
Malcolm Guite – Yes. She’s 100 now and is still reciting poetry to me. I thought everybody’s mother did that. It just flowed. And I think I recognized very early that there was a thing called poetry that lifted and drew and filled you with wonder. And it just came effortlessly and entirely naturally from my mother. So much so that later on, when I did go to school and met other kids, you know I was chatting with some kids saying, “You know that thing when your mum quotes Milton?”
Rachel Cram – Not everyone’s Mom does that.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Not everyone’s mum does that.
Rachel Cram – Well that must have given you an accessibility to language, a vocabulary, that in retrospect maybe you realised was uncommon.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah, I think in retrospect. But it meant that I never thought of literature and poetry as a task or even a subject. I couldn’t believe that there was a subject at school called English where you sit and read books and talk to people about them, because that’s what I would be doing if I wasn’t at school. It was like a time off for me.
Rachel Cram – And maybe that’s why you’re a professor. Your childhood kind of set you up for that.
Dr.Malcolm Guite – Now, I should say, the other thing of course was that my father was less demonstrative but actually had an extraordinary vocabulary. He used to take great pleasure whenever we used a particular word, or he taught us a new word, he would tell us its Latin roots and we’d see how language developed.
And the other thing was that my father, as well as being a classicist, was a Methodist local preacher. So he had quite a strong faith. Quite a radical faith in some respects. My mother was less demonstrative about faith.
Rachel Cram – Less radical?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Less dogmatic in a way. She had more of a sense of wonder I think.
But my father also had a great sense of music. We used to have this rickety old piano, which never stayed in tune because it was in the tropics, but dad would sometimes sit and play hymns. That was my first sense of music and musical things. And there was a lovely children’s hymn my dad used to sing which was called, Tell Me The Stories of Jesus.
My dad would do these special effects on the piano. So my favourite bit was a bit in the hymn which goes, “Tell me in accents of wonder how rolled the sea, tossing the boat in a tempest on Galilee.” And my dad would do all these big crashing waves sounds on the piano down below. And he’d throw in a minor key. And he’d do these little melancholy bird songs. So he had that sort of creative thing as well.
Rachel Cram – You’re describing such a rich, vibrant sounding childhood and parents who sounded like they had some pretty amazing parenting skills. How old were you when your family moved to England?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, we were there in Nigeria till I was seven and then we moved to Zimbabwe as it is now, Rhodesia as it was then. And then when I was ten, in 1967, we left in fairly dramatic circumstances, as it happened. Because while we were there in Rhodesia under Ian Smith, he legally declared independence and began a series of repressive racist measures. And my father protested against that and resigned his job in the university and became a marked man and was eventually expelled from the country. So we actually became political refugees and we had to leave. And luckily my Dad’s old College in Cambridge found us somewhere temporary to live in Cambridge. So I came when I was ten to Cambridge, not knowing that that would be my whole future. That actually Cambridge is where I would end up living most of my life.
Rachel Cram – Wow, that’s remarkable.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – We were there for some months and then dad got a job in Canada in Hamilton Ontario.
Rachel Cram – So do you feel you have your feet in different countries? A little bit nomadic?
You’re not African, you’re not Canadian, you’re not British? That must shape your perspectives I would think? Growing up in such diverse cultures?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah, I’ve talked to other people of my generation who, like me, were born and brought up in colonies or former colonies who imbibed a different culture and then came back to England as English and yet not English. And I think it gives you a slightly different perspective. I love England. I mean, I think the combination of beer and poetry made me feel that I belonged to the English tradition.
Rachel Cram – And your pipe?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – A pipe and things. So, I don’t see England as being defined for me by either place or race but by a sense of shared culture. And it’s a shared culture that’s always changing and growing. And of course the English language itself is the product of a series of immigrations and emigration. Our language has Celtic roots, and then the Saxons come over and give it Germanic roots, and then the Vikings arrive and give it Danish roots, and then the Normans invade we have all these French words. So the very richness of the English language is a meeting of races and cultures eventually blending to produce this beautiful new thing.
And I very strongly resist any notions of English or British nationalism that are xenophobic, that say, “Oh these people shouldn’t be coming over or they should speak…,” because we only are who we are because of a series of waves of immigration.
You know human life did not originate on the British Isles. We’re all immigrants. We’ve all become who we are by learning to share each other’s stories and making a new story out of those common stories. And it may be that having been brought up as a European child in Nigeria, and therefore not quite belonging to the culture there, has made me much more aware of what it might feel like to be an incomer into my own culture and much more open to how that’s a gift and an opportunity rather than something to be resented.
Rachel Cram – I’m wondering Malcolm, if this discussion around fitting in, might be a good stepping stone into one of your best known poems? Can we look at your poem The Singing Bowl because I think it speaks of this in a way; of the journey to find our own sense of belonging and the importance of that journey.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah. So, would you like to hear The Singing Bowl?
Rachel Cram – I would love you to read it thank you.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, do you know what a Singing Bowl is?
Rachel Cram – Describe it.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, a singing bowl is a very beautiful bronze bowl which is developed in Tibet. You just run the beater round and round the edge, a bit like people putting their fingers round the wine glass to make the wine glass sing, and it sort of trembles into sound. And it produces the most wonderful harmonics. You start with one sound and you feel the tremor of it, and then suddenly these great singing notes arise. It sort of heightens and deepens and yet you’ve never struck the thing, you’ve just caressed it into sound. So that’s a metaphor that comes in this poem.
So here’s the singing Bowl.
Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood
And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.
Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.
And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.
Rachel Cram – Listening to you reminds me, last night at your poetry reading, a young boy put up his hand and you asked him what his question was and he had what I thought was a brilliant question. I don’t know if you can remember it but he said to you, “Do you write your poetry from wisdom or from imagination?” Do remember that question?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – And it was great. It was a great question.
Rachel Cram – It was a great question.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – And I think I said back to him that the great discovery for me of poetry, both reading and writing it, is that it’s the imagination itself that brings you a wisdom you didn’t have. And if there’s a wisdom in my poetry anywhere it’s probably a wisdom I need rather than wisdom that I possess, and it comes to me through the imagination.
Rachel Cram – So in light of that, you end The Singing Bowl with the line about beginning exactly where you are. Does this tie in? Is that an important part of a healthy imagination?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – I think the “where you are,” thing is really important. If it happens that you have a quick mind and an imagination, one of the temptations of that is to be constantly fantasizing about being someplace else. As Shakespeare says in one of his sonnets, “Desiring this man’s art or that man’s scope.”
And because I love the past so much and I’m so moved by the poets of the 17th century like John Donne and George Herbert, that period, the late 18th early 19th century, everything about it; the excitement of the French Revolution, the fabulous things that were going on in language, just the way men dressed you know that kind of waistcoat; I would look at that and think, “Why wasn’t I born then? I’m a natural born romantic.”
There came a point where I realized, where I am is astonishing. That there is as much available for wonder and amazement in any place that anybody is as there is in any other place. And funnily enough, one of the very poets that I wished I’d been a contemporary of was Coleridge. And Coleridge said, “I hope that our poetry will remove the film of familiarity that our selfishness and solicitude has cast over the world; which is full of wonder and freshness but for which we have eyes and seen not, ears that hear not and hearts that neither feel or understand.”
I thought, you know, that’s right! What I love about all that poetry is it makes me look at the same view, the same sunset or sunrise, the same whisper of wind in the trees that I’ve walked past a hundred times, and then I read that poem and I say, “Oh my goodness, something astonishing is happening here.”
Rachel Cram – What an amazing phrase, removing the “film of familiarity.” Can you say more about that?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Those words of Coleridge really helped me to sort of say I must be where I am. And I realized that actually, that’s really important. Remain within the world of which you made. But I say that to myself about remaining not because I do it all the time but because like everybody else I fly off.
Rachel Cram – Well we all do! We fly off so easily and miss, at least this is what I think you are saying, we leave our own realities and miss the chance to be that singing bowl.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah. I think we’re living in a world in which endless possibilities of communication in cyberspace means it’s increasingly difficult to remain within the world of which you’re made. It’s increasingly difficult to actually be fully and wholly present in the place you are, to the person you’re with. And I begin to see that now as a spiritual discipline. You can read lots of early manuals of spiritual exercises where the whole discipline is to get out of the world and into the heavenly realm. And actually, I think now the discipline is the other way around entirely. We’re trying to use spiritual discipline in order to remain present. Not present in a closed way. Present in a way which allows the wonder.
Rachel Cram – We wrestle with time as human beings, and you’ve talked about wanting to go back into the past. And I think a lot of us, maybe this is a generalisation but, particularly young people, can also look at always wanting to get into the future, what’s coming up next.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Oh yeah, absolutely!
Rachel Cram – And it’s very difficult to remain in the present.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – It’s very difficult.
Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking for yourself, even as a father, how do you bring people into that awareness in an earthy way?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Yeah, well the thing about the present moment, there’s a wonderful bit in one of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which you may remember, he writes them as an older devil writing to a younger devil about how to tempt human beings. And so there’s a really great one about ‘time’ where Screwtape, the devil, is writing saying, “What you’ve got to do is try and separate your patient ( i.e. the person you’re trying to tempt) from reality. What you’ve got to do is get him either off into the past in nostalgia, or concentrate his mind on the future, either in anxiety about the future or in a series of sort of fantastical, wishful, fulfillment hopes about it.
And then the letter says, “Neither the past nor the future are as real as the present because the past is frozen and no longer flows, and the future doesn’t exist at all except as speculation, but the present is all lit up with golden rays. The present is the point at which time touches eternity.”
Now I read that I guess in my early 20s, and again, these things stay with you.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So you mentioned being a father. Naturally, as a parent you’re really keen for your kids to do well. And, you’re not going to be here forever, and you’re kind of anxious that they should get on in life and stuff like that. But I see this quite often, because I have students at Cambridge who often have very ambitious parents, and one of the reasons why they’re there at all is that their parents have pushed them. And they’ve loaded their kids with all this anxiety about, ‘They’ve got to do this. They’ve got to get the first job, then that’s going to be the career opportunity for the next one.”
Parents almost always exercise their own ambition through their children. And the parent’s focus on the child is; “Work hard now and then you can get this job and then you’ll start living life.” “Then” it’s a constantly postponed reward.
Now, I’m not saying that you don’t have to tell your kids to do their homework, but I see the damage that’s done in student stress and mental health issues. So one of the things that I’ve begun to see for myself is that actually, not only should parents not be constantly trying to push their kids to think about the future all the time and live in the future, but on the contrary, parents should see the gift of children as the opportunity to learn from their children to live again in the present. And that actually, kids are sent to you, not so you can visit your ambitions upon them but so that they can undermine and subvert your crummy ambitions and get you to spend less time at the office, and more time fishing, or holding hands, or going for walks, or going to a game together, or you know tinkering with motorcycles, or whatever it is. And I would say that one of the experiences of having kids for me has been precisely that sense of being right there in the moment.
Now as it happens, I’ve got two children and one of them is very bright and has gone off to university but the other one has reasonably serious learning difficulties and quite a low reading age and has no qualification of any kind whatsoever. And I love them both completely and absolutely. So just the experience of having two children that you love deeply, who have a whole completely different range of gifts, because my son who doesn’t have the educational attainments has a tremendous spirit and a great sense of can do and just where he is. I mean, I’ll give you a classic example. My son, from when he was little, loved vehicles of any kind. He loved watching cars, and he played with cars and buses in particular because they’re big and noisy and exciting. He once said to me, he was about five or six, he said, “Dad, can’t you wait for Thursday?”
And I was going like, “What’s happening on Thursday?”
And he said, “We’re going to the dentist on Thursday!”
And I said, “David, yeah, I know! I’ve been trying not to think about it. I thought we didn’t like to go to the dentist.”
And he said, “Yeah Dad, I don’t want to go. But Dad, we’re going on a bus!”
Just the fact that we were going to be on a bus. I ride buses all the time and I ride trains, and planes, and I’m just blasé about it. And I sometimes think, ‘If I was in the spirit my son, everything about it, the way the seats are, the little knobs that turn on the air, the lights, the people coming and going. Everything about being on a plane or a bus would just be fantastic to my son.
Rachel Cram – And that’s about being in the present, isn’t it?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – It’s about being in the present. And also, the situation of his having these difficulties simply meant that the entire arena of my having any kind of worldly ambitions for him, or thinking that he was going be validated in some way, by which I think some parents somehow think that they or their children will be validated by getting these degrees or jobs, that was not even a consideration.
So I was confronted immediately, that he’s already validated, he’s already validated by being human and he’s already loved because he’s my son.
Rachel Cram – Can I ask you a question? Does this, your life with your children, does this influence your perspective on success? Because I think there is a generational shift happening in how success is perceived. If you were to ask your students at Cambridge what success meant to them, what kind of answers do you think that they would give you?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Well I get an immense variety of answers. And obviously there’s some that are doing vocational courses like being a doctor or whatever, and when I ask them what made them want to do it there’s usually a very deep core about compassion and helping. And so the success then becomes, that you heal somebody. That you helped somebody. And they know that.
But it’s not very difficult for that initial core reason for doing that thing to get lost in a lot of other things. So I think one of the problems about, I mean Cambridge is a wonderful place and it’s got extraordinary riches and opportunities but obviously it’s very competitive to get there. And then the examination system in Cambridge is, everybody is literally ranked in order. And they don’t do this anymore but in my day, they publicly posted before you yourself had been told, up on a public notice board, everybody’s results in order, literally ranked. So there was a top student and it just went down in numbers. And you were publicly put on a grid.
Rachel Cram – Well, there’s a lot of things in our culture that actually make it very difficult to live in the present. And comparison’s a huge one. What’s the danger of comparison like that?
Dr. Malcolm Guite – So, the danger of that is, I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable to say somebody is better at mathematics than somebody else. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say. The danger is when that being better at mathematics is mistaken for being a better person.
So I actually see most of my role as a chaplain at Cambridge, as actually consciously and deliberately subverting the competitive culture. So I say to the students, “Go ahead and do your exams. I hope you do well. Study for them by all means but never believe for a minute that you are less worthy of your place in life, and your unique gifts of being human, because you got a two-one from the person who got a first. The two-one and the first are very specific indications about how well you can do in exams but you must never mistake that for personal validation. And I think that’s a really important thing to preserve all the time.
Rachel Cram – You’ve said, “Imagination is the bridge between the world known and the world unknown.” So how do we trust that bridge to guide our journey to the world unknown; our life ahead of us? Because, even thinking back on my own university years and even on my career years, leaning into imagination rather than staying on the well-worn path of knowledge requires a confidence and a willingness to take risks.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Right. Well I think that comment about the imagination is a development really of two things. One, an insight I had from Shakespeare and another from Copernicus.
Rachel Cram – Ok, we haven’t had Shakespeare and Copernicus in an interview yet. I love it! Keep going.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Exactly. So, Shakespeare has this thing where he says, “Imagination apprehends more than cool reason ever comprehends.” That’s really true. Not only poetically, that, you know, you have a heartfelt thing and you’ve never been able to quite put it into words. And suddenly this poem or this work of art does that for you and brings into the realm of knowledge something only half guessed at.
But that’s not even just true of poetry and the arts. In the history of science it’s true. So we have an idea of what the world is like and we have a model of it. We get used to it and we think it’s the total reality, and it never is.
So the classic example of that was when everybody, quite understandably and very sensibly, thought that the earth was the center of the cosmos and that the sun went round the earth because when you stand you see it going.
Rachel Cram – It made sense.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Because that’s what they knew. And nobody could imagine or guess anything else until you got Copernicus saying, “Just imagine for a minute if the sun was the center and the planets were going round it, and the earth was turning and that’s why we get the effect. Just imagine what that would be like.”
And that was a massive act of imagination. But having imagined it, then people could say, “Well let me just do the math now. Let me look at the astronomical observations.”
And suddenly, all this stuff that didn’t quite fit the old model made total sense. So a leap of the imagination actually changed a model of knowing and gave us new insights. And that’s happened again with Einstein and it’s going to happen again. The models we’ve got now are temporary.
Rachel Cram – Well, which really brings into question the way we’ve constructed our educational system, where I believe we really want to, hope to, make space for wonder and imagination but instead sometimes I think we get distracted by other pursuits.
Dr. Malcolm Guite – Absolutely