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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 February, 2004, 01:03 GMT
Simple by Andrew Motion
Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has written a poem about Christianity and faith for What the World Thinks of God - a BBC programme exploring the modern world's relationship with God. Here, Motion describes the final chapter of St John's Gospel, his inspiration for the poem.

SIMPLE BY ANDREW MOTION
Men came from the sea
with their unusual catch -
one hundred and fifty three.
A fire burned on the beach.

They had expected nothing,
now there was a glut,
and also this man waiting.
The charcoal was white hot.

But was the man there?
One moment it seemed so,
the next he was not.
Master, they said, don't go.

Like thin air shimmering
when powerful heat bakes it,
he continued his waiting.
Indefinite. Definite.

The fire burned on the beach
with their unusual catch.
They had expected nothing.
Now there was too much.
Andrew Motion, 2004
The idea of the title, Simple, was to say that this is a poem written in the simplest kind of language that I could manage, but it is about a perennially, highly complicated thing - faith.

As the poem says, the fishermen disciples went out expecting to catch something.

They quickly came to believe that they weren't going to catch anything at all.

Then after Christ had intervened, they caught so much that they didn't know what to do with it.

So what the poem is really seeking to say is that the promise of heaven is manifest to them in the catching of all those fish.

But the prospect, though profoundly welcome, is also rather bewildering.

Their faith has been validated but to a slightly confusing extent by the prodigious number of fish they have caught.

My own faith is something which comes and goes rather, so I suppose that fits into the general shape of the poem.

When I am able to feel it - and it's something that I would very much like to feel more regularly, more fluently - I do sometimes feel bewildered by the richness of the promises it appears to make and keep.

So the oscillations of the poem between nothing and too much are not quite the oscillations between bleakness and total congestion but between comparative bleakness and a promise which is so enormous in its richness that it is bound to be rather bewildering.

Gospel evidence

I've long felt that St John's Gospel is the one that means the most to me.

I'm not alone in thinking that.

It has such an extraordinary factual interest combined with a quality of writing that makes it stand apart.

When they say: "Master don't go" ... I hoped to register a special kind of plaintiveness in it
Andrew Motion
To my shame, I'd forgotten (if I'd ever known), certain details in the account of the fishermen being advised by Christ in that strange time between the Crucifixion and the Ascension to cast their nets out of the other side of the boat when he appears to them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

I'd forgotten two things.

I'd forgotten that John tells us how many fish there were caught after they had indeed cast their nets out of the other side of the boat.

He doesn't just say a lot of fish which is how I'd remembered it. He says 153 fish.

And I was entertained by that because it made me think that he must have been there to count.

Fisherman's tale

There's nothing surprising about fishermen counting the number of fish they caught if they've had a real bonanza.

The only surprising thing is that he doesn't also say the biggest was 8Żlb which we'd then have to revise down to 6lb because all fishermen, even when they're disciples, tend to tell whoppers about the size of their catch.

Later in the same passage, he mentions that there was a fire on the beach which I took to be a kind of barbecue, built before their fishing expedition on which presumably they expected to cook some of their catch before going into town and selling the rest of it.

These details struck me as powerfully as they did because this is a story which is profoundly to do with transcendence but in the middle of it we have these two very beautiful, practical, humanising and in a sense, earthing details.

Those two things were really the trigger for the poem.

Natural forces

What appealed to me thinking about the fire in relation to what else is happening in the story - and particularly what is happening to and around the figure of Christ Himself - is that we only have to look at the air over an open fire to see the structure of the air being changed.

IMAGES OF FAITH
A series of images created for What the World Thinks of God

The strange shimmering buckling effect which fires create seemed in my mind to be rather like the expectation that you might have if you were seeing somebody who is neither quite obviously of Earth nor of the world beyond but in an in-between state.

So I wanted to make some connection between the natural forces behaving in this recognisable way and the, to put it mildly, very much less familiar figure of a person who is betwixt and between so there would be some sort of metaphorical value in the effect that the fire was creating.

Bereavement

The poem is also about bereavement and loss.

And it's also through that or in among that, I hope, about wanting to reassure yourself at moments of uncertainty.

These are recently bereaved people.

They have lost a great shaping force in their lives, the greatest philosophical - emotional - everything - force in their lives.

And this is not a force of the usual kind - in the sense that there has already been a good deal of talk about the after-life and heaven and associated things.

So when they say: "Master don't go", it's not just that they are people grieving as you and I might grieve - mourning the death of somebody we are missing.

It's also because - and I hoped here to register a special kind of plaintiveness in it - that they are saying don't go because that will throw us into confusion about what we're beginning to understand about heaven.

Andrew Motion was interviewed ahead of his appearance on What The World Thinks of God to be broadcast on:




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