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Issue No.117
13 November 2018

Crossing the divide

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Poet John Lindley charts an artistic partnership across the boundaries of faith



MY PARTNER, JANE, ALSO A POET, ONCE SAID TO ME, "For an atheist, you spend an awful lot of time writing about God."

Well, my 2009 collection, The Casting Boat, was not a book of poems about God but there was a theme about perceptions of reality and myth.

The title poem certainly dealt with the idea of Christian faith and a casting about for the very thing that would render it redundant - evidence. For the book's front cover I wanted an image that would represent that title in a literal fashion. My editor quickly dissuaded me from my initial idea of using Van Gogh's famous painting of fi shing boats. "Do you realise how much it would cost to secure permission to reproduce that painting ...?"

I was forced to widen my search. I first came across the American painter Daniel Bonnell's frequently stunning Christian paintings online. He is a painter whose work is found in churches and cathedrals around the world. Taking advantage of the email address that appeared on his website, I sent him the following request - with very little hope of its success:

"I am writing in connection with your painting Cast Your Nets Again. I am a full-time freelance poet living in England and my seventh collection of poetry entitled The Casting Boat is shortly to be published by Headland. I would love to be able to use your wonderfully turbulent and evocative painting to illustrate the front cover.

My collection is not a themed one - containing, as it does, poems on a wide variety of subjects. A number of poems in the book do, however, both make allusions to the Bible and to questions of belief. Having read your online biographical notes, it is only fair for me to say that I consider myself an atheist, albeit one who repeatedly (and unwittingly!) returns to those matters of faith as a fascinating personal conundrum. I have attached the title poem from this forthcoming collection to give you some idea."

Daniel's response was immediate and enthusiastic. On reading my poem he readily agreed to my request and asked if he could see further examples of my work. I sent him half a dozen poems and he proposed that I write responses, in poetry, to 50 of his paintings. I cautiously agreed to attempt only six poems initially before committing myself. The task seemed a formidable one!

Hugely inspired by his work, I went on to write a total of fifty four poems relating to his works over the next nine months.

I set out from the start to respond to his paintings in a variety of ways. Despite my lack of religious belief, to have every poem take a confrontational or questioning stance would, to my mind, have been tedious indeed. A number of my poems did either hint at or openly express my disbelief. In others I simply surrendered to the story portrayed and attempted to inhabit that tale unquestioningly. I wanted my poems not to act merely as commentaries or captions for Daniel's wonderful art, but to bring something unique to the table.

Daniel described this approach on his website:

"John Lindley has chosen the paintings he feels inspired to write about. There is no conversation about his selection. There is no influence or censorship from myself. This project is not about right or wrong choices on the stage of Christianity. Within art there are no mistakes. The heart leads the mind. With John and his choices, it is as if each painting was a found object, and a poem followed."

Later in the project, Daniel responded, "The poems you sent are very insightful, and as always, I don't see how the paintings have lived this long without them." For my part too, each of the poems was best considered alongside the painting that provided its inspiration. Nevertheless, I was determined that my poems would not simply 'describe' the paintings. There seemed little point in documenting what was already in plain view. For this reason the paintings usually acted as jumping off points for me. Some poems referenced aspects of the painting to such a degree that they could only be fully understood when viewing the image itself. Most were created to stand alone, although their interpretation and appreciation were still hugely enhanced by access to the specific artwork.

I put this hoped-for outcome to the test by submitting three of the poems to different poetry competitions. I was awarded third prize for one and was highly commended for another. Another poem, Annunciation, won first prize in the annual International Religious Poetry Competition run by Manchester Cathedral. Chosen from over 800 entries, the poem led to my appointment as Manchester Cathedral Poet of the Year. As an atheist, the irony was not lost on me! I have since gone on, against a projected background of the paintings, to perform the poems and talk about the project in churches, halls and religious conferences across the country.

What did we learn from the experience? I had responded to remarkable visual stimulus to add new language and imagery to my poetry. If Daniel had been out to convert me, I saw no evidence of that as the project progressed. We grew to appreciate each other as practitioners of distinct but overlapping forms, to share an overwhelming sense of bewilderment and wonder at the human condition. Most importantly, we each found a friend.


For more information about John Lindley see his blog at w: and to find out more about Daniel Bonnell see w: