Canon Frank Sheehan is School Chaplain and Director of the Centre for Ethics at Christ Church Grammar School, Perth. We warmly welcome him to Moments as he shares his very thoughtful reflections on Spare Change, an award-winning poem by ex-student Andrew Thackrah. This reflection first appeared on the Christ Church Grammar School website.
In August each year, the English Department of Christ Church Grammar School, Perth invites students to submit entries for the P.D. Naish Poetry Prize. The prize was first awarded in 1999 having been endowed by an anonymous donor, who credits Mr Peter Naish, an English teacher at Christ Church from 1959 to 1963, with nurturing what was to become a life long passion for poetry.
I kept a copy of the first winning entry, which was by Andrew Thackrah, a student who distinguished himself in a variety of ways at Christ Church and who achieved academic excellence at the University of Western Australia and then at the Australian National University. I recall that it came as no surprise to his teachers that Andrew was capable of writing the following poem:
When we come to the end of the week
and find that our soul amounts to nothing
but the spare change in our pockets,
let us run. Let us run, dodging and
weaving through the streets,
tearing and blazing through the schools
and the offices and the lonely
And let the wind, stirred from our passing,
bang open the door of the empty church.
We will come to the crest of a hill,
and steal a glimpse of the sea.
We will throw out the sand beneath our feet,
and place ourselves upon it.
And you and I will pull from our bags
flowing pens of freedom,
to release upon the horizon.
Our scrawling will blend with the cloud
and only the passing fishermen will read:
'How art the mighty fallen',
when only the fallen have a heart.
Yet it will pass.
Our words must flow,
and let them.
Let the clouds bring in the storm from the
to heal a week's anxiety.
And let us stand together,
as the rain washes all away,
leaving nothing but the soul.
This is a poem about the great yearning and the depths within a boy becoming a man. I imagine that it will evoke all sorts of thoughts and feelings for its readers. I could not help but be struck by the image of nothingness, which seemed to go alongside a sense of the soul. After everything is given and it seems that nothing more remains, some powerful force is glimpsed.
Within the rich tradition of Christian theology the notion of kenosis suggests the same thing. Kenosis, from the Greek word for emptiness, leads to an acknowledgement of the Other, taking us into self-forgetfulness, past a preoccupation with the ego's incessant and corrosive needs. It is associated with a humility that accompanies a reassuring knowledge of something beyond our own resources. The New Testament does not use the actual word kenosis but the verb form kenoo occurs five times in Romans, 1 Corinthians and Colossians. Of these five times it is Philippians 2:7, in which Jesus is said to have "emptied himself".
Andrew Thackrah was not writing the sort of theology we see in these New Testament sources. But he was writing about matters of interiority. Tim Winton once said that we in Australia seemed to have lost the language of the soul. It was most rewarding to read Andrew's work on this very subject.
In Spare Change, Andrew turned his attention to the sheer emotional release and the freedom that comes upon those who abandon themselves to the wonderfully mysterious process of writing.
The anonymous donor who made possible the P.D. Naish Poetry Prize was grateful for the way in which a teacher allowed poetry to open up whole new worlds of meaning. But it often operates in the other direction.
After years of being in schools, I have a strong sense that sensitive and thoughtful young people offer insights and understanding about the complexities of life when, in the words of Andrew Thackrah, they pull from their bags, "pens of freedom" so that the words will flow.