‘Contemporary poetry has lost the view of the transcendent’

‘Contemporary poetry has lost the view of the transcendent’ English poet and Catholic convert Sally Read
English Catholic poet Sally Read, tells Ruadhán Jones what Catholicism taught her about life and art

Can you remember what you were doing this time 11 years ago? Early spring of 2010 was cold and blustery; or was it? Did I go for a trip away, was I busy with work? Seasons come and go and perhaps it simply wasn’t a memorable one. But for Sally Read, March 2010 was the beginning of a momentous change in her life. Nine months later, on December 14 2010, she entered the Catholic Church.

Due to her Catholic friends’ recalcitrance, Ms Read was forced to seek out a Catholic priest who could answer her questions regarding Catholic views on female sexuality”

Now, the celebrated poet and convert reflects on her conversion and the decade that has passed since then. It was not a path she expected to be on. In fact, she came to the Faith via an unusual route – a book on female sexuality. In the spring of 2010, she found herself disillusioned with contemporary poetry, although a published poet. Ms Read believes her frustration was not a coincidence.

“It’s not coincidental, I think contemporary poetry has lost view of the transcendent,” she says. “So, I thought I would write non-fiction. Me and a friend of mine who’s a doctor, who I used to work with, decided to write a book on female sexuality. She would handle the medical stuff and I would do psychological and sociological stuff.

“I was going to interview lots of women from different groups, gay, straight, non-religious, then Jews, Catholics and Muslims. But it was really hard to make them talk, they wouldn’t speak to me. Strangely enough, at that time I had close American friends who were Catholic and wouldn’t answer questions either.

“I was living in Rome where my husband works, and I knew them and knew things like NFP (Natural Family Planning) from them. I knew they weren’t prudish, and I thought a lot of what they thought about the female body was interesting and people needed to know this. Even back then I knew that modern medicine does a complete disservice to women in the way it deals with reproductive and gynaecological issues.”

Due to her Catholic friends’ recalcitrance, Ms Read was forced to seek out a Catholic priest who could answer her questions regarding Catholic views on female sexuality. It was on the foot of these discussions that her conversion began.

“My conversations with him led to three encounters in spring 2010 when God really, really came to me and really made himself known to me,” she explains. “It was such a powerful experience that I became a Catholic in the space of nine months.”

Conversion experience

From her position as a staunch atheist in the spring of 2010 to a Catholic in December of the same year, Ms Read experienced a profound change in her life. However, she was reluctant to write about it for fear of diluting her own personal experience by oversharing.

”Before I wrote Night’s Bright Darkness, I didn’t think I would talk about it at all,” she says. “I wrote a short article, and then my intention was not to write about the whole experience. I really felt that, and I think this is true, having experienced something so powerful from God, it is important not just to rush into the streets, announce it from the rooftops. Because there’s something intimate and something specifically for you in the experience.”

However, while writing a fictional novel about a person undergoing a conversion, she received an overwhelming message every time she went to pray: “Don’t write the novel, write the truth. For Heaven’s sake, just write the truth down.”

“When I realised that, I realised how perfectly formed my conversion was, its poetic structure. I went through terrible anxiety around the time that it was being published, thinking I’d get terrible feedback and I shouldn’t have done it. But the feedback I got was so positive, I realised that if you have a powerful experience of God, in due course it’s good to share – it’s for everybody, not just for you, for everybody.”

The fruit of this change of heart is available for all to read – Night’s Bright Darkness is a very modern conversion story and one which deserves careful reading.

The Virgin Mary

Though Ms Read had no especial interest in religion prior to her conversion, she thinks looking back that she “wanted there to be God, but I couldn’t see a rational and logical reason to believe in him,” she says. Equally, however, she thinks God was reaching out to her, particularly in the person of the Virgin Mary.

“It was really bizarre – through life and especially faith, things pick you rather than you pick them,” she says. “And you can’t say why. Often, the things you pick don’t last, it’s the things that pick you. For some reason, even before conversion, I was always drawn to the face of the Mother of God. I always had a picture of the Madonna in my flat in London. I didn’t know why. I thought it must be because I like Renaissance art.

“Ditto the Annunciation – I was very drawn to write about it as poet. I found it such a fascinating, highly charged encounter. I think much of that has to do with the art around it. When I was an atheist, I really saw her as someone taken advantage of by patriarchal culture.”

At the beginning, I thought that people put such an importance on her, that I was scared about her overshadowing Christ in some sense”

Ms Read reflects that her conversion was very Christ centred, focused on the Eucharist, and it was only as time went on that she felt Mary’s presence.

“Now I have great devotion to the rosary, it has a very mysterious role in our lives,” she says. “I think it’s important with Mary that you’re well informed about her role in salvation history and the figure of Mary in the whole Bible. And once you’re informed about that, you get to understand the complicated issue.

“At the beginning, I thought that people put such an importance on her, that I was scared about her overshadowing Christ in some sense. But as I read, and as I developed as a Catholic, I understood how she is the gateway to Heaven, something we go through. She has a subtle but extremely important role.”


It was this theme, the importance of the Virgin Mary and in particular her Fiat (her yes to God), that Ms Read explored in her second Catholic book, Annunciation, which was written for and to her young daughter. It distilled the new knowledge she had gleaned since her conversion.

“Annunciation was written for my daughter, directed at her and the troubles we have in our lives,” she says. “I realised how central the Fiat is to our lives. Let’s face it, life is a tricky business! I think that became the point of the book, that it’s the key to everything. If you have a bad day, it can be difficult to get up in the morning. It’s about giving consent to every situation we find ourselves in. It’s like this quarantine now, it’s giving your full consent to that, this is where I need to be, I have to live this in a way for God.”

Ms Read also attempts to untangle some of the issues that face young women today. She draws on her personal experiences of modern culture, while tying it back to her developing understanding of Mary’s importance. She believes that the denigration of feminine traits such as receptivity and submission in favour of a hyper-masculine ideal is partly responsible for the collapse in religiosity in the West and a rejection of motherhood.

For truly formed Catholics, the challenges the modern world holds for mothers won’t be as much of a challenge as they will know their vocation in God”

Reflecting on her experience of pregnancy, Ms Read explains that “when you become pregnant and a mother, it’s amazing how you do lose control. There’s a line in a Sylvia Path poem, which I really love; ‘When you become pregnant, you’ve boarded a train and you can’t get off’. I remember that feeling, being on a train and nothing to stop it. Everything is unfolding within you without you doing anything.

“In the 21st century, it’s become exacerbated in women, they want to be in control, think they need to be in control of every aspect of their lives. They set up to be earning as much and as powerful as men – we have lost sight of how incredible motherhood is.”

She continues: “We have accepted the stereotypically masculine as being the thing to be, the only way to be. I think one reason why religion is suffering in the West is because traits of femininity and receptivity and submission are what you need for a relationship with God. We’re rejecting all that, we think we must be powerful, not to bend our knee to anybody. It’s sad, it stops people turning to God sometimes.

“For truly formed Catholics, the challenges the modern world holds for mothers won’t be as much of a challenge as they will know their vocation in God. But lots of women, pregnancy and motherhood are a real encroachment on their own ambitions, which is dangerous thing. The trend is that it’s ok to say you don’t like children and you’d never want to have children. Of course, everyone’s entitled to do what they want to do, but we have lost sight of fact that self-sacrifice and self-giving is the fundamental part of love,” she concluded.


Another theme which permeates the book is the question of identity, which Ms Read believes has become fraught. This is the result of the invention of the pill and the popularisation of contraception.

“When contraception became freely available, we deconstructed what sex was about,” she says. “It could become completely divorced from reproduction. Then, women and men lost sight of their role in that, of what it means to be a man or woman. Everything is up for grabs, people can reinvent themselves. The idea of what is a woman became debated, which it never was, and what sex is as well, which it never was because it was always plainly about having children. So I think that’s the root of it.”

The other cause she identifies is a loss of our religious beliefs. We no longer see ourselves in terms of our relationship to God and so lose a grounded sense of ourselves.

“Then, there’s a great unease and anxiety in the West at the moment – we are generally a comfortable, well-educated society, and people are free,” Ms Read says. “This floating anxiety has to latch onto something and people feel the need to redefine themselves. They almost feel the need to write their own story as though life is a film. By writing a role, they think they’ve found their vocation. But they don’t bring God into the equation, so I think they get a bit lost.

I think when people don’t believe, they need gaze of friends/peers, they need to be famous and that becomes very unstable”

“People who live without God in their lives, they live in a gaze and they have to find it, whether it be on social media or other places. When we’re born, we live in the gaze of parents and for many years we want to be watched all the time. The healthy thing to do would be grow up and pass into the gaze of God, to be more conscious of God watching us. Living without being seen is terribly, terribly lonely. I think when people don’t believe, they need the gaze of friends/peers, they need to be famous and that becomes very unstable.”

This in part explains her reservations about social media. Though she has an Instagram account herself – to help her promote new book releases – she feels there’s a great deal of showing off, even when people don’t mean to.

“To me, the issue is, when something happens to you it isn’t real until you’ve told someone,” she explains. “When I was young, I told my mum. When you grow up, you want to tell it to your best friend or your husband or whatever it is. People today think it isn’t real until it’s broadcasted.

“But if we don’t let something happen to us, to sit with us ourselves and process experiences, and contemplate and understand experiences, we become immature,” Ms Read says. “Sometimes we have to sit with an experience to really, fully experience it. When we run off to tell someone immediately, it almost detracts from it. The Gospels talk of Mary pondering something in her heart, and there’s a way things become a part of you before you share them.”


When asked if she feels her conversion has affected her writing at all, she responds that it has – for the better.

”My writing has become much more relaxed and communicative,” Ms Read says. “It’s probably because before I converted, I didn’t really know what I was trying to say half the time and was conscious of trying to be clever. Now I’m not, I just want to communicate because I have something to say.

“There are all sorts of issues with modern writing – what every writer has to avoid is ego. I’ll pick up a book and put it down right away if the author is just trying to be clever. Sometimes when I pick up a book of poetry I’ll think – you don’t know what you’re trying to say either. Because there’s a general confusion about truth, about reality.

Her two Catholic autobiographies – Night’s Bright Darkness and Annunciation – should be essential reading for Catholics young and old”

“The gap between any word and what it describes is slender beyond measure – or it should be. With poetry, my obsession was always that words are so close to what they describe, you have to choose the word closest to it. Some words are onomatopoeic, they have a sensual sound so close to the thing. Good writing really makes you feel the thing.”

Ms Read is a professional poet and author of a number of non-fiction books. Her two Catholic autobiographies – Night’s Bright Darkness and Annunciation – should be essential reading for Catholics young and old.