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Remembering our friend and ARC poet, Jay Ramsay

February 8, 2019:

By Martin Palmer

ARC’s long-time poet in residence for so many events, my translation collaborator for many years and one of my greatest friends, Jay Ramsay died on December 30th. He was 60 years old.

Jay was with us at the launch of ARC at Windsor Castle in 1995. After that he attended many ARC events after that, including The Queen’s Jubilee Event in 2005, where we created a Shinto-inspired garden for the Queen and Prince Philip (our founder), in the basement of the Whitehall Palace. He came to the UNDP/ARC long term plans meeting at Windsor Castle in 2009 and to the launch of Green Pilgrimage Cities in Assisi in 2011.

He was also with us at Lambeth Palace looking at the future of conservation and environmental groups as well as at the United Nations/ARC meeting in Bristol in 2015 to see how the faiths can support and are already supporting the sustainable development goals, which could be rephrased as humanity’s best plans for our and the world’s future.

Having a poet in residence at key events has been one of the unusual features of ARC’s way of working. To have somebody observing from the side (once, literally, from an alcove) not to make a business report but to make a more profound report, has so often had the effect of elevating discussions to quite another level.

And to hear them back, transformed, has also helped us transform the results of those discussions into something different, more special, more elevated.

The reason we have always had poets at our events is that nobody ever rereads a speech given at a conference. But poems have lives of their own – Jay’s poems have been published in their own volumes but they have also been in anthologies or used in BBC broadcasts. They live on, and so does Jay

Jay was one of my closest friends. We worked on my Chinese classics translations, published by Element and later by Penguin Classics. After I had created a first draft we would sit down at our ancient kitchen table, or sometimes (when the English weather was kind) out in the garden surrounded by birdsong, and we would examine some of the key parts of the text, word by word.

“Could that be poetry?” he asked about certain passages on reading my rough translation of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) at our first collaborative meeting.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I think it might be,” he insisted. “I can hear a rhythm in the meaning.”

So I looked again, and he was right. There was a pattern that no translators into English had ever spotted before, and he helped me turn those ancient ideas and writings and stories into beautiful prose and poetry.

He was diagnosed with liver and bowel cancer in 2014. He used to come to our house with a special basket of remedies and vitamins; some eccentric, some more sensible. But he was always cheerful about his treatment, always positive, so positive sometimes it was quite easy to forget that he had such a serious illness. Except that we saw him getting thinner and thinner.

Our last collaboration was The Dangerous Book: Jay’s re-visiting of the entire Bible in powerful poetry and drama. In retrospect this work was even more muscular and more profound than anything else he did. I think because always in the back of his mind was the possibility that it might be the last thing he wrote. We knew there might not be much time, so we worked hard to get it out quickly: it was privately published and professionally edited. And it lies on the desk beside me now, a truly beautiful special limited edition.

The last press mention Jay had was by Bel Mooney in The Daily Mail, who described it one of her two choices of books in 2018.

“My award for the bravest, most unusual and exhilarating volume goes to Jay Ramsay. I’d read Ramsay’s poetry before — but nothing like this. He’s been bold enough to take the Holy Bible and re-imagine it afresh in poetry, prose and drama. Muscular, exciting, controversial and beautiful, this takes the Bible out of church and offers it back to everybody.” Bel Mooney, The Daily Mail, November 29.

Needless to say, Jay was so happy to read that.

I miss him greatly and he was one of the people I turned to when problems and possibilities occurred in my life. He was just as good at celebrating as commiserating. And even, sitting beside him at Christmas in Torbay Hospital, it felt that he was still able to celebrate as well as to be sad.

He was a profound thinker, a deeply spiritual man, steeped in Christian spirituality and vividly awake to other great traditions such as Daoism and Sufism. 

Jay leaves behind a wife, Angela, and a step-daughter, Ruby.

Link to Jay's Assisi poems.

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February 8, 2019:
Remembering our friend and ARC poet, Jay Ramsay
ARC’s long-time poet in residence for so many events Jay Ramsay died on December 30th. He was 60 years old.