The end of October brought a fascinating day in Glasgow at the Department of Theology all about theology and literature for the modern world. An amazingly broad range of papers – it felt like being given a box of Christmas decorations, which I am still hanging on the tree. I heard papers on John Clare’s lyric ‘I’, Charles Olson and Robert Pollock, Yves Bonnefoy and the ‘deeps’ of Donald Davie and Ezra Pound, and contributed a paper on R S Thomas and stepping up to his challenge to find ‘new avenues for the Spirit’. David Jasper’s retiring lecture reflected on literature and theology for the future, which was both absorbing and inspiring on the creative power of imagery and engagement with literature to foster the mystery of faith It was followed by Heather Watson’s lecture as incoming Professor of Theology and Creative Practice with the thread of the ruins of St Peter’s seminary running through it. It was a privilege to witness the hand-over as well as enjoy a glorious couple of days back in Glasgow!
Brilliant weekend with Jenny Lewis at the Poet’s House being introduced to the wonderful world of Troubadour poetry. Rooted in classical ideas and early Arabic love poetry, these courtly Medieval forms are intricate and fascinating. We learned about villanelles (hypnotically circular), alba (all about the dawn), pastorela (Medieval rom com) and sestinas. Spending time composing a pastorela was enormous fun and the discipline of a villanelle, with its repeat and rhyming scheme and syllabic measure, was taxing but very rewarding, although I had to borrow the first line from The Waking by Theodore Roethke (d.1963) – I hope he doesn’t mind!
One of the highlights of the residency was composing a ‘min-epic’ for the warrior who now lies in the new Anglo-Saxon gallery at the Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock (https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/oxfordshire-museum-galleries). ‘Lowbury Hill Man’ stood around 5’8″ tall, spent some of his childhood in Cornwall (then known as Dumnonia) and died at over 50 years old, to be buried with high status weapons and grave goods, many of which were distinctly Celtic in origin and style, rather than truly Anglo-Saxon.
During the Anglo-Saxon times, it was not uncommon for sons of tribal chiefs to be ‘adopted’ for the tribes to build allegiances, and as a form of insurance against those two tribes going to war. The man from Lowbury Hill may have been such ‘hostage’ or adopted ‘prince’, or he may have been taken prisoner. However he got to this area, he found himself on the border between Wessex and Mercia, two of the most powerful kingdoms of the day, and must have spent his life guarding the border. He was injured at some point, but did not die from this wound. He was buried in a barrow on Lowbury Hill next to the ruins of what must have been a very substantial Roman temple that had fallen into ruin. This may have added status to his burial site. It was notable that he was buried with a pattern-welded sword that was older than he was.
My challenge was to write a legend for our Lowbury Hill warrior. I took Beowulf as inspiration, and spun a short ‘epic’, referring not just the Beowulf, but also to King Raedwald of the Eastern Angles, commonly considered to be the identity of the warrior buried at Sutton Hoo. The poem builds on the archaeological information associated with the remains, and historical and geographical information associated with the site and ends with allusion to the halls of Odin where great warriors live, fighting and eating, singing and drinking until the final battle at the end of time. The first reading was in the gallery over his remains. It was a very moving moment, and one in which I had just a hint of what it might have bene light to be a ‘stop’ or bard of a mead hall, entrusted with the task of singing the legends of warriors and their forebears.
Oxfordshire County Council has created three guided landscape walks which includes the Lowbury Hill site: https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/historic-landscape-walks
Another wonderful week: this time with a group of amazing ladies at the Quiet Waters Retreat House in Bungay, Suffolk (http://www.quietwaters.org.uk) on a CARM retreat (see below). I was providing technical creative guidance alongside Sue Ives’ spiritual overseeing. Retreatants are encouraged to explore their faith through the medium of creative practice. This retreat focussed on textile arts inspired by the flora of the Bible – lilies, reeds, spikenard, frankincense, the vine and olive. I was impressed and delighted by the way that each person took up the challenge of going to the edge of their comfort zones, embracing new techniques and ‘doing’ textile art in new ways that they hadn’t tried before. The overall feeling of the week was one of courage to try something new, an immense joy and feeling of abundance and generosity of spirit. The work produced was truly remarkable and reflected the tenacity and hard work of each person there. [Pics to follow!] Throughout we were wonderfully fed and cared for by Liz and Mike.
CARM is a voluntary organisation which provides spiritual and creative practitioners to enable retreat houses across the UK to put on week-long retreats. They provide an opportunity for people to step arise from the bustle of daily life, and seek God’s presence and guidance through the medium of creative arts. More information at: http://www.carmretreats.org/public/index.php where you will find the schedule of 2018 retreats.
Just finished a wonderful week at Ty Newydd, the Welsh writers’ centre. Under the beautifully balanced and complementary leadership of Jay Griffiths and Angharad Wynne, a select and varied group of poets, journalists, fiction and non-fiction writers delved deep into the layers of the history, myth and geology of Wales.
Bardsey Island formed an underlying focus to the week – we considered the island in fact and fiction before making the crossing ourselves, on a day when the three tidal currents were considered to be sufficiently well-mannered to allow us to cross and return without fear of being stranded. We listened to seals singing, puzzled over a gift of fish at the chapel door, heard the stories and poems of Christine Evans, a true Bardsey Bard. We walked in the footsteps of goats and saints and each had, in our own way, a small revelation, a nip of understanding and returned safely in Colin-the-ferryman’s capable and well-informed hands. We shared our disparate writings with each other in the evenings, fuelled by Tony’s excellent cooking.
Bardsey was not the only focus – we stood in the rain listening to the Dynevor in spate and the other sounds hiding behind its roar; put our ears to stoned and contemplated the view from the perspective of a twig on the beach; we stood on breezy Bryn Capel Fanar with its stone circle looking just like a stone crown on the mountain top and made out way down in the drifting mist; we sat at the summit of Tre Ceiri, a substantial settlement resonant of refugees of Roman rule, and shared poems, stories and songs.
As always, I returned over the border with a re-tuned voice, new friends, new writing, and the inspiration that comes from ancient landscapes shared with like minds.
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