A number of years ago I was given an interesting poetic commission and I am at last in a position to reveal what it was, and some hint of its contents.
I had come to know the composer Marty O’Donnell, who is famous, amongst other things, for having composed the music for Halo, and for Destiny, two major games for the computer game company Bungie. When he was working on the music which would help to frame the game Destiny, a game whose narrative and architecture draws on the classical and mediaeval idea of the heavenly spheres, each with its own character and distinct music, he composed a beautiful new suite of music called ‘The Music of the Spheres’, and as we had talked together about the ‘seven heavens’ of the mediaeval world-view he asked me if I would compose a suite of poems to go with the music.
I came up with a sequence called ‘Seven Heavens, Seven Hells’. It consists of fourteen poems, arranged in seven pairs, which I composed in direct response to Marty’s music but also drawing inspiration, as we both did, from the mediaeval ‘seven heavens’, the crystalline spheres of the planets with their different characteristics and influences.
The whole approach, both to the poetry and the music, which Marty and I discussed early was a response to the idea, based in mediaeval astrology of ‘opposing pairs’. Each of the seven spheres has a certain cluster of associations and influences, Venus with Love, Mars with war and martial valour, the Sun with gold, but also poetry and inspiration etc. But equally it is possible for each of these celestial influences to become corrupted and malign, for, as St. Augustine says, good is primal and evil is always a corruption of some original good. Astrologically this is expressed in the idea that there is a diurnal, or good and light-filled aspect of each sphere, but also a nocturnal or dark aspect. Michael Ward, whose work Marty and I both admire, draws this out brilliantly in Planet Narnia, his account of the Seven Heavens in the thought and writing of CS Lewis.
So my poems are paired for each sphere, starting with the diurnal and following it up with the nocturnal. The form of these poems is the ‘roundel’, a development of a mediaeval form pioneered by Swinburne. In a roundel the first phrase of the first line becomes a kind of chorus or echo repeated elsewhere in the poem. So in my sequence that first phrase is common to both poems in the pair, but differently developed according to its heavenly or infernal form. For example, the first pair, the moon, the ‘diurnal poem begins:
The moon is full and snow falls soft tonight
In silver filigree. I seem to fall,
Floating through the chapel of her light,
The moon is full.
But the ‘nocturnal version begins:
The moon is full and I have lost my way,
Drawn down her mazy path towards my fall,
Ready to swoon and sink beneath her sway.
The moon is full.
Happily, Bungie liked the poems when I presented them and I signed a contract with them, to use the poems in Destiny. The original plan was to have a stand -alone release of Marty’s music first as a CD etc, with my poems as part of the liner notes to accompany the music. However, this plan was abandoned, and though I was credited as ‘poet’ when the game came out, the poems were never released. But now I am happy to say that Bungie have released the music. In anticipation of the vinyl being shipped later this year, a creative group within the ‘Destiny Community’ have, after talking with Bungie, and with Marty’s blessing and mine, produced a very beautiful video sequence incorporating each poem, and presenting the music with images. My contract with Bungie means that I cannot publish the poems in full myself until two years after they have officially released the music, but happily they have allowed this group to incorporate them. The first of these is up and you can watch and listen to it here:
The others will follow and I will post the links here as I get them. I hope you enjoy this preview of some poems, which will, I hope appear in my next collection. I am especially pleased that this is happening in the year which marks the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, Michael Ward’s masterpiece that inspired both the composer and the poet.