Tag Archives: Michael Ward

The Music of the Spheres: a poetic adventure

The Music of the Spheres

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.

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The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: back to the source!

Sixth century mosaic at Tabgha

Sixth century mosaic at Tabgha

Today begins ‘The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’, though it’s not so much a week of prayer as a change of heart that we need. I remember once saying to my mother, when she upbraided me for one of my (many) habitual failings, ‘Mum I’m gong to turn over a new leaf’. and she replied, quick as a flash, and with Mother wit: ‘It’s not the leaves, it’s the roots that want turning!’

We won’t turn again and grow together if we don’t turn together to the true source from which both we and our Gospel come: the Love at the heart of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Here is a playful Villanelle I wrote for my friend Michael Ward, that’s a call for us all to look upstream and acknowledge our common source. You can hear it, as always by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. The poem was originally a response to a fine, punning villanelle of his, and you can find that original context here. It was published last year in my new book of poems The Singing Bowl

Which comes first, the fish or the river?

Since every gift comes down from the All-Giver,
How can I choose between the Giver’s gifts
Or say which should come first, the fish or river?

He scatters first, and then calls us to gather,
To lavish on his work our smaller crafts
And sail our praise upstream, back to the Giver.

He gives His gifts when we are met together,
Not in our splits, our schisms, and our rifts:
We cannot prize the Fish and not the River,

Divide the two and say ‘which would you rather?’
We float through time on fragile little rafts,
But time and life alike flow from the Giver.

Away upstream, it all flows from the Father:
The stream is His own Spirit, giving gifts;
His Son, our brother, joins us in the River.

He is our ‘both-and’ God, not ‘or’, or ‘either’;
He gives full measure: steady, heady draughts!
The Giver must come first, always the Giver,
We prize alike His gifts: both Fish and River.

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Off to the Westminster Lewisfest!

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Tomorrow I travel down to Westminster Abbey to give my paper on Lewis and the Truth of Imagination, as well as to enjoy hearing Alastair McGrath, Michael Ward and others. I shall stay the night at the Abbey and then on Friday join the glad throng to hear Rowan Williams preach and see the plaque for Lewis unveiled in Poets’ Corner. Then on Saturday I will join Rowan Williams and Helen Cooper for a further conference on Lewis at Magdalene College in Cambridge. Now both my papers, the one at Westminster and the one at Magdalene, are going to end with poems. So, though I have posted these two poems before, I thought I’d put them together here, by way of a taster for the papers to come.

Both poems come from my new collection The Singing Bowl, and, as usual, you can hear them by clicking on the titles or the ‘play’ button.

So my paper on Lewis’s achievement as a poet and imaginative writer will end with this:

CS Lewis

From ‘beer and Beowulf’ to the seven heavens,

Whose music you conduct from sphere to sphere,

You are our portal to those hidden havens

Whence we return to bless our being here.

Scribe of the Kingdom, keeper of the door

Which opens on to all we might have lost,

Ward of a word-hoard in the deep hearts core,

Telling the tale of Love from first to last.

Generous, capacious, open, free,

Your wardrobe-mind has furnished us with worlds

Through which to travel, whence we learn to see

Along the beam, and hear at last the heralds

Sounding their summons, through the stars that sing,

Whose call at sunrise brings us to our King

Magdalene College Cambridge

Magdalene College Cambridge

And my paper at Magdalene on The Abolition of Man will end with this ‘found sonnet’ drawn entirely from that book:

Imagine

(A found sonnet from The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis)

Imagine a new natural philosophy;

I hardly know what I am asking for;

Far-off echoes, that primeval sense,

With blood and sap, Man’s pre-historic piety,

Continually conscious, continually…

Alive, alive and growing like a tree

And trees as dryads, or as beautiful,

The bleeding trees in Virgil and in Spenser

The tree of knowledge and the tree of life

Growing together, that great ritual

Pattern of nature, beauties branching out

The cosmic order, ceremonial,

Regenerate science, seeing from within…

To participate is to be truly human.

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Huzzah!

The Cambridge Companion to CS Lewis, co-edited by Michael Ward of Planet Narnia fame is at last beginning to emerge into the light of day! It is now properly listed in the CUP Catalogue and you can read about it HERE. It should be out and on the shelves of the bookshops,and the warehouses of  Amazon in the spring. Its very wide ranging and original and I was especially pleased to be asked to write the chapter on Lewis as a poet. I think Lewis is a much better poet than is commonly thought, but has been unjustly neglected by the mainstream literary establishment largely because his supposed antipathy to TS Eliot. but its more complex than that. In the chapter I argue that Lewis  and Eliot, who became real friends towards the end of of their lives have more in common then either was at first willing to admit (including of course their adult conversions to the christian faith). I try to show that even, (and especially) judged by Eliot’s own criteria Lewis emerges as a more accomplished and important poet than he is usually given credit for. I also make some comparison between Lewis and some significant poets who have emerged since his death, particularly Phillip Larkin and Paul Muldoon and show how he anticipated some of their forms and themes, and how reading them can send us back to Lewis with a new appreciation. I look forward to the controversy that some of these ideas may cause!

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