The passing of poet and educationalist Peter Abbs
Ratnagarbha remembers a writer of vision who was a friend of the magazine and sadly passed away at the age of 78 in December of 2020.
Poet and educationalist Peter Abbs died age 78 in December last year. He was the University of Sussex’s first professor of creative writing and had published several highly regarded volumes of poetry as well as many books that reflected his lifelong vocation to champion creativity and the arts as essential aspects of a wholistic education.
Peter’s values were always deeply spiritual (in fact at one point early in life he was going to train for the Catholic priesthood) but mostly of a non-aligned, independent nature. More recently he had become inspired by Buddhism, having learned Buddhist meditation and attended a mindfulness course at Triratna’s Brighton Buddhist Centre. During his last few months I was engaged in correspondence with him regarding a new article he was working on about the complex cultural process of Buddhism’s reception in the West over the last two hundred years. He was clearly fascinated by this topic and found it relevant to the educational and cultural values he had expounded during the rest of his life. I feel sad that he never had the chance to complete this article or follow through more on his new interest in the Dharma.
I would also like to mark his passing here because Peter was a friend of Urthona over the years. He was supportive when myself and a few young friends first started the magazine back in the early nineties. He judged our first poetry competition, and came up to Cambridge to read for us at the prize giving.
About ten years ago we published a substantial excerpt from a book he was working on about narratives of the self within Western culture from (so far as I understood) Saint Augustine onwards. I don’t know whether this book was completed but I can only hope that it will appear in due course. The excerpt (about Jung’s mythopoetic philosophy as found in the mysterious Red Book) was published in our issue 31 (available from http://www.urthona.com) Another excerpt, about the Victorian crisis of faith, appears on his own website: http://www.peterabbs.net/the-story-of-self
From early in his teaching career Peter believed that every child should be able to express themselves, using their own cultural tradition as a springboard, and that the arts should never be allowed to fall behind science subjects in terms of educational priorities. For him the arts were in fact a key aspect of the spiritual and emotional development that the best kind of education should be fostering. He published several books championing these notions, most notably 2003’s Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture, which saw opportunities but also great dangers in the swathe of postmodern theorising that he saw sweeping all before it in the humanities.
In 1975 he joined Sussex University, where he earned a reputation as a charismatic mentor, bringing on a whole generation of teachers, novelists and poets. He became professor of creative writing in 1990.
Peter was also a talented poet: his first volume of poems, A Fisherman of This Sea, reflecting his upbringing on the North Norfolk Coast was published in 1965, and praised in The Observer and The Times. Peter’s poetry subsequently appeared in Prospect the New Statesman and many other journals. Peter founded two prose journals, Tract and Vision, and wrote articles regularly for Philosophy Now, the London Magazine and the Times Educational Supplement. He also edited the first Anglo-American anthology of contemporary eco-poetry, Earth Songs (2002), and latterly was the poetry editor for the well known spiritual-eco-magazine Resurgence. He retired from Sussex in 2006 but wrote until the very end.
Only a few months ago he had sent to Urthona a set of poems that reflected both his deeply contemplative values, and his new found interest in Buddhism. These will be published in full in next year’s issue of Urthona, but for now I would like to finish with an exquisite short poem of his on the subject of Nirvana, the ultimate peace at the end of all:
Buddha’s Path – for Miranda
I often wonder about the word Nirvana.
Its syllables have the same cadence
as my daughter’s name,
and I imagine the North Sea again:
a huge eye gazing into infinity
without a cloud.
And why the word conjures such an image is unclear.
There is, no doubt, a confluence
of sense and sound.
A gawky teenager, I would stand on the seaweed rocks,
longing for a peace I could not find,
my back against the town.
In the old Sanskrit Nibbana means to extinguish, blow out,
as one might blow out a sudden flaring match
or frantic candle flame.
It is said that in the first sermon after his Enlightenment
the Buddha spoke of all our senses burning,
burning with desire.
And our first task was to identify each scorching fire
then slowly douse the blaze,
let in the oceanic calm.
But still I live in the inferno of my matchwood mind.
My phantasies burn. Oh, to possess
the Buddha’s eye !
An altar boy I snuffed out candles one by one, and
while the scalding wax ran down, would sense
the stillness of the church return.