In memory: Peter Abbs

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.

Published by urthonamag

Essays on art, consciousness and radical transformation, with an East West perspective

One thought on “In memory: Peter Abbs

Leave a Reply to Annabel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Reconstructionary Tales

Modern literature; occasional straying into other paths.

Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!

Stories From Norfolk and Beyond - Be They Past, Present, Fact, Fiction, Mythological, Legend or Folklore.

Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

Shiny New Books

What to Read Next and Why

adcochrane

Curiosities, exploration, strange things and history

The smell of water

Dark and True and Tender is the North

Julian Beach :: Writing

Poems | England | Staffordshire | East Anglia | Northern Ireland | The Needwood Poems.

kindledspirit.com.au

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

heritagelandscapecreativity

Exploring Time Travel of Place

dianajhale

Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me

Richly Evocative

Places, books & other diversions

Writing the World

Nature writing for the ecological crisis

The Solitary Walker

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

Psychogeographic Review

The Art of Psychogeography

Particulations

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

dianajhale

Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me

Brian David Stevens

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

Murdo Eason - From Hill to Sea

walking / writing / between world and word

geo poetry –

Reviews and essays on poetry, art and landscape

Matthew Kunce Photography

A journey into photography and life.

%d bloggers like this: