Review: Sing Me The Creation 2nd Edition by Paul Matthews

This review appeared in issue 5 of Raceme, Autumn 2016. More about the magazine here. Many thanks to Fiona Owen for this deeply thoughtful and warm review.

Enlivening Pens and Tongues

It was in 1996 that I found my way to a book called Sing Me the Creation that would become a favourite companion over y ears of teaching creative writing, running workshops and writing groups, and conducting my own writing experiments. I have that treasured signed copy, and here now, too, is the revised edition, published in 2015, updated for the 21st century. The figure on the book’s cover, a detail from Portrait of a Young Man by Master of the View of St. Gudula, holds open a heart book to reveal words – a fitting image, surely, for a book which champions heart-work and the writer’s relationship with his core medium, language.

This is a working ‘source book’ and a long way from what we might call a technical ‘how to write’ manual, though there is ample here to sustain and develop any writing practitioner. Described in the foreword by depth psychologist Dr Robert Sardello as ‘a rare book’, Sing Me the Creation offers an integrating vision. Paul Matthews’ approach, says Sardello, ‘fosters interiority of word and world, the co-penetration of one with another’ and we are reminded of James Hillman’s use of the term ‘angelology’, for this fits with Matthews’ view that words can be seen as ‘holy messengers’, bringers of news that can enliven, restore, unify. There is a healing theme that runs through Sing Me the Creation: if we can inhabit and connect more fully with our words, then this can help both personally and more widely, for writing is also ‘world work’.

Part of the uniqueness of this book is that words themselves are brought lovingly to our attention, for ‘how can our words heal unless they themselves find healing?’. Metaphor, which ‘carries meaning across’, is intrinsic to this endeavour. When we use metaphor, we are ‘risking our solid ground’ – we move away from certainty and fact, into a more permeable relationship with world. What this book has at its heart is our coming into right relationship with language – Right Speech in the Buddhist sense – and through this with ourselves and each other, as inherently worded and creative creatures. Paul Matthews draws on Wendell Berry’s ‘two diseases of language’ that exist in our present times, two imbalances, one where ‘the speaker is present but the world is absent’ and the other where ‘the world is present but the speaker is absent’. For Matthews, it is ‘only when standing in the ground between, speaker and world together in the act, that our words (and thus personality and community) will be made whole’.

You will find in this book an approach that is heart-warming, playful and full of permissions. For Sardello, referring to literary critic Dr Louis Cowan, Paul Matthews offers a ‘comic’ vision ‘always accompanied with laughter and mirth’ where comedy means ‘the restoration of the whole … a marriage between the human and the divine’. And there is no doubt that the exercises included in this book are immense fun – profound play – that encourage communal, as well as private, writing. I remember with great fondness the time I met weekly with friends, for several years, around our kitchen table, playing with these exercises – exploring, creating, communing. Poems sometimes came out of the process, but the time spent was equally precious and memorable for many other gifts – of friendship, community and the deepening of our relationship with language and its ‘angelology’. Time and again, while using these exercises, both personally and in my facilitating capacities, I have witnessed those chancy wonders that can come winging onto the blank page to stun the writer and enliven the group – whether it is an image, a phrase, a freshly-used word or a whole piece that ushers in a rush of life.

This revised volume has added material and appendices, with specific guidance for teachers and group facilitators/ Appendix 2 is Paul Matthews’ ‘letter’ to William Blake, where he describes  how his own ‘scheme’ – ‘an imagination and not a system’ – has drawn inspiration from Blake’s insistence that ‘Man has no Body distinct from his Soul’ and the ‘creative dynamic that arises between “contraries”‘. Most important, and sitting at the heart of Paul Matthews’ work, is Blake’s vision of  ‘Love, The Human Form Divine’, for, Matthews suggests, we need the ‘question’ at the ‘centre of our attention’ which helps avoid extremes of ‘gesture’, and ‘grounds’ our work ‘in love’. This piece is a reminder, too, that the author is also a gymnast, trained in balancing the body. Writing is a kind of movement, a play between gravity and levity.

The writing exercises and tasks have been set out by Matthews ‘in a developmental context that is intrinsic … to the “life structure” of the language’ and, in this revised version, he has tried to ‘delineate this path more clearly’, while still seeing the book as ‘a map for a journey, rather than a rigid system to be adhered to’. It is ordered according to four ‘sentence types’ which are also ‘four ways of relating to the world’: statement, question, exclamation and command. These ‘four powers’ are given their own chapters with related activities, exposition, examples, poems, diagrams and images. Pieces of literature are drawn from a variety of sources and traditions, and we also have samples of partnered and group writing, testament to how collaboration in the spirit of this book can bring about marvels. For instance, one exercise I have used often, where paper is passed between two writing partners, is the following from the ‘Questioning’ chapter (with specimen answers):

Write a ‘why’ question, fold it over and ask for a ‘because’ answer despite it (the question) being invisible:
Why are you blushing?
because the room is full of poetry.
Why were windows invented?
Because a butterfly flew by.

For Paul Matthews, writing is a path of inner transformation. In his introduction, ‘Minding the Hearth’, he lays out his own journey, inspirations and intentions for the book. Names are sounded and thanked, those mentors, near and far, who encouraged the young poet and gave him direction as he sought to resolve the ‘split between objective study and personal search’. From Winnie the Pooh and the fairy tales of his childhood, through the Romantics of his youth to major influences like Robert Duncan, Emerson, Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner, Matthews describes his inheritance and the gradual development of an integrating vision that would become Sing Me the Creation.

An important vitalising strand that runs through this book is that of ‘silliness’. We have permission to be silly because ‘meaningful crafting can only begin when words are set free from fear and habits’. It was Paul Matthews who truly switched me on to the magic of etymology; and ‘silly’, he reminds us, with the word ‘soul’, has at its root the German word selig, ‘blessed’. The list of ‘permissions’ includes breaking rules, making mistakes, writing ‘absolute rubbish’, being sentimental and speaking both to ‘flowers and animals’ and for them; all are ways to begin creating ‘spells’ (from German spiel meaning ‘play’).

The term ‘poetry’ is used broadly by Paul Matthews ‘to name a way of seeing and knowing the world’. and prose is included in this approach: ‘It is my hope that the faculties exercised here will enliven pens and tongues in whatever genre they are employed.’ There is a beauty of vision at work here, a ‘welcome’ that is all-encompassing, and inherent in the poem waiting ‘on the doormat’ as you come into this house-book with its many rooms. This poem by Matthews, a personal favourite, sings a welcome to ‘this hearth, that is a heart’, and to ‘our breath / seeking to be song’:

May those without a place find welcome here.
May those without a tongue be brought to utterance.
Welcome to the stone that has no mouth to cry with.
Welcome to the leaf that trembles on the edge of speaking…

This hospitable book is born out of long years of teaching others to write and become more themselves through writing – and that experience (as writing and teaching practitioner) informs the insights here. Matthews hopes it may serve the ‘unlocking’ of language, for damage can be done early on to our relationship with language and this may freeze us, cutting us off from imagination, trust, confidence and flow: ‘Words are inevitably hampered by fears and habits acquired in childhood.’ However, our imaginative faculties, ‘essential to being human’, can be loosened up again, brought back to life and vigour.

The title of the book speaks of this. In its original Anglo-Saxon, it was ‘Sing me Frumsceaft’. Matthews tells us the story of seventh-century Caedmon, ‘the first English poet whom we know by name’ who, on being offered the harp (the ‘mirth-wood’) around that ancient Northumbrian hearth, withdrew from the circle, feeling himself unskilled to participate. In a dream that night, an angel came and asked him to sing to him. ‘But what shall I sing?’ asked Caedmon. ‘Sing me the creation,’ replied the angel.

Perhaps we have all known in our lives that tongue-tied feeling of unworthiness that is described in this story, with someone or something else acting as angel to us. Paul Matthews’ book encourages us (gives us heart) to sing our homespun songs from our own corners of ‘the creation’. It validates our voices, ushers us in to sit around that hearth at the heart of things, in a way that affrims our belongingness and says: ‘Let’s begin’.

Fiona Owen

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