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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Review: Sing Me the Creation

This review of Sing Me the Creation is written by Jay Ramsay and appears in Caduceus.

Paul Matthews’ (I quote) ‘source book for poets and teachers, and for all who wish to develop the life of the imagination’ is a classic which I’ve lived with since it first came out in 1994. Paul’s teaching career at Emerson College, Forest Row was the original impetus for its composition with many tried and tested exercises. Uniquely—as Robert Sardello also endorses in this new edition—Paul has the ability to combine linguistic awareness through wordplay and experimentation with soul and meaning, two things that are often divided in the world of teaching poetry: the craft-based approach of the Arvon Foundation on the one hand, for example, and my own psychospiritual approach (in The Poet in You) on the other. Paul manages to go beyond both in the particular synthesis he creates, which is also informed by his practice as a poet in his various collections (The Fabulous Names of Things, Slippery Characters etc.) and his aliveness to the soul of meaning typified in language that is ‘new creation’.

At one point he quotes Emerson: ‘It is not only words that are emblematic, it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is the symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture … the whole of nature is a metaphor for the human mind’ (p.55, 1st edition). You could take that paragraph into meditation with all its profound resonance: there is a whole philosophy in it, echoed in Rilke’s advice to the young poet Franz Kappus (c. 1903) about ‘living the questions’ rather than always trying to find answers … a key to being in the mystery that is also what it means to live with poetry and poetic consciousness. I urge you to get hold of this marvellous book: well done Hawthorn Press for staying loyal to it.

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Review: Sing Me the Creation 2nd edition

This review is from the current issue of New View Quarterly Magazine (2nd Quarter Spring 2016), and was written by Andie Lewenstein. For more information about New View, please see the foot of the page. Many thanks to New View and Andie Lewenstein for letting us use it.

Paul Matthews’ creative writing sourcebook, Sing Me The Creation, now published in this 2nd edition, is not like any creative writing book you might have encountered. The best will kindle an enthusiasm for the creative process itself. This does that, but also opens a connection to the sources of power that lie in and behind the words and language we engage with. The exercises are, at one level, easy and playful – but each is like a door that opens to the creative possibilities within the elements of earth, water, air and fire. To experience these as essential qualities of creative expression, both within oneself and in the world outside, is a profound initiation into a different kind of engagement with that world – and with words.

Though structured in a way that provides a developmental path for poets, it is not just for poets:

I use the word ‘poetry’ very broadly to name a way of seeing and knowing the world, not just of writing about it.

Paul Matthews

Indeed the book, reshaped for this edition and including new material, makes clear that anyone involved with enhancing community life through the use of living language, could benefit from such a work.

The title comes from the story of Caedmon, the first (named) English poet. Driven from the hearth fire by shyness and feeling he lacked the skill to sing, he fell asleep in a barn, and in his dream an angel came and gave him the commission to “Sing me the Creation”, and this commission, as well as being the title, stands at the heart of the book: to engage intensely in recreation, with all the elements of imaginative play that this word conjures. Each set of exercises draws substance from one of the qualities of earth, water, air and fire and by working with these elements – experiencing them as “pure qualities of creative activity,” we become co-creators in renewing the world through the word. The book is as playful in this endeavour as it is serious, and when we fully open to the possibilities of play we may find ourselves – our very substance – questioned by the thing we seek to name. We may find the world, and ourselves, afresh.

The fourfoldness of the elements is also expressed in terms of the four great human virtues: Beauty, Good Will, Openness and Truth (the guardians of our work together), in terms of the qualities of the four temperaments, Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Choleric and Sanguine, as summarised by Rudolf Steiner, and as the four types of sentence we find in grammar:

These four powers – Statement, Question, Exclamation and Command (in that order) – fill the chambers of this heart-book and give their names to its chapters. Each embodies an ideal, and in practising them we are exercising human virtues together with the crafting of our word power.

In following Caedmon’s trajectory, this engagement might seem to take us away from our connection with others, but the book begins with an invocation:

To this hearth which is a heart, welcome.
Welcome to our hearts. Welcome to our breath
seeking to be song.

Though many of the exercises can be adapted for individual work, this is very much a book for people who are engaged in maintaining or renewing the hearth. In the Appendices of this second edition, there is a postscript addressed to teachers and group facilitators with suggested course titles and brief outlines arising from the contents of the book. Introducing this section, Paul Matthews says:

When Merlin in his grey hairs gave away his spells he got locked up under a stone forever. I have been busy doing that for the last 200 pages yet hope to avoid the consequences. But ‘spells’ they are, word powers, not just a bag of tricks to toy with. Why do I say this? Because when I was learning my trade, my teacher Francis Edmunds said that in this art of teaching we are shaping not stone or wood or paint or any external stuff, but soul substance. I look for colleagues.

For those already engaged in writing poetry who wish to develop their work, there are sections on word-crafting, shaping and conducting a workshop. Many of the exercises are socially interactive and lend themselves to group work of various kinds, (gathering words in the circle and writing in response to each other. Serious play we could call it – or a practice in the art of conversation).

This is also a book to read for pleasure and discovery. What are the possibilities – what comes alive when one word meets another for the first time? What is revealed when we put ourselves at the heart of a random perception?

I am a cup without a handle
I am the leafless trees
I am three doors
I am the shuffle in the hallway

Those familiar with the work of Paul Matthews, particularly those who would like to use this book in their work as group facilitators with children or adults, will welcome the additional material that places the writing tasks in a developmental context that is intrinsic, I would claim, to the ‘life structure’ of the language. For those who are new to this work: welcome to a singular guide and companion on the creative path and life of the imagination.

May the Word which hovers above our heads
find hospitality

May the song which crosses
between the living and the dead
be part of what we sing.

Welcome to the Fabulous Names of things.

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Sing Me the Creation 2nd edition review

This short yet sweet review of Sing Me the Creation appeared in Storylines, the flagship magazine of the Society for Storytelling, in December. Written by the wonderful Liz Berg. To find out more about the Society for Storytelling, follow this link.

Although this states it is a creative writing book, it is in fact crammed full of exercises that any storyteller would love to do. It is especially good for group work but is easily accessible for someone working by themselves. It bears a slow read to digest each section as you do it. This is not a book to skip through- it can seriously affect the way you think and breathe. And yet for all that it is also a book to dip in and out of.

Paul Matthews plays with language. He makes you examine the fundamental core that inhabits each word, where does it belong in the fourfold archetype of earth, air, fire and water? Is it a statement, a question, a command or an exclamation? Is it rising or falling, flowing or forming? Through exercises that are both fun and thought-provoking he gently leads us into a more complete understanding of the power of words, of spells, of rhythms, of poetry. Language rooted in landscape, in body, in spirit and psyche. Which story-teller can resist such an invitation? Not me.

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Review: Sing Me The Creation 2nd Edition

This review of Sing Me the Creation was written by Margaret Jonas for the newsletter of Steiner House Library.

This is an enlarged and revised edition of the previous work which came out in 1994, from a published poet and very experienced leader of workshops and courses. Although usually a gift, creative writing can also be taught and developed and for anyone wishing to nurture poetry writing this book is highly recommended. The additions are further exercises and examples from poetry courses students. Although many exercises are meant for group work, there are plenty of suggestions and exercises that the lone would-be-poet can try, which are very stimulation and enjoyable as I can testify.

We are led to consider the basics of words – vowels and consonants – and grammar comes alive as we look at statement, question, command, exclamation, which are also related to the four elements/temperaments. The tools of poetry – metre and rhythm, alliteration, assonance, the place of the rhyme are all included but nothing is brought in a dull or dry way. We work playfully with words and sentences and can begin to feel ourselves magicians of language. There is also always a more serious, spiritual underlying note, recalling the nature of the Word itself, and with comments about the nature of poetry in the past and present. Although given for the English language, probably many exercises could be developed for other tongues. It is a sourcebook that should be of great help to English teachers as well as to creative writing classes and any poetry lover.

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