Yesterday, I returned to Polesworth Abbey for David Calcutt’s excellent Dig the Poetry workshop. Twelve of us gathered in the refectory of the Elizabethan manor house where John Donne wrote Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.
David bade us listen to voices from the past and find a voice for our observations. We were taken on a brief tour of abbey, garden and grounds (including the archaeological dig). Then, a flash write: six ‘gut reaction’ words on anything that struck us. (On entering the abbey: That smell – antiquity, history’s bones, beeswax).
Next, using five given lines from the pens of Donne, Drayton, Jonson and the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, write a line in response to each and begin to shape them as a ten-line poem.
From a selection of dig finds, we each selected a talisman for our silent writing, over lunchtime, in a solitary site. The task: to explore and interrogate our physical and emotional response to the artefact; to listen and give it a voice (as distinct from imposing our own). Our tutor described the contemplative state as ‘stilling the conversation in our head and allowing the silence to speak’ (the Benedictine way).
My talisman: a shard of Nuneaton Green Glazed ware, the type used by the abbey’s Benedictine nuns in the frater (refectory).
I ate lunch in the Sensory Garden against the Norman nave wall, attempting to quell my usual ‘head noise’ and listening to snatches of A Whiter Shade of Pale and The Wind Beneath my Wings between hymns (all from the funeral service taking place inside). Inside the abbey, I spent time observing an effigy of Osanna, much-loved abbess of Polesworth, 1100-1135. I stroked a stone face worn featureless by centuries of devout pilgrims…