Andrea Hollander Budy
On the dust jacket of Peter Abbs’ 2009 poetry collection, Voyaging Out, the American poet and critic Dana Gioia states: “Peter Abbs is the rarest of writers – a philosophical poet with a genuine lyric gift. His poems are equally arresting for their substance as their style.” Abbs has been compared with a cadre of diverse writers including Seamus Heaney, Tony Harrison, and James Joyce, and like each of them, he has created a highly distinguished and compelling body of work, although he is less well known than many of his contemporaries.
Throughout his works, Abbs draws on autobiography, biography and mythology in the context of philosophical exploration. His poetic style is consistently lyrical – he’s a poet of the ears as well as the mind – its foundation of traditional verse apparent in all his books.
Peter Francis Abbs was born on February 22, 1942, at Cromer in Norfolk on the east coast of England. His parents, Eric Charles Abbs, a bus driver, and Mary Bertha Bullock, a shop assistant, already had one son, Paul. The new child’s emergency caesarean birth nearly three months prior to his expected arrival was traumatic not only for his mother, but, as evidenced in the sonnet “Premature Birth” in his third poetry collection, Icons of Time, part of the poet’s “slow impeded waking into life” (p.15) involved his mother taking him to convalesce at the Oak Woods, where her father was head gardener for Upper Sheringham Hall in the eponymous park. Here in a secluded house adjoining a large walled kitchen garden the infant began to make some progress, although the doctor had predicted that his chances of survival were slim.
After five months, Abbs did improve, and the family moved to Sheringham. However, until the mid-1950s when his grandfather retired from being head gardener, Abbs spent most holidays and most Sundays in the Oak Woods, which became very important to his imaginative life. The walled garden, shaped in a kind of mandala where all paths led to a central pond, appears – along with the woods that lay to the north – in a number of Abbs’ poems, especially in Icons of Time and Viva la Vida. The young Abbs spent many days wandering alone at the Oak Woods, meandering in the kitchen garden and dawdling under the trees. Solitude there was a kind of paradise for the future poet.
In Sheringham, Abbs attended Saint Joseph’s Catholic School. His mother was a pious Catholic, and his father’s conversion to the faith before their marriage (and in order for the marriage to take place at all) very much angered Eric Abbs’ Methodist parents. Peter Abbs’ father’s side of the family was rural, working-class, puritanical, and strongly Nonconformist. The poet remembers his paternal grandfather saying in his broad Norfolk accent such phrases as “Read between the lines” and “I do not believe in any God you dress up for” (unpublished personal interview by Andrea Hollander Budy, to be noted henceforth as simply “personal interview”). This Methodist inheritance is described in the poems “Myrtle Cottage at West Runton” and “Grandmother reading at Myrtle Cottage.” They were poor, but they possessed a certain dignity and pride. The mapping of their world ended at Norwich, the main cathedral town about twenty-five miles away. Beyond Norwich stretched the abyss.
Abbs’ mother’s family was also rural, but more open to education and training, more entrepreneurial, and strongly Roman Catholic, though his grandfather Bullock was deeply patriotic and always stood to attention when the National Anthem played. He had been sent to Siberia in 1917 to put down the Bolsheviks. Every morning thereafter, he woke early from terrible rheumatic pains, resulting from exposure to the bitter climate.
Abbs absorbed his mother’s Catholic faith but was never convinced by his father’s Catholicism. On certain unpredictable Sundays he would return from morning Mass to savage the priest’s sermon, leaving Abbs’ mother furious with an impotent rage as she tried to shield her children from both his crude swear words and his heretical sentiments. Hating what she saw as his coarse language and low background, “Eric,” she would expostulate (personal interview), “How could you – in front of the boys!” These conflicts echo in subliminal and refracted ways throughout Abbs’ writing (for example, “Other Gifts” in Viva la Vida, p.15).
The Catholic school Abbs attended until he was eleven is evoked in “The Other Child” and “A Catholic Childhood.” After a few rather unproductive years at school – the only thing that Abbs can remember learning efficiently was the little red catechism – he decided (perhaps at the suggestion of the parish priest) to train for the priesthood. He longed to see the statue of the Sacred Heart move so he could claim to have been called by God. This period in his life is captured in the writer’s autobiographical prose story “The Vocation” (Autobiography in Education, pp. 149-167).
In 1954 he entered a seminary outside Liverpool to prepare to become a Mill Hill missionary father, a vocation that would require twelve years of training. But Abbs was unhappy at the seminary, missing the security of home and much intimidated by the missionary fathers who ran the college. He cried himself to sleep for the first few nights in the long junior dormitory where each boy had a small wooden cell. The days were long. They began with early morning meditation and Mass, and continued with manual labor and then conventional lessons. Most meals were taken in absolute silence or with evangelical texts being read from the rostrum, some of them in Latin. Abbs catches something of this experience in “The White Gulls Beatitude” and the autobiographical “Saint Peter’s College for Catholic Vocations: 1954.” When he left a few years later he felt the door of the seminary finally shutting him out forever. Recalling this feeling, he says (personal interview), “I experienced a sense of shame and a deep sense of uncertainty. Who was I without that supporting routine, without the ritual of bells, the daily pattern of prayer?”
Perhaps it is this act – the severing from the fruition of what seemed early to be a religious calling – that spawned Abbs’ desire to become a poet. And not just a poet, but a deeply spiritual one. In Against the Flow, his 2003 prose work about education, the arts, and postmodern culture, Abbs speaks of this dissolution, wherein the priest, after learning that Abbs has decided to leave the seminary, ushers him out of the building without allowing him to take leave of his classmates. He is not even allowed to tell them he is leaving.
At this time his father made a decision that from Abbs’ point of view was the best act in his father’s otherwise uneventful life. “He saved me from oblivion,” Abbs says (personal interview). His father contacted the principal at what was then called Norwich Technical College, so that his son could continue his studies rather than be confined to the local secondary school at Sheringham. Says Abbs of his father, “It must have taken him considerable courage to make this arrangement, for ‘education’ was a domain outside of his experience and he was, at root, a shy and uneasy man. It was an act of love for which I have never thanked him. But, without doubt, he had secured an exit for me out of what could well have become a dark and repetitive labyrinth for the rest of my life” (personal interview).
After his rather impoverished seminary education –all memorized doctrine without intellectual or imaginative substance – Abbs travelled each day to Norwich, where at sixteen he embarked on his A-levels and discovered for the first time the world of speculative ideas and what he terms the “cosmos of poetry.” Inwardly, it was a seismic event, expanding the contours of his world. (Abbs has written about this in “Born Rural Working Class” in his 1996 prose volume, The Polemics of Imagination.) Here he discovered with high intoxication some of the poets who were to influence him for the rest of his life: Gerald Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, Wilfred Owen, and Walt Whitman. Not surprisingly, he also began in a kind of creative fury to write, not only poetry, but also two novels, which he later destroyed. And he read, without any guidance, whatever philosophy he could find, including the Communist Manifesto.
It was a heady time, ignited by the electricity of ideas, theories, and imaginings, he soon came to doubt all the Catholic beliefs with which he had until then completely and passionately identified. This period of mixed emotions – tension, elation, insecurity, self-consciousness, sexual frustration, and inner transformation – is caught in the sonnet “The Loss of Faith.”
In 1961 Abbs went to the University of Bristol to study English and Philosophy. Here he started a poetry magazine called, significantly, Vision, and at the same time he managed to alienate the university’s philosophy department by insisting on the supreme value of existentialism. He did not do well academically because he “arrogantly and childishly attacked logical positivism, the orthodoxy of the time, in every question on every written paper” (personal interview).
In 1963 he married Barbara Ann Beazeley. The following year their daughter Annabel was born, and in 1966 they had a second daughter, Miranda. (The marriage would dissolve three decades later, in 2002.) At about this time, Abbs completed a one-year teacher-training course, soon afterward began teaching English and quickly became excited by the idea of a creative and authentic education. The result, written in two angry weeks, was Abbs’ first book, English for Diversity (1969), a youthful reaction against the stultifying dullness of the grammar school in which he taught. It was to be the first of a number of books written over the next twenty years, all of them devoted to establishing a poetics of English teaching, wherein the study of literature and the discipline of creative writing were seen as vital interactive forces predicated on the cognitive power of the imagination. The manuals The Forms of Narrative and The Forms of Poetry (both 1990), which Abbs co-authored with John Richardson, were the practical summation of this work. All these books were very much part of a general movement to make education more copious and more creative. Abbs was greatly influenced by the work of Marjorie Hourd, Sybil Marshall and David Holbrook, at the time dominant figures in the field of literary and expressive education.
After teaching for three years in Bristol, Abbs and his family (a son, Theodore, was born in1973) moved to Wales, where he struggled to become a freelance writer. He also worked as a research fellow at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. The experience of living in a small Welsh village is captured in Abbs’ first published volume of poetry, For Man and Islands, an uneven collection of poems showing the influences of Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and R. S. Thomas, which came out in 1978. Later he would write an evaluation of the work of Hughes and Thomas, who wrote with an intoxicating and inspiring urgency (see “The Revival of the Mythopoeic” in The Polemics of Imagination, pp. 154-166). “I wanted to emulate their sweep, their mythic perception, their dissidence,” he says. “I also loved the muscular musicality of their best work, the Anglo-Saxon cadence and alliterative linguistic congestion. All poetry, I thought, had to have this musical element to qualify; without the mesmerizing patterning of sound, it descended to some form of prose, whatever typographical shape it took on the white page” (personal interview).
While living in Wales, Abbs founded Tract, an independent journal whose aim was to generate a debate about the state of culture and to promote a fuller recognition of the importance of the arts in education. He wrote the entire first issue himself and called it The Politics of Imagination. The title announced the intention of the whole series. He ran the journal single-handedly most of the time, addressing by hand and sticking stamps to a few hundred envelopes each quarter. Although continually running out of money, in the name of freedom he turned down the offer of an Arts Council grant. During its ten-year life, Tract ran for thirty issues, each consisting of a monograph, followed often by some poems by such writers as R. S. Thomas and Kathleen Raine, and some trenchant reviews of recent work. While the journal had only questionable influence, it provided a necessary matrix for Abbs’ own developing thinking.
In 1977, after five years in the heart of Wales, Abbs left to become lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, England. There he continued to work on the poetics of English and began to extend the work to include the broader concept of aesthetic education. This culminated in his editing the Falmer Press Library of Aesthetic Education, a sequence of books covering each major art form guided by a common coherent philosophy. Derived largely from the philosophical work of Ernsh Cassirer and Susanne Langer, the volumes were pitted against many of the practices deriving either from progressivism or a kind of modernism that dismissed the importance of skills and all the artistic works provided by an inherited culture. Key concepts were “expression of” and “initiation into.” Also vital to the program of publications was the crucial idea that “some forms of knowing are nonpropositional in nature.” Put more positively, the arts were seen as inherently cognitive. According to Abbs, “They mattered because they revealed certain vivifying truths about being human. At their best and most characteristic, they were lanterns to illumine the dark flux of our experience. They were the kinaesthetic nonpropositional agents of evolving consciousness” (personal interview).
At the same time as Abbs was working on the poetics of English and the primary value of a broad aesthetic education, he was also writing his own poems. The two activities seemed complementary and one and the same in spirit. Icons of Time was an attempt to write an autobiography entirely in sonnets. Seamus Heaney saw the manuscript and suggested various revisions to sharpen the narrative and to make more dramatic the underlying threads. This was followed in 1995 by Personae – a determined attempt to move out into the broader culture for connection and inspiration – and in 1997 Angelic Imagination. These volumes were followed by Love After Sappho (1999), a book once again employing the sonnet form but with the theme confined to love as set by the earliest love poet in Western culture, and Viva la Vida (2005), a volume ranging widely from more intimate autobiographical poems to a long sequence evoking the last years and breakdown of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The broad aim was to marry, once again, the philosophical and lyrical impulses, and to keep the concerns of poetry open and ambitious. For those who read Abbs’ educational work, the connections were no doubt clear and obvious.
But it was the writing of poems that Abbs believed (and still believes) most important. At the age of sixteen it had come upon him as an inner vocation, and that perception never changed. “I was not a priest of the church, but more truly the votary of words,” he says (personal interview). “If I felt a poem coming into existence I would drop all other commitments and give myself over to the patient arts of midwifery. Even in committee meetings, I would often have the rough lines of a poem attached by a paperclip to the sober agenda.”
Since the 1990s, Abbs’ concerns have moved from education to take on the work of what is termed New Metaphysical Art. (See “Art Against the Zeitgeist” in Against the Flow, pp. 130-152.) At the heart of this movement was the feeling that art had lost its way in a materialist civilization driven by money and technology and that it had to reclaim its former metaphysical role. The movement’s manifesto, authored by Abbs, claimed, “Art must begin again the broken conversation with eternity.”
Part of this more-encompassing view of art had to “integrate the place of ecology in our understanding of our now perilously insecure planet” (personal interview). With this in mind, in 2002 Abbs edited an international poetry anthology titled Earth Songs, which attempted to bring together the contemporary poets in America and Britain who were most sensitive to these pressing matters. As poetry editor of the journal Resurgence, a position he has held since 2004, he likewise aims to represent the best new eco-poetry being written. Abbs’ preface to Earth Songs further outlines the case for a remarriage of consciousness and nature.
During the poet’s early years teaching in Wales he had often used autobiography as a learning tool, and it became an important element in his notion of creative pedagogy. If we do not bring our deepest selves to our learning, Abbs believes, nothing can happen. All knowledge carries an unconscious autobiographical charge.
Over the years, this perspective led Abbs to one further pursuit: a kind of archaeology of the self, a study still in progress. The first sign of its existence can be seen in his 1974 prose work, Autobiography in Education, while its latest expression appears in a series of articles on the history of the self in the London Magazine. The prose has an obvious connection with much of Abbs’ poetry. In both he emphasizes continuity and unity, as well as an overarching concern with the symbolization of our lives: the persistent articulation of our elusive humanity. He sees creative life, at its highest, as an Orphic and Socratic conversation down the ages.
ICONS OF TIME
While Icons of Time (1991) is Peter Abbs’ third poetry collection, the first two – For Man and Islands (1978), published when Abbs was twenty-six, and Songs of a New Taliesin (1981), when the writer was twenty-nine – are, like the early works of many other prominent writers, derivative. With the appearance of Icons of Time, when the poet was forty-nine years old, however, the poems are unmistakeably Abbs’ own in voice, style and focus. Subtitled An Experiment in Autobiography, the book investigates in a series of sonnets the poet’s life story. Abbs’ use of the sonnet form is masterful; he compresses ardently felt emotion into a language rich in texture and substance. And while the poems are autobiographical, they are never confessional. Nor does a poem merely reveal an anecdote or memory; the poems are vehicles of discovery wherein Abbs looks at particular details from his life in order to learn who he is, why he has struggled, and what he has struggled with and sometimes been defeated by.
The sonnets are sometimes written in first person, sometimes in third. Often he addresses himself, but in the sections on his father and his marriage, he may directly address the person with whom he is concerned, his father or his spouse. In the sections on his loss of faith, he sometimes addresses God.
Abbs’ experiment in autobiography, which persists throughout his oeuvre and quickly becomes no longer an experiment but a proven way of seeing, is exceptionally successful for at least a couple of reasons demonstrated in Icons of Time. First, his focus on autobiography is never solipsistic. No other means, Abbs seems to imply, will render discovered truths about human existence. (He writes of this in numerous prose treatises on the necessity of using autobiography and creative writing in education.)
His autobiographical poems are also successful in their ability to simultaneously probe the poet’s life and ruffle readers’ perception of their own lives in the significant way that learning someone else’s story oten impacts our own through its parallels, reversals, and omissions.
Finally – and perhaps because of Abbs’ deep interest in and knowledge of philosophy – the autobiographical poems suggest and sometimes take on the power of morality tales. Thus, it is the very combination of a focus on the self along with the magnification of the details of a life rendered through the lens of philosophy that contribute to these poems’ significance.
The volume is divided into five parts, the first, “Prologue,” a kind of philosophical introduction to the rest. Here the poet, a grown man, returns to his childhood landscape to answer one of the big questions: how did I become who I am? As he begins to glimpse the place where he spent his childhood, he feels like a familiar stranger. One is reminded of the close of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), when the now-dead Emily, after being allowed to visit scenes of her previous life, can neither resist nor, finally, sustain her scrutiny. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” she asks. In his prologue, Abbs announces that he aims through his own scrutiny to do just this.
The book proceeds chronologically, and the reader learns about the poet’s premature birth, his first school, and what he remembers of it: “Was I ever here?” he asks rhetorically (p. 21), “Learning God by rote?” Later sent away to St. Peter’s College for Catholic Vocations, Abbs describes the loneliness of being away from home: “The blocked homesickness streamed down my face” (p. 23).
Amid the loneliness, however, here Abbs also first tasted the power of language. In “An Undelivered Letter” he writes,
And I, ham actor, sick to please
Tried to outstrip the illustrious saints for years,
addicted to the dark, violet, heart-shaped words. (p.24)
Was the future poet addicted at the time to prayer, or to saying the rosary, or to language itself? If the last, of course, then the addiction was to something living, symbolized not by a bead or pebble, but a seed.
“The Loss of Faith” opens with an epigraph from Nietzsche, whose life and philosophical works Abbs would honor in later poems in later books. The epigraph focuses on the “infinite nothing” of the universe, and the poem itself addresses Abbs’ realization that perhaps there is no God after all – or if there is, “God created the world ex nihilo. And withdrew. /Then, one day, the nothingness seeped through” (p. 27). These last lines follow Abbs’ claim that he has examined the living world, asking of each thing its goal or purpose. His discovery: “The ornate dome of faith cracks and splits” (p. 27).
In these ways, the book’s journey continues as one of questioning religious faith and discovering philosophical truths. As Abbs’ subsequent work reveals, it’s clearly the important journey of his life and work. As if to underscore this point, the book’s third section, “Father and Son,” begins with an epigraph from G. W. F. Hegel (that a philosopher is quoted is significant in that Abbs has established his movement from a reliance on religious tenets to philosophical ones): “Spirit gains its truth only by finding itself in absolute dismemberment” (p. 29).
The fifteen poems in this section are stunning sonnets. In the first, “Tongue-Tied,” the poet addresses his father directly, admonishing whatever law it was (“suicidal note passed down to us”) that forced silence between father and son. Was it only the “Numbing contract” of their “rural class” or something about their personalities that necessitated that they “dam” their thoughts and feelings? Perhaps both. But the cause is only part of the equation. In the poem Abbs describes the poisonous atmosphere of their relationship:
The anger mounting in the throat was swallowed back;
And swallowed back it became all hell to know
What the dumb thing was which choked us so. (p. 31)
Silence and the inability to speak one’s heart and mind become paramount in the poems about Abbs’ relationship with his father. In “Generations of Farm Hands” he wonders if perhaps the silence, resentment, and anger within his family rose from “being born rural working-class” (p. 34). He sometimes implicates himself, as in “Predicament”:
Whatever truth stirred
In our shallow lives we hammered down.
Daily, we slew our aspiring selves and deemed
It wise. (p. 35)
But in “Written in Guilt” he admonishes his father for refusing to wholly partake of life: “You looked on, spectral, awkward, half-ashamed. /And craved extinction years before it came” (p. 36).
Section 4 of Icons of Time is titled “Affairs of the Heart.” Here poems directly address or focus on his wife, and it is clear throughout this section that the relationship between the spouses is turbulent. But Abbs does not simply offer up poems of complaint. Instead, as with the poems about his father, he questions action and motivation. Never welcome is a particularly easy answer: marriage is complicated. In “Ungratified Desire” (p. 50) the speaker complains that his infant child interrupts conjugal consummation.
“Estranged” closes this way: “We argue. We touch. Refrain. Argue again. / Turn to sleep. Toss restlessly. Back to back” (p. 55).
While the speaker and his wife endure a troubled relationship, compared with friends whose “marriages fray and break” (p. 61), they are “Too far gone to see the hell we’re in” (p. 57). “Love’s Battleground” spells out the specifics of what a failed marriage looks like. “Nothing grafts or roots or grows between us,” Abbs writes. “Your eyes open like blades. They’re quick to cut. / My mouth is loaded with words. They aim to kill” (p. 58). Yet at the end of the poem, the couple kiss “like adolescent kids” in a gesture meant to help balance the pain.
The final section of the book is “Moving Out.” Here Abbs retraces his early relationship with God:
Preserve the taste of Him until the end
he says of his younger self, a “gawky teenager, … /a cauldron of overheated / Appetites, desirous of martyrdom” (p. 67).
The book’s aptly named closing sonnet is “Epilogue Poem: The Apple.” Its third stanza reaffirms a key kernel: “I am what I apprehend. / What I have struggled with is who I am” (p. 72). This last sentence is a word-for-word repeat of the last line in the final poem from the opening prologue, “Who I am.” Although Abbs has taken us through an essential examination of his life, this repetition implies that he doesn’t yet know enough. Here is the concluding tercet:
The cooling air eddies at my finger tips.
The apple on this branch is not yet picked.
Touched by moonlight, before perception split.
PERSONAE AND OTHER SELECTED POEMS
In his preface to Personae and Other Selected Poems (1995), Peter Abbs states, “I believe the function of poetry is essentially mythic and healing” (p. xiii). He also says, “Certainly the poems are attempts … to place the truths of the heart in the house of imagination” (p. xiii). And he recognizes, when examining the arc of the poems in the collection, which include selections from his previous three books, that there is a recurring movement from autobiography to myth, from the concern with place and identity in From Man and Islands to a preoccupation with persona and myth in Songs of a New Taliesin, to be repeated a second time in the subsequent movement from Icons of Time to Personae. There is a distinct pattern here, a movement from the heart to the imagination back to the heart and so on. (p.xiii)
Here and in other prose acclamations, Abbs’ claim is for a poetry that is “closer to our common lives,” that is existential in import, while at the same time deeply committed to the importance of skill and artistic form.
The forty-three poems that constitute the entire section of “new” poems in Personae are either in the voices of or center upon such well-known figures as the philosophers Peter Abelard, Heraclitus, Socrates, René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone Weil, Ludwig Wittgenstein; the artists Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi, Vincent Vang Gogh, Egon Shiele, Stanley Spencer, Edward Hopper; the writers Catullus, Dante, Emily Dickinson, D. H. Lawrence, Sappho, George Seferis, Rainer Maria Rilke, Virginia Woolf; and biblical and mythical figures such as Orpheus, Medusa, Persephone, Isaac, Icarus, Noah, Ophelia. This section of the book is divided into subsections: (1) It Begins, (2) The Philosopher Investigates, (3) The Painter’s Testimony, (4) The Poet Speaks, (5) Of Love and Sexuality, (6) Of Depression, Estrangement, and Death, (7) Of Transformation and Renewal, and (8) Coda.
In a review of Personae, the American poet and critic Rebecca Seiferle notes that Abbs’ interest is the intersection of the personal with both the historical and the mythic. Seiferle sees Abbs as a poet of “the new paradigm,” one who uses myth “not merely as a postmodernist twitch or to give weight to personal trivia but as an awakening to a new view of reality and to the earth itself” (online). Unlike the poets Eleanor Wilner and Sylvia Plath, both of whom, according to Seiferle, use myth in their work to house personal feeling, Abbs uses it as a trajectory to move from the personal or mythic outward into the world. Such a trajectory is a healing motion of the self, and the poems are vehicles in which an essential depth of being is examined and becomes a means for the psyche – through altered perception grounded in imagination – to reenter the world anew.
Seiferle’s admiration for Abbs is profound: “Abbs shoulders the weight of our culture as if it were a marble head unearthed in an ancient ruin.” Poetry is not a hobby; it’s a powerful means through which humans beings can heal. “Abbs is a poet of hope,” Seiferle claims, “of hope cast in the form on uncertainty.”
Kathleen Raine, in her review of the collection, calls Abbs “a poet of the raven” (p. 52). She means to differentiate the raven in the story of Noah from the dove, which brings back a literal sign that land is nearby. The dove is the dove of comfort. But before Noah sent out the dove, he sent out a raven, whose experience Abbs renders in his poem “In Defence of the Raven.” In the poem, Abbs reminds us that while we should “cherish the dove” (p. 172), we must also remember the raven, symbol of “Far horizons, black holes, exploded nova stars; / […] the curved edge of God’s / Incommensurable mind” (p. 172). Thus, in seeing Abbs as a poet of the raven, Raine understands the poet’s existentialist view, a man who turned away from the formal religion to adopt the Socratic spirit, turning the unanswered question into the very means of questing.
Raine praises Peter Abbs for his powerful facility with language, the culturally rich context within which he sets his poems, and “his commitment to the most courageous and exacting human values" (p. 53). Claiming Abbs’ poems in Personae as “some of his finest pems written by any poet of [his] generation” (p. 52), Raine concludes her review by remarking that Abbs is “one of the few poets whose work is not ‘promise’ but hard-won, well-earned maturity” (p. 53).
Many of the new poems of Personae are in the voices of such figures as Descartes, Heraclitus, Van Gogh, and the like – individuals who were singularly alone in their genius. “Artists are the broken vessels of their age” (p. 128), Abbs has Vincent Van Gogh say in “Letter to Theo from His Brother: June 1889.” The utterance is hallmark Abbs. Artists and philosophers are distinct personages in that they remain observers of their experiences and are thereby separate from other people. Hence, there is always an element of existential loneliness within them. We see this in another poem about a painter, “The Loneliness of Edward Hopper.” In his own voice rather than Hopper’s, Abbs examines one after another of the artist’s works, searching for the man within the images. At the close of the poem he imagines the painter executing a 1915 painting of the sea: “I sense the artist / In that cliff face of 19155, gaunt and arrogant -.” The sea cannot be captured on canvas, acknowledges the poet, not truly.
It surges over the shingle bank, to sob
In seaweed in the dripping dark. Unseen.
Almost ungrasped. Paint substantiates the loss. (p.130)
Always the artist “substantiates the loss.” And Abbs, himself an artist of language, reminds us of this, substantiating losses through language.
The poems in section 5, “Of Love and Sexuality,” demonstrate Abbs’ ability to write poems of great sensuality. He may be a poet of the raven, but there is a calming gentleness in his poems about love and sex. One of the most sensual is the sonnet “Stanley Spencer’s Beatitude,” in which Abbs describes an elderly couple making love.
The final poem in the collection, “New Constellations” (p. 174), another sonnet, is a reminder of Abbs’ reverence for autobiography as a way of releasing and realizing the self. We are creatures of story, Abbs implies, and the more closely we examine our own histories, as well as those of others (hence, all those persona poems), the deeper we will evolve and integrate. The poem opens: “You do not begin alone; rather, you extend / A narrative” (p. 174). And closes: “The past, which never truly was, returns again” (p. 174). Why wasn’t the past ever truly the past, one wonders. Is it because the past always integrates itself within the present? It is never a separate conveyance. Nor is it able to be distinguished from one’s memories and perceptions.
Abbs selects as the epigraph to Angelic Imagination: New Poems 1994-1996 (1997) a quotation from Ernst Cassirer, the German philosopher responsible for introducing during the first half of the twentieth century the idea of philosophical idealism: “The highest objective truth that is accessible to the spirit is ultimately the form of its own activity” (p. 3).
It is indeed fitting that sixteen of the book’s mere twenty-three poems – in other words, the bulk of the collection, all of those poems in the main section of poems in Angelic Imagination – are collected under the heading “New Constellations,” which is the title of the final poem in Abbs’ previous poetry collection, Personae.
In his preface to Angelic Imagination, Abbs says, “The aim of a poem is to define our predicament and, beyond that, to find sources of hope, creativity, and consolation” (p. 7)/ The collection is divided into two sections. The first, “New Constellations,” includes poems that attempt to “create anew” various artistic endeavors by others – poems, paintings, and sculpture. The second part, “In Memoriam,” is more personal, and , Abbs says in the preface, he hopes these poems will help “to release energies … which bear upon our common … humanity” (p. 7).
Bookending the collection are a prologue and an epilogue, bothe of which center upon the definition of the Word, used in the biblical sense. This is fitting, considering this poet’s continual celebration of and concentration on the importance of the authentic use of language, as well as his own transformation from a boy enthused by the possibilities of relition into a man anointed by the intensely spiritual force inherent in a primacy of words.
The poems in section 1, “New Constellations,” focus on the mythical Prometheus, the painters Edcard Munch, Pierre Bonnard, and Jan Vermeer, and the philosophers Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. Additionally, he transforms poems (as opposed to creating straightforward translations) by Paul Celan, Sappho, and Rilke.
“Artist’s Manifesto,” an ars poetica, implies that in order to set the imagination free the artist must ”[detonate] his mind to let in God’s” (p.23). This necessity of letting go of control is paramount in Abbs’ philosophy of creativity. The very brief poem closes this way:
Oh! – to set the imagination free
In the hard crucible of nature, to begin
To murder fate, to let the incandescent angel in! (p. 23)
The first poem in the book’s second section, “In Memoriam: A Poem in Five Movements,” is also the title poem of the entire volume. Dedicated to a nine-year-old child, Kate Cooper, whose death from cancer is mourned, the poem praises the girl’s courage to create music (she plays original compositions on a recorder) as if to ward off death. Throughout the five “movements” of the poem, Abbs evokes the mythical Orpheus. Like him, this girl is transcendent: “she is Orpheus whose change / of key is magical / and constant” (p. 34).
Other poems in this section are also elegiac. In “Intimations of Mortality” (p. 37), Abbs imagines himself no longer alive in a late November landscape in which “the first frosts are cleansing” the earth. The “frosted lawn is a beautiful / Altar cloth” not intended for a god. Instead there is a poignant clarity of nature alone: “The pond is a sheet of glass; / It returns the sky. Immaculate. Blue. Silent. Vast” (p. 37).
LOVE AFTER SAPPHO
Love After Sappho (1999), whose eight sections include a prologue and a coda, examines the many kinds and manifestations of love. Here are poems that take into account the earth and the damage human beings have done to it – “A Violent Cleansing” (p. 12), for example – but also the damage we humans do to ourselves by turning our backs on the natural world and polluting it, even with the noises that betray silence (for example, “At Cuckmere Estuary,” p. 13). What does love mean in its most spiritual sense? We cannot explain away what we have done and continue to do. “There are no reasons left” (p. 13).
But it is not only subject matter that makes this book so powerful. Apparent too is Abbs’ skill at traditional form: all the poems in the book are either full-fledged sonnets or they use this traditional form as their structural base, metrically and emotively, as well as intellectually. Even the book’s structure is itself built like a sonnet, its opening sections introducing the complications of love, its middle sections intensifying such complication until a turn is introduced, leading to a closing section that has the feel of resolution, although not solution (for love, after all, is not a commodity that can be solved or even put to rest).
Abbs’ paramount belief that the power of poetry pivots and relies upon autobiography is obvious throughout his work. And although an expert craftsman of the poetic arts, he never sacrifices message for music, but neither does he value the former over the latter. Instead, he waits until there is a powerful melding of the two before allowing a poem to be published.
One of the strongest sequences in the volume is contained in “Last Rites,” a series of poems about Abbs’ mother’s dying. He proves here, as he did in his third poetry collection, Icons of Time, that poetry’s purpose is in part to speak the difficult, sometimes unspeakable emotions. As in “Requiescat in Pace,” his elegy for his father in Icons of Time, in which he claims poetry as the means to “break and bear the silence” (p. 43) between son and father, so too the present sequence reveals the unpleasant yet important feelings of an adult child shouldering the close presence of a dying parent. In such poems Abbs is able to face the depths of what it means to be both an individual and a member of a family. He refuses to look away and instead stays by his dying mother’s bedside, both as mourning son and poet of witness.
Not only a series of sonnet-like elegies to his mother, the poems in this section of the book demonstrate again Abbs’ reliance on poetry to speak for the man who, in the case of his relationship with his parents, was unable to speak in situ those thoughts he felt an urgency to deliver.
Other sections ot the book examine love in a variety of manifestations - especially between spouses or lovers – but no easy summation is presented. Throughout Abbs demonstrates a willingness to expose details of his own life in order to bring forth possible metaphysical truths. Along with love poems written for his life partner (Love After Sappho is the first of Abbs’ volumes to be dedicated to “D”), the book contains poems that acknowledge the pain associated with the end of marriage. The section “Post-Modern Love” describes the splitting apart of a couple. “Nothing’s secure.” Abbs writes in “A Bleeding Wreath,” whose final couplet reads “And there are no gods left to lay a bleeding wreath / For the sundering of marriage – suddenness of death” (p. 6).
The fourth section of the collection is titled “Love’s Labor,” and its eleven poems illuminate the power of romantic love. “Who said there could be no more love poetry?” Abbs asks rhetorically in “Incomparable Beauty.”
For each day some-one, somewhere,
Falls into love’s vortex. Is half dismembered,
Half encompassed there. (p.25)
In “Let Us Live and Love,” which is written in the spirit of and after a poem by the Latin poet Catullus, Abbs demonstrates his ability to write with humor. Here are the poem’s last seven lines:
Then let us mock tomorrow’s pen-pushers,
Academics, smart-arse critics
Who’ll freeze our lust in lists and figures.
How the ticker tape reels from their lips!
Jargon. Acronyms. Facts. Classificatory lists:
Catullus, Gaius, Valerius, Etcetera. Circa. Idem.
Master of iambics. Fuck the lot of them! (p. 27)
The book’s fifth and sixth sections, “The Dance of Syllables” and “Coda,” celebrate once again the exaltation of language.
Today I hear of a living language
where poem and breath
are one and the same. (p. 66)
Such a declaration epitomizes Abbs’ earnest belief regarding the link between life and the language of poetry.
Here once again we observe a poet whose lyric gifts match his philosophical beliefs about the importance of creativity and the nature of humanity. So many of us never consider what it means to be human, nor do we take responsibility for our relationships. Although not a manifesto, Love After Sappho calls us to do both.
VIVA LA VIDA
Like Abbs’ previous work, the poems in Viva la Vida (2005) are masterful in style and substance, their subjects autobiographical or biographical. An entire section is devoted to Nietzsche, and there are individual poems in the second section of the book, “Ancestor Worship,” that explore the lives of mythical figures, artists, and philosophers.
In “Child of Pisces,” the book’s first section, we again encounter the poet-speaker preoccupied with the issues, raised in Abbs’ earlier collections, of the difficulties of his childhood: his father’s silence, the narrow confines of his Catholic schooling. But these confinements are balanced against his present understanding of the power of beauty and truth in their ability to transcend suffering.
While the book’s second section, “Ancestral Worship,” honors the art and philosophy found in the works or life of such figures as Odysseus, Minerva, Prometheus, Sappho, Saint Augustine, Rumi, Dante, William Turner, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Franz Kafka, Frida Kahlo, Bonnard and others, its third section, “Viva la Vida,” is made up entirely of love poems. Among these palpably powerful pieces is the opening poem of the section, “Blowing Dandelion Clocks at Seaford Head.” Here “at / The high white edge, precarious” as new love, the speaker and his lover “[puff] ephemeral seeds, black // Specks of hope into the amorphous blue” (p. 49). In this poem, as in much of Abbs’ work, the metrically sound, rhyming tercets are handled with such skill as to be only secondarily noticed. Evidenced throughout the collection, the music of language – as demonstrated in diction and syntax – is an important condition of Abbs’ art.
All eleven poems in the fourth section, “Ecce Homo: On Nietzsche’s Madness,” concern the final years and growing madness and anguish of the philosopher. The sequence opens with a sonnet describing Nietzsche’s self-imposed hermitage and closes with a description of his funeral. This is not the first time that Abbs has used this philosopher in his poetry. There are important parallels between the two men. Both experienced a loss of faith. For Abbs, poetry became the healthful passage into self and spirit. Religion brought forth “Dead words / In the throat” (“Child of Pisces,” p.4), while language is its purest means had the power to change not only the poet but also the world, which it “Raised up, articulate, edged, / Sheer” (“Child of Pisces,” p. 5).
It is the fifth and final section, “Ars Poetica,” that reveals as it illustrates through example Abbs’ treatise on the purpose of poetry. In evidence again is the poet’s skill at using economy of form to contain powerful emotion. Built with the anaphora “It will,” the sixteen-line poem accumulates power as it lists those tasks the undefined “it” of the poem will accomplish. Moving from the external world that includes whales, gulls, skylarks, and frogs, to the human-made one where dictionaries exist alongside the “spontaneous ramblings of children,” Abbs inserts into the poem more abstract phenomena such as silence and even death. But the poem closes with an insistence that even as it is “born in blood, [rises] in estrangement, [and climaxes] in breath,” whatever the ”it” is “will remain in quest” (p. 93).
Throughout this seventh volume of poetry Abbs moves, section by section, as if through the movements of a symphony beginning with the trauma of existence and intensifying toward the affirmation of love. Even in the poems about suffering, Abbs finds le mot juste with which to describe experience so that we may join him in intimate understanding of the possibilities of transformation. For example, in “The White Gull’s Beatitude,” a poem about Abbs’ life as one of the “pale seminary boys” at St. Peter’s School for Catholic Vocations, the young Abbs spots a white gull “wheeling above … yelping his beatitude // In the terror of his freedom” (p. 12), and Abbs longs to be like this creature. “Yet I lacked his impetuosity,” Abbs says.
I stayed on
Aping the mumbling priests, a poor ventriloquist trying to conform.
Daily I mouthed the pallid prayers, lisped the theology by rote,
The bleached abstractions sticking like fish-bones in my throat. (p 12)
Notice the assonance in “poor,” “rote,” and “bones” in the above lines, as well as the precise, image-bearing diction in the following: the gulls “wheel” and “yelp,” the young Abbs “apes” the priests who “mumble” only himself to become “a poor ventriloquist” who “lisps pallid” prayers that are nothing more than “bleached” abstractions that “stick” in the “throat” of the struggling boy like “fish-bones.” The language here is clear and mostly single-syllabled, a kind of Anglo-Saxon outburst, authentic and blunt.
Another of Abbs’ talents in evidence in the volume, as in all his collections, is the ability to successfully mix abstract language with concrete image. Perhaps this is the gift of the philosopher in him, the wish to explain the unexplainable in whatever language he can find. But image alone cannot suffice; he must bring the philosophical world with its abstract intellectual expressions together with the emotional world and its detailed narratives – a mind-body phenomenon. A good example of this mixing is demonstrated in “Other Gifts,” in its entirety below:
From my father the pang of existence.
Habitual unease. Guilt before appetite.
The long silence.
From my mother the iron junta of appearance.
The will to advance. Obsequious,
desire to please.
From the North Sea the weather of possibility.
Clear horizons. The imperative of poetry.
A salt asperity.
From the Oak Woods the press and curve
Of things. Incomparable whiteness of water lily.
The perfect globe of figs.
From the Catholic Church the acid of doubt.
Magic of incantation. Anodyne of prayer.
The terrible seeking out. (p. 15)
Besides this mixing of abstract and concrete diction, here too is evidence of Abbs’ allegiance to traditional verse and his understanding of its aural power: the stanzas’ anaphoric opening stanza gestures (“From … / From … / From …”) combined with the final stanza’s pure rhymes of “doubt” with “out,” which pull the poem’s disparate visual images together through the interplay of sound repetitions.
In Viva la Vida, as in other volumes, Abbs demonstrates his skill at combing the depths of autobiography and coming forth with wisdom useful not only to the poet himself but to all of us. Similarly, he is able to inhabit the spirit of other personae and locate truths applicable to our lives and times, continually confronting our existential predicament.
In all Abbs’ work, the poet seems to have adopted Robert Frost’s notion that in a well-organized book of, say, twenty-four poems, the twenty-fifth is the book itself. Thus, the order of poems is as significant as the order of lines within a poem. Assuming we read the book from first poem to last, we are taken on a journey. And, in Abbs’ case, that journey is often from confinement toward release.
THE FLOWERING OF FLINT
In his foreword to this eighth collection, The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems (2007), Abbs claims that the primary task of poetry is “to break, blow, burn and make us new,” as well as “to perplex and unsettle, to keep us somewhat unstable and open to change” (p. xiii). For this 2007 volume, Abbs not only selected poems from his previous books, but he removed those poems he no longer believed successful. Because the new poems at the end of the retrospective number only seven, the poet’s progress on his aesthetic journey cannot be altogether appreciated. He says of these poems that he hopes they demonstrate that he is “not settling down, but keeping faith with the ineffable spirit of life itself” (p. xiii).
It is interesting to note that in the “selected” part of the book, Abbs chose to include only five poems from his first collection, For Man and Islands (1978), and from his second, Songs of New Taliesin (1981), only two. The selections from later books are, understandably, in greater numbers, although from Viva la Vida (2005), Abbs chose poems from only two of the five sections, “Child of Pisces” and “Ecce Homo: On Nietzsche’s Madness,” along with the single poem “Ars Poetica” from the volume’s final section, “The Living Word.”
Of the new poems, perhaps most exciting is the poet’s exultation of language itself, that very savior of the man whose spirit was quashed by religion and borne up by words in their essential and relevant power. In “Learning How Not to Live,” for example, he asks, “What did I learn at school but the grammar of schism?” (p. 165). He and his fellow students
sat with our eyes down and learnt the sentence of
As though the querulous
Question of life had to be always excised. (p. 165)
Abbs has long insisted that his early education was a hindrance to substantial learning, because it was devoid of an awareness of self. (For much of his adult life Abbs would write about the nature and importance of the study of the self: the crucial significance of the examined life, the need for a reflective existence.)
Beginning in the mid-2000s, Abbs and his life partner, Lisa Dart, began spending part of each year on Paros, a Greek island, where they became affiliated with the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts, directed by John Pack, the director of the Aegean Center and a photographer with whom Abbs collaborated for the book The Greater Journey (2008), which features Pack’s photographs and Abbs’ poems. Among the new poems in The Flowering of Flint is a poem written for John Pack; at the close of “Witnessing,” Abbs speaks of the way in which a man can leave his own country and find a deeper sense of belonging by connecting to a much older and more encompassing tradition. Characteristically, the emphasis is on each person’s being part of a vast symbolic continuum:
It’s why I left my home
And came to this ancient burial ground, seeking
what I didn’t know:
Christos Anestis! A myth for being here; the words
for saying so. (p. 166)
The discovery of Greece has added a further dimension to Peter Abbs’ later poetry. He has written a number of creative versions – “transformations” – from modern Greek poets such as Constantine Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis, and Nikos Gatsos.
In one way or another all these new poems in the book celebrate an earnest joy in the power of language: “Listen to the way words fall” (p. 170), Abbs writes in “The Way.” And the title of the section’s final poem is “Finding Words” (pp. 171-172).
Nor is it unusual for a book of Peter Abbs’ poetry to pay close attention to the natural world. Thus, in The Flowering of Flint the landscape is prominent: the Norfolk coast of his childhood, the chalk hills of Sussex, the Aegean Sea of Paros. Just before the book’s publication, Abbs edited Earth Songs, an anthology of eco-poetry, not a surprising undertaking for a man who has written extensively in prose on ecological issues. Such prose aside, it is clear throughout this poetry that the undisturbed natural world is honoured and cherished by this poet. One need only look at the table of contents of this and others of his books to note the prominence of landscape.
All but the first two previous collections of poetry by Abbs had been divided into five sections; neither the first, For Man and Islands, nor the second, Songs of a New Taliesin, a chapbook, is divided at all. Thus, Voyaging Out (2009), which is divided into only two sections, suggests thereby a significant change for the poet. Of the thirty-six poems in the volume, thirty-three comprise the book’s first section, “Peregrinations”; the other three, which Abbs calls “transformations” (rather than translations) after his eponymous second title, actually consist of twenty-one individual poems collected under three distinct titles, the first written “after” Rumi; the second, Dante; and the third, Rilke.
Abbs’ concerns in the volume remain unchanged from those apparent in previous books: troubling childhood experiences, the nature of love and spirit, aesthetic appreciation, and the power of authentic language. As before, he achieves these thematic explorations both directly in autobiographical poems and less directly in poems about the lives of others, especially visual artists and philosophers.
The volume’s revealing title, Voyaging Out, suggests the nature of the explorations: journeys both into the outer landscapes of place and the inner landscapes of the human, including that most inward investigation into the poet’s own heart and mind. The book’s opening poem, “Self Portrait,” evidences this voyage wherein “endings / are beginnings, where the country of despair / borders the frontier of possibility” (p. 3).
As obviously and strongly in this book as anywhere in his precious collections, Abbs shows himself as a spiritually invested writer. His quest remains ultimately the same one voiced in his earliest poems, as expressed in these lines that first appeared in For Man and Islands and were reprinted in The Flowering of Flint:
Where would you lead
me, and what
would you have of
spirit? (p. 3)
In the present volume, his struggle to live a spiritually authentic life is no less obvious. But it is perhaps the emphasis on the uplifting power of the spirit that permeates Voyaging Out. Taking himself to task, as it were, Abbs writes in one of his “transformations” of a poem by Rumi,
Today you wake anxious, vexed by small things;
even so, do not go upstairs to your study
to shuffle your papers -
or to make notes from someone else’s notes
from someone else’s … One thing we know:
this morning will not return -
so why not take down the lute from the wall,
open the window
and pluck some new chords.
There are a thousand ways of kissing the ground. (p. 43)
Exemplary of the volume, this poem delineates the spiritual place Abbs has reached by the time of the book’s publication. The poems no longer wallow in a struggle to understand the past, but neither do they exude estrangement from the life of the spirit. As Abbs has traversed the often difficult terrain of the examined life, he has found himself as if on a pinnacle. The climb was sometimes treacherous, but he kept on, never turning away from the darkness but instead embracing the mystery even when that mystery proved painful and unfulfilling. And it is no mistake that Abbs makes this epiphanic journey in poetry. “I want my words to emulate the thing itself” (p. 29), he writes in “A Brief Lesson on Poetry” – evidence that this poet never relaxes his scrutiny of all aspects of his vocation.
The reviewer Jeremy Hooker points out that Abbs’ “other” life as a polemicist (he has been a prolific prose writer on issues of culture and education and the importance of autobiography) sometimes shows itself in his poetry. Perhaps this is understandable for a man who seemingly never finishes his searing search for answers to the largest metaphysical questions. The reviewer Craig Jordan-Baker sums up Peter Abbs’ work as “part pastoral, part bardic, thoughtfully sculpted, vitally felt” (p. 48) This reviewer’s witty summation of the book may be seen as true for this poet’s entire poetic legacy thus far: “Overall, this is a volume both exciting and contemplative, forward-looking and backward-nodding, peregrinating and transforming” (p. 48).
Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the kernelled essence of the intense and intentional work of Peter Abbs is to hear from the poet himself, in an interview with Robert Graham:
My hope is that we may be able to house ourselves more fully in our imagination so that we can relate creatively to the historical continuum and that we feel a sense of solidarity with that, not alienation. Then we can find our own story within that larger collection of stories. In a similar way, I would hope that we can place ourselves imaginatively inside Nature and see it as part of us and us as part of it, reflecting it back at a higher level. I’m talking about the deep reclamation of historical and ecological dimensions in the arts, in education and in society at large. (The Polemics of Imagination, p. 114)
WORKS OF PETER ABBS
For Man and Islands. Shropshire, U.K.: Tern Press, 1978.
Songs of a New Taliesin. Shropshire, U.K.: Tern press, 1981.
Icons of Time: An Experiment in Autobiography. Lewes, U.K.: Gryphon Press, 1991.
Personae and Other Selected Poems. London: Skoob Books, 1995.
Angelic Imagination: New Poems 1994-1996. Lewes, U.K.: Gryphon Press, 1997.
Love After Sappho. London: halfacrown Books, 1999.
Selected Poems. London: Halfacrown Books, 2002.
Viva la Vida. Cambridge, U.K.: Salt Publishing, 2005.
The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems. Cambridge, U.K.: Salt Publishing, 2007.
The Greater Journey. With the photographer John Pack. Paros: Aegean Center, 2008. (The entire book is available online at http://www.greaterjourney.org/the_journey.html.)
Voyaging Out. Cambridge, U.K.: Salt Publishing, 2009.
GUIDES AND ANTHOLOGY
The Forms of Poetry: A Practical Guide. With John Richardson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
The Forms of Narrative: A Practical Guide. With John Richardson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Earth Songs: A “Resurgence” Anthology of Contemporary Eco-Poetry. Dartington, U.K.: Green Books 2002.
PROSE BOOKS ON THE THEORY OF ENGLISH
English for Diversity. London: Heinemann, 1969.
Root and Blossom: The Philosophy, Practice, and Politics of English Teaching. London: Heinemann, 1976.
English Within the Arts. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.
PROSE WORKS ON CULTURE, THE ARTS, AND EDUCATION
Autobiography in Education. London: Heinemann, 1974.
Proposal for a New College. With Graham Carey. London: Heinemann, 1972.
Reclamations: Essays on Culture, Mass-Culture, and the Curriculum. London: Heinemann, 1979.
A Is for Aesthetic: Essays on Creative and Aesthetic Education. London: Falmer Press, 1988.
The Educational Imperative: A defence of Socratic and Aesthetic Learning. London: Falmer Press, 1994.
The Polemics of Imagination: Selected Essays on Art, Culture, and Society. London: Skoob Books, 1996.
Against the Flow: Education, the Arts and Postmodern Culture. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003.
EDITED SYMPOSIA ON THE ARTS
The Black Rainbow: Essays on the Present Breakdown of Culture. London: Heinemann, 1975.
Living Powers: The Arts in Education. London: Falmer Press, 1987.
The Symbolic Order: A Contemporary Reader on the Arts Debate. London: Falmer Press, 1989.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL STUDIES
Adams, Anna. “Viva la Vida by Peter Abbs.” Temenos Review, no. 10:233-238 (2007). (Review.)
Buckner, Adrian. “Jewels of Consciousness.” London Magazine, October-November 2002, p, 114. (Review of Selected Poems.)
Burns, Richard. “Love and Guilt Tracked Through Snow.” Independent, April 3, 1991. (Review of Icons of Time.)
Graham, Robert. http://www.peterabbs.co.uk/about.shtml.
Hooker, Jeremy. “Song at the Hazardous Edge.” Resurgence, no.257:68 (November-December 2009). (Review of Voyaging Out.)
Jordan-Baker, Craig. “A Feverish Call to Arms.” Urthona, no. 27:48 (summer 2010). (Review of Voyaging Out.)
McCarthy, Patricia. “Navigating Darkness.” Agenda 37, no. 4:91-94 (spring-summer 2000). (Review of Love After Sappho.)
Oxley, William. “Viva la Vida.” Sofia 76:21 (March 2006). (Review.)
Padmacandra. “Viva la Vida.” Urthona, no. 25:46 (summer 2008). (Review.)
Peschiera, Raul. “In Case You Missed It: Love After Sappho by Peter Abbs.” Resurgence, no, 202:61 (September-October 2000). (Review.)
Raine, Kathleen. “’Your clumsy silent hands seem almost eloquent.’” Resurgence, no. 171:52-53 (July-August 1995). (Review of Personae and Other Selected Poems.)
Rice, Nicky. “What I Have Struggled With Is Who I Am.” Resurgence, no. 150:53 (March-April 1992). (Review of Icons of Time.)
Seiferle, Rebecca. “Personae and Other Selected Poems by Peter Abbs.” Drunken Boat (summer 2000), http://www. Thedrunkenboat.com/abbs.htm. (Review.)
Tredell, Nicolas. “Voicing the Silence.” PN Review150 29, no. 4:76 (March-April 2003). (Review of Selected Poems.)