Thursday, 30 June 2016

St Magnus Festival 40th Anniversary Poem

I was honoured to be asked to write a poem specially for the 40th Anniversary of the St Magnus Festival and it was published with other poets' work, 40 poems in all, in a special Festival Programme.  All these poets have some connection with the festival, either taking part in the St Magnus Poetry Writing course, (selected applicants only) as I was, or one of the poets invited specially each year as resident Festival Poet. The latter include John Gallas, Christopher Reid, Stewart Conn and the St Magnus Writers' Tutor, Pam Beasant.

As 2016 was also the year that the Festival's founder, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, sadly died, my poem is a tribute to him.  I did not know him personally but the poem came out of my experience of a self-imposed writing residency on the Isle of Sanday where Max, as he liked to be known, lived and died. I knew that he would be familiar with Sanday history and landscape and would have experienced what I did when I explored the island and I use these elements as metaphors for the different aspects of Max's music.

I walked past his remote house, keeping my distance, imagining him composing in the room with a large plate glass window looking out at the shore and sea, and I too walked that shore where I knew he used to walk, composing in his head.  On researching Max's own writings about his method of composition, I discovered that he used the physical landscape of the shore to act as an aide memoire. Those dunes might be the intro, others the development and so on. He explained that it was like walking through his score and when he turned back he would walk through it the other way round, giving him another point of view which he might incorporate or make it clear what he needed to change.  When he got home, he used to sit down and write out the score - rarely revising.

The other thing I learnt was that Max collected shells - Sanday is famed for its white shell beaches - and he had a large ammonite fossil on his desk.  I have used a Faroese Sunset and a Pelican's Foot in my poem, famous shells to be found there, as their names are so evocative. Their structure is also an example of the Fibonacci series that fascinated Max and which he saw throughout nature, using it as a model for the relationships in his own music.

Here is the poem:

(i.m. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, 1934-2016.)

where the haar, drifting over the fields,
is pierced by the sun at mid-day;

where a shipwreck may bring good fortune:
a mahogany panel for a bed-head;

where gales uncover secrets:
a sunken forest, a ship of the dead;

where he exalted in tangles, wrack
and the clarity of solitary sands,

walking inside his score, the shore,                        
to the counterpoint of gulls and the sea;

where he delighted in the spirals of shells -
a Pelican’s Foot, a Faroese Sunset -
whirling mallis and the breaking wave
like the architecture of a great cathedral.

Notes: Haar: (Scots) sea-mist;   Tangles: (Orkney dialect) kelp; Mallis or Mallimacks (Orkney dialect) fulmars.       

For more on the Festival musical programme and background, see

St Magnus Festival 40th Anniversary

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