In the first essay of Ditch Vision, a fine book which I reviewed in December last year, Jeremy Hooker refers to Geoffrey Grigson’s understanding of how a poet stands in relation to a sense of place. Quoting from Grigson’s The Private Art: A Poetry Note-Book , Hooker highlights the link between the poet and his past:
“The territory may be – often has been – a garden which surrounded him and contained him, a miniature world or universe which seemed enormous and mysterious, and protective as well.”
Hooker goes on to mention Grigson’s upbringing in a vicarage in east Cornwall where his first territory was such a garden “with which he felt an original oneness” and from which he moved out into the world of the surrounding parish where “I knew each tree, corner, footpath, rock and trickle, where I knew each of the fields by name.” This is the concern which Grigson himself had also referred to in his Introduction to The Faber Book of Poems and Places (1980) with his assertion that “Our feeling flows into places, and an accumulation of feeling, historical, cultural and personal, flows back from places into our consciousness.” Given this awareness of place it is not surprising that Geoffrey Grigson should have written a poem titled ‘Travelling at Night (After Tu Fu)’ the opening lines of which bear witness to Anne Stevenson’s comments about Grigson’s poetry having a “vine-like way of twisting words around ideas until, in surprise, you discover how much he is saying”:
“Delicate grasses ashore
stir in a small wind. Tall
my boat’s mast in this
night’s loneliness. Stars
depend to these
wide wide levels.”
One listens to the quiet sound of the word “ashore” followed by the clarity of the opening of line two with “stir” and the context given by “small wind” which suggests movement possessing the accuracy of the particular. This brush-stroke has a fine awareness of how place and consciousness merge one into the other. An interesting comparison might be made with the translation undertaken by David Hinton for New Directions in the late 1980s where that opening line became “In delicate beach-grass, a slight breeze.” There is something matter-of-fact about this line and it doesn’t create Grigson’s atmosphere of personal involvement with how the Chinese poet’s journeying echoes far beyond the late eighth-century. In Grigson’s version the second line concludes with “Tall” and again one recognises the stretching out of the particular moment to become an aspect of an individual’s journeying: this mast has been set up in defiance of “night’s loneliness”. Hinton used the word “teetering” in relation to the erection of the mast and this has less urgency. The movement of Grigson’s poem is towards a conclusion in which we read
“Writing gives me no name,
illness, age bar my advancement –
here, what am I like
but a gull of the sandbanks
in between earth
Not being able to read the original I do not know how accurate a rendering this is of Du Fu’s poetry and Hinton’s conclusion (“How will poems bring honor? My career / Lost to age and sickness, buffeted, adrift / On the wind”) may well be closer to the Chinese. However, what Geoffrey Grigson has achieved is a poignant sense of an individual held in self-doubt between what lies below and what lies above. There is a sensitivity and personal engagement in Grigson’s lines which gives the lie (or at least another perspective) to the well-known attribute he had of being a fiercely uncompromising critic and a prickly character to deal with. Perhaps this portrait of the literary editor of the Morning Post who founded the influential magazine New Verse in 1933 can be partly laid at the door of Dylan Thomas who wrote in a letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson late that year:
“There are only two men in England whom I hate with all my heart: Sir Edward Elgar and Mr Geoffrey Grigson. One has inflicted more pedantic wind & blather upon a supine public than any other man who has ever lived. The other edits New Verse. His place is already reserved in the lower regions where, for all eternity, he shall read the cantos of Ezra Pound to a company of red-hot devils.”
One has only to look closely at the early 1970s poem ‘Raw Ream: Remembering, Now Dead, a Teacher’ to recognise how much better and how much more generously thoughtful Grigson’s poetry is:
“I speak of times before high whining of cars or round
growling of planes, when silence was fashioned by noises:
it is a pool in our hollow of pines looped by the sun
which makes them the colour of foxes, is defined
lightly by crows passing over, by
a huckling of hens relieved of their eggs,
by women calling to women, is broken, so
made by clangs, or by regular bells now and then.”
As with the world of Du Fu reality is to be found in contrasts, silence is defined by noise. That concept hearkens back to the eighth century of Chinese poetry and forward to the challenging understanding of John Cage at Black Mountain College. This latter suggestion would doubtless bring a wry and disapproving twist to the mouth of Geoffrey Grigson, poet and critic, whose work has been importantly restored to us through the excellent editorial skills of John Greening.
Ian Brinton, 3rd April 2018
A little surprising encountering this, since Grigson’s profile doesn’t so often loom large. His role as editor, anthologiser and critic, who championed Auden and MacNeice, edited a Coleridge ‘Selected’, may well be of more historical value still than his own pastoral poetry. The vituperative dislike re Dylan Thomas also looks pretty divisive now. I concede I’d usually be more ready to read awhile of Thomas than so immediately of Auden. Whether praise, or at least tolerance, of the [relatively] unworthy is a greater fault than relishing the boot in (‘Blessings, Kicks and Curses’) where tastes fails to take us is debatable. Grigson’s lugubrious treatment after Du Fu on the vicissitudes of age raises a note of sympathy and looks no less persuasive, as far as that goes, than the David Hinton rendering.
I do hope the Selection contains poems from Legenda, and especially, for the pictorial dynamics, the other poem about washing one’s hair in the garden.
I came across an old copy of New Poetry in a library reference collection (before libraries were ruined) many year’s ago, and was very disappointed. All magazines have fallow patches; that must have been one.