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Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

Selected Poems by Geoffrey Grigson edited John Greening (Greenwich Exchange)

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 –
drifting, drifting
here, what am I like
but a gull of the sandbanks
in between earth
and heaven!”

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

http://www.greenex.co.uk

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Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

Something Other Than Other by Philip Rowland (Isobar Press)

The line from John Berger which introduces ‘Birdsong’ introduces a note which goes on to haunt this serious, quiet and often profound collection of Philip Rowland’s poems:

The dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead.’

Reading this line I was taken back to Herbert Butterfield’s truth from 1924 concerning the impossibility of history:

‘The ploughman whom Gray saw, plodding his weary way, the rank and file of Monmouth’s rebel crowd – every man of them a world in himself, a mystery of personality – these have left no memorial and all that we know about them is just enough to set us guessing and wondering. Things by which we remember an old friend – his peculiar laugh, his way of drawing his hand through his hair, his whistle in the street, his humour – we cannot hope to recapture in history [just as we] cannot hope to read the hearts of half-forgotten kings. The Memory of the world is not a bright, shining crystal, but a heap of broken fragments, a few fine flashes of light that break through the darkness.’

Those ‘few fine flashes’ are caught by Rowland in a poetry which aspires to a condition of music. The ‘Prelude’ which opens this beautifully produced volume from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, one of the finest contemporary poetry- presses, begins in a silence of anticipation:

‘in the hush before music
the music of who
I am not’

Amongst those ‘broken fragments’ one might discover the Quartet for the End of Time which Olivier Messiaen created for piano, violin, cello and clarinet whilst imprisoned in a Silesian camp in 1941. The first performance of this remarkable work pierced the darkness of an atrociously cold mid-January day in Stalag VIII. The audience included five thousand prisoners from all levels of society (priests, doctors, shop-keepers, professional soldiers, workers, peasants) and the composer, commenting later, is reported to have said ‘Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding’. In Rowland’s ‘Birdsong’ the poet refers to Messiaen’s Quartet as ‘music directed towards eternity, timelessness’:

‘To praise – aspire – as though transcribing birdsong that the
dead might hear.’

From the silence, the ‘hush before music’, there is another music which is anticipatory; that music ‘of who / I am not’. And in this context another name comes to mind of course: the Black Mountaineer, John Cage whose 4’33” was premiered in New York in 1952 when a formally-dressed pianist went on to the stage, sat at a grand piano, opened the lid and sat quietly for four minutes and thirty-three seconds before rising, bowing to the audience and leaving. The work isn’t of course a silent composition at all. Although the pianist makes as little sound as possible, just the occasional turning over of the sheets of music, the audience’s attention is inevitably upon the sounds both within and outside the auditorium. The audience learns to attend to those noises, which might include their own memories of noise, which are routinely taken for granted and given no real attention. In 1992 Anthony Barnett suggested in an interview that ‘what you play acts upon the silence, determines the nature, the sound of the silence which follows’. Referring to the trumpet player Leo Smith, he said ‘each sound phrase has its corresponding silent phrase’. Rowland’s opening poem concludes

‘inhabiting repetition
listening for the sound
of our listening’

Those ‘few fine flashes of light’ which illuminate a past which we no longer inhabit, although we carry it within us, can bring into focus a ‘Man on a Ladder’:

‘wooden man
on a wooden ladder,
his narrow body
contoured and incised
with marks and lines
like language seen
from afar…’

They can also bring to mind the poet who died in 1978 in Leeds. Rowland’s ‘Found in John Riley’ attends ‘to objects’ which ‘flick away the one / fluttering down’ where the pun on the last word offers a vagrant movement through air. It was Riley who wrote in May 1977 that ‘the absolute is a room / without doors or windows’ and Philip Rowland writes ‘A Bach Fugue’ in which ‘dusk’ rearranges silence and

‘what’s left of the light the music absorbs’

Isobar Press can be located at http://isobarpress.com and I shall be writing a review of Paul Rossiter’s own Seeing Sights and the narrative haiku sequences of Masaya Saito, Snow Bones, over the coming week.

September 2nd 2016

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