Friday, 21 April 2017

Quartz in a Stone - Nature and Mystery in the Poetry of Geoffrey Grigson

The work of Cornish poet Geoffrey Grigson (1905 – 1985) is characterised by an idiosyncratically contemplative style which, just like his trenchant views of poetry, has often been known to divide opinion.  Working diversely as teacher, broadcaster, BBC radio editor and art critic, Grigson was an authority on botany and produced several highly acclaimed books about the natural world, yet it is surely as a poet that Grigson, who dismissed his years at Oxford (which resulted in a third-class degree in English) as “a profitless sojourn,” is best remembered.  His oeuvre might be taken as a kind of symphony of nature – a panoply in which Man is but one part.  The worst of his poetry is ordinary and uninspiring, the best looks beyond the horizons of the every day and attempts to pierce the layers of perception and interpret the mysteries of the Universe in a way which combines our understanding of different places, different things, different lives.  It is a poetry of unexpected unities, symbiotics and relationships:
Two are together, I tell you
A slope of a vowel, are a corner;
Grass short as a garden,
Uncoiling, Foxgloves, water

Grigson’s many books of poetry, are regarded as among the finest in the history of English literature by his many admirers, yet have never quite achieved the all-encompassing, widespread and barrier-defying popularity heaped on those by more “accessible” poets of his generation such as Betjeman, Hughes or Heaney.  One can hardly imagine Grigson, with his preference for visionary high-art, as a champion of poetry in education; his love of traditionalism would presumably preclude endorsement of the Martian poets or even the Revival, yet his own poetry can also be difficult and rooted in exclusive regional knowledge.  Seamus Heaney’s brilliance lies in his ability to communicate the spirit of his own native history and landscapes with wider society; Grigson’s in his habit of looking deep into a riddle and uncovering another riddle.  We might easily follow the gist of his descriptions, understand his writing in a linear, straightforward way, but instead of answers, we will be left with further questions.  In Before A Fall, he presents us, like a story by Italo Calvino or a meditation from the mind of Kafka, with this irresistible, revealing, vintage gem:

And what was the big room he walked in?
The big room he walked in,
Over the smooth floor, 
Under the sky light,
Was his own brain.

At the heart of Grigson’s reputation lies paradox.  As editor New Verse magazine in the late 1930’s, he steadfastly opposed the rising trends of ambiguity and imprecision beginning to colonize the world of poetry, yet also railed against the overly exclamatory and argued that his magazine ought not to become “an organ for left-wing politics.”  Grigson infamously claimed the use of a metaphorical “billhook” which he would use to drag up examples of what he felt was poetry lacking in any way, shape or form, and humiliate its author with derisory reviews:  “I attempt to be rude from a moral basis, a basis of differentiating between the fraudulent and inert and the active, genuine, and desirable.”  His approach to modern English poetry, even in the first half of the Twentieth Century, was unfriendly: “a jelly of mythomania, or self-deception, careerism, dishonesty, and ineptitude.”  And he extended his criticisms of poets to an overview of their apparently deficient moral fibre: “the scarcest quality among young English writers is integrity.”  Unsurprisingly, his work for New Verse made him many enemies – turning down submissions from John Betjeman, he lit the fuse for an enmity that would only partially thaw by the end of his life.  In 1944 the poet Roy Campbell, offended by Grigson’s scathing judgments of his poetry, dismissed in New Verse as “abysmal,” physically assaulted him in a London street. Yet for all the acrimony and even nastiness which seems to have gathered to the surface of his prickly reputation, there is at the heart of Grigson’s life a kind of provincial honesty largely lacking in the world of literature and intellectuals: On Desert Island Discs, asked if music played an important part in his life – and bear in mind this is a radio programme whose theme and format are entirely dominated by music – answered matter-of-factly, “No, I’m afraid it isn’t, not really. I am a musical ignoramus.”

Geoffrey Grigson made friends as well as enemies, and was as committed to exposing greatness as he was to denigrating the undeserving, as is evident in his enthusiasm for the artists he championed, from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extraordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate.  But what, in the midst of all these difficult, contradictory, sometimes downright hostile relationships and circumstances, of Grigson’s own poetry?

Grigson’s is, by and large, a poetry of celebration – few could read his pastoral meditations and descriptions of the land and sea without detecting a Wordsworthian worship of the natural world – but also of defiance: it is the poetry of a man trying to make sense of an increasingly mechanised planet.  But Grigson is no a victim of the technological age, but a stubborn survivor.  Acknowledging animals and plants, and comparing them to works of major artists, he is less indulgent of the motorcar: this “creature of sexless metal” is “indifferent” to the touch of living things and “(fails) so very oddly to protrude a skull.”  The car, then, is little but an empty shell – its metal exterior conceals no firmer, deeper structure.  The car is neither animal, nor plant.  In Grigson’s twinning of the natural with the artistic, the car has failed to earn its place.  Its skull-lessness might be modernity’s failure – it is technology, not the poet, which fails to adapt, by standing sexlessly apart from the old, organic way of things.  For Grigson, a natural historian, man-made things are awkward, and their defined structures nullified and dull.  They are complications, unwelcome equations that he cannot solve.
In the natural world, there is no such confusion.  We are not expected to understand owls.  “Neither the boy nor hog needs sanction, you’ll agree.” In his substantial poem The Isles of Scilly, not one mention is made of anything metal, plastic or mechanical.  The isles are defined by their “wind-shivering fern,” the “cobalt sea,” the “grey holly in the drift,” or else the “wild black rabbits running across the longings of a yesterday.”  So skillfully, Grigson provides us not with “yesterday,” but a yesterday – endowing the animals with consciousness, and suggesting a psychology which differentiates between times and days, and feelings.  The rabbits are remembering a yesterday, one assumes, before the onslaught of civilisation squashed their islands with buildings and development, narrowing their horizons and rendering their home “the islands of dead hope.”  The closest Grigson comes to describing man-made structures is in the opening stanza, where “megaliths empty, on the headlands lie.”  The landscape is created by the elements, the land “manured by “sea’s red bitter weed, by sorrow’s grey-skied, endless hours.”  Historically, Man’s only incursion into the scenery, it appears, has been to grave the teeth of dolphins in the “scanty sand,” and the “wind-drunk tombstones” bordered by pine lilies.  Here, as ever, Man’s influence is funereal; his dimension, death.  Indeed, the tragedy of early death, young bodies beneath the tombs themselves, are looked on by the dry-eyed figurehead, not a Christian God in as many words, but an omniscient force, immobile but yearning for the helpless dead – like the poet torn between objective observation and this unending need to make sense.  The “flattened, huge and butter-yellow moon,” in contrast, “rises above the green-black sea to face the islands of goodbye.”  The moon “cannot care.”  Likewise, it cannot be blamed.  For Grigson, nature is the blameless force, which shapes the Universe.  In Consider the Clean Morning, an early work key to appreciating his world-view, the poet employs a biblical tone, implying scriptural inevitability to the workings of the world:

The storm described in the paper on my knee
lifts up the delicate mane of the horse
standing still on the road.

The delicately maned horse is yards from “the torn bag,” which “tears along the dirty pavement,” and amid this clash of news and nature, horse and paper – in which all devised by people are “torn” or “dirty” while the blameless horse remains at peace – the three remaining bathroom walls begin to break, leaving where a fourth should be, the vision of a morning’s clarity distilled in the appearance of the sun. At last, the breaking walls are able to feel “we are alive,” holding a mirror to the prevailing, and ultimately purifying, forces of nature. 

Meanings are diffused by shared effect: the flag set up by roadmen “experiences all the day,” shop window smudges are “counted by the sun.”  Like Sartre, his contemporary, Grigson chiefly recognises objects by virtue not of its design but of its use – roofs and buildings gradually become churches and shops.  Life is breathed into an event, a scene, or merely collections of unnumbered bricks, when nature and design collide.
This is not to suggest that Grigson is attempting to define, or explain anything - but the experiences described are not merely his own, or even those of other people.  Owls, plants, even flags, are capable of feeling – such as when the poet sees the clarity of nature revealed within the storm described above.  There is life beyond human comprehension, also – Grigson’s owls, for instance, may enjoy their “owl moment,” of mystery – and his choice of a singular rather than plural moment(s) suggests that he imagines for the natural world an unmappable unit of time, incomprehensible to the human mind.  Owls, he tells us, would seem to realise the fragility of life, each one accepting “it might soon fall dead” – hence its “round cry” giving it a sound “as if old, or not well.”  Yet even this uniform sound betrays distinctions: “hesitating to an uncertain thread,” the owl’s cry suggests “irreconcilable / policies of conscious / owls, a curtain between owls, propaganda / and prestige / of owls, sustained / unkindness of owls.”  Grigson has written of birds as “cruel” and his owls are presented almost reminiscently of politicians or secretive gangsters, yet the point of the poem, bound up in its closing lines, is to reinforce their mystery – “if owls live / in an owl moment / alone, it is / (not) emptied of delight.”  Typically, we are not to discover the source of this delight.  We are given no clues, told only what the owls want us to find out.  In Grigson’s poetry, nothing is ever over-analysed, or over-explained.  It is enough to know that life breathes through the miscellany of existences we know as nature, and that non-human animals, also, experience delight.
But death and the macabre – for all his love of beauty – are everywhere in Grigson.  Consider, his ambitous “Country Aplhabet,” the impressive compendium of rural terms and names, published in 1965, where he “aims to illustrate the things we come across in the countryside,” without attempting to steer clear of the unpleasant.  Stocks, mauseoleums, workhouses and even goblins all rub shoulders with beavers and horse chestnuts.  In its preface, he admits, “I cannot think of a word which covers (the attraction of) rainbows and gravestones and green men, dene-holes and mazes and mistletoe, or place-names and poets, or sham ruins and waterfalls and the zodiac.”  He confesses, “We accept familiar sights with only half the answer about them,” and stresses that the book is “about the visible.”  Yet Grigson’s poetry, however physical and concrete, is also a tool for exploring the less visible – the spiritual half-knowledge contained within the miraculous flaring of the sun, that great symbol of creation, of fertility, of power, frames the world in the focus of its own light.  Its only message, its only affirmation, is the proof of life.  It is this proof of life which runs through Grigson’s poetry.  He could be confrontational, spiky and unlikeable.  His poetry was as uncompromising as were his expressions of opinion, yet persevere with Grigson and he rewards you with a jewellery box of natural revelations, a mirror in which to view the oft-hidden life-affirming beauties of the world.  You will encounter myth, magic, tradition, occasional linguistic innovation, and as he slowly unveils his own peculiar narration of the globe, take the time to recognize, and to embrace, the
Foxgloves, water
Quartz in a stone.

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