A Review of Grigson’s Verse

Graham Hough

  • History of Him by Geoffrey Grigson
    Secker, 96 pp, £4.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 436 18841 4

Thoughtful as always about how to win friends and influence people, Geoffrey Grigson in his latest book of poems congratulates himself that his elderly eyes

If they remain alert
Do the more easily recognise
Squirming in his primal dirt
Another verse-reviewing squirt.

Well, it is nice to know where we stand, and after that rousing salute the most scrupulous reviewer need not be afraid of disturbing cultural harmony or bruising the petals of a sensitive plant. But on second thoughts, do we know where we stand? Another verse-reviewing squirt? Does this mean yet another in the alien swarm of verse-reviewing squirts by whom the suffering Grigson is beset? Or does it mean a fellow verse-reviewing squirt, another just like himself? Throughout his career Grigson has loomed much larger as a reviewer of verse than as a writer of it. Impresario-in-chief to the new poets of the Thirties, he has never been reckoned of their number, and contributes no syllable to the composite MacSpaunday. Among his many and on the whole welcome activities since those days – broadcaster, essayist, anthologist, nature-writer and art historian – it is as a sympathetic critic of some of the quieter poets (Clare, Barnes, Christopher Smart) and an acrid critic of many others, including most of his contemporaries, that Grigson is first thought of. Not Mr Grigson the poet, his eye in a fine frenzy rolling, but Mr Grigson the critic, his eye beadily turned on pretension, inflation and afflatus. A pricker of other men’s bubbles rather than a blower of bubbles himself. It seems that he is aware of this. He says in the preface to his Collected Poems (1963): ‘A poet who has been too a sharp critic of other poets may ruefully expect even sharper criticism than his poems deserve.’

He may expect it, but let us disappoint his expectations. Suppose we reject the tit-for-tat, beggar-my-neighbour principle on which Grigson’s literary relations seem to be founded, and ask instead what criticism his poems really do deserve. A question that can be approached only by comparison. Grigson has published six or seven volumes of poetry. Does any of them stay in the mind as an experience so vivid that it permanently alters our ways of seeing and feeling, like Prufrock and Other Observations or The Wild Swans at Coole? Obviously not, as Grigson would be the first to admit. Has any of them, though with less authority, added a new clear voice that can be heard distinctively above the general chatter – like The Less Deceived? No, not that either. The same is true if we shift the focus to individual poems. They are not distinctly memorable, either for good qualities or bad. They are not posturing, or false, or self-indulgent, or vicious in language: but there is no particular reason why any of them should be read a second time.

Why is it that his critical comments, especially the negative ones, stick so much more sharply in the memory? It is not that they are especially apt, or original, or closely enforced. Often he is just echoing the views in fashion in his time – his time being the Thirties and the fashionable views being dilute early Eliot: Shelley no good because of his adolescent enthusiasms; Browning no good because he liked dining out and sought confused multi-tudinousness; a general preference for the dry little droppings of T. E. Hulme. But, unremarkable as they are, these views are held with a certain passion; a great deal of personal identification has gone into them. And when we come to the critiques of individual poets, again and again we find that while they have a general applicability to their objects, they are much more exactly fitted to aspects of Grigson’s own work. We all have our ways of rationalising our deficiencies: Grigson’s is to project them onto other people.

He writes of D. H. Lawrence’s Pansies ‘With few exceptions these satirical or exclamatory or ejaculatory versicles are simply things which a poet of a more controlled vehemence would have preserved as prose notes in a notebook.’ This is true of many of Pansies, though the exceptions are fairly numerous too: but it is precisely true of many of Grigson’s own poems. If we isolate the phrase ‘prose notes in a notebook’, it is true of most of them. Of course many poems start in this way, but what is it that transforms them into poems? It may be the sudden flash of astonished fancy or insight, as in those entries in Paul Klee’s notebooks of which one hardly knows whether they were meant to be poems or not, but which instantly become so as soon as they are isolated. It may be wit of the pungent or satiric kind, as in epigrams (in the English sense). It may be sensuous and rhythmical shapeliness that gives permanence to even unexceptional or transient emotion (epigrams in the Greek sense). Grigson’s notebook entries are not transmuted by any of these qualities. His poems often have a sort of hectoring terseness, but they never develop an idea cleanly. He is fond of citing Hopkins’s line, ‘The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation’ – usually to note its absence in others. It is markedly absent in his own verse.

He rarely uses traditional metre, or if he does, breaks it up with ritual thump and joggle to show that this is New Verse. Mostly he relies on découpage – cutting up a prose sentence into line units other than the syntactical clause, thus inducing an alternative rhythm. This can result in an attractive tension, strong enough to keep a short poem rhythmically alive. As used by Grigson, it more often results in bewilderment – mere uncertainty about how the lines are to be read:

What I see is calling back these
Conscripts of death we walk with,
Are quiet with, to whom, not
Overheard, we dare to say ‘you’.

Translation is a great test for the sense of rhythm. In an earlier volume Grigson gives a version of Hölderlin’s poem to the Neckar. This is written in majestically uniform German alcaics. Grigson’s rendering is also in quatrains, carefully printed to look like the original in line arrangement: but when examined it turns out to be a jumble of disparate rhythms, corresponding to nothing in the German and almost unreadable in English. And oh dear, if further demonstration were needed, this lumpish gobbet appears as a version of Sappho:

The moon has set,
The Seven Stars have set as well:
It is the middle of the night,
The time goes by,
And by myself I lie.

Untranslatable, for several reasons, agreed: but why print this? That hissing stumbling second line, seven words to Sappho’s two, and not one of them right; and the snubby little rhyme at the end. Picking out the bad bits is always easy, and one would not do it, were it not that Grigson himself comes on very strong as a man who understands these matters. In a comprehensive attack on the reputation of Robert Lowell, in 1973, he wrote as follows: ‘Endless, aimless consecutive sentences. The words do not coalesce into a good substance. They are difficult to say and knobbly to hear, their awkwardnesses are unconvincing, unjustifiable, they do not measure or move effectively.’ Can he have written this without a twinge? For it is a remarkably close description of his own verse.

It might be that he is one of those poets who do not depend on sensuous effect but rely rather on an intellectual pattern. It is difficult to see any signs of this. His notations are largely descriptive, and mostly descriptive of natural objects. Someone must have said this before, for in the preface to his Collected Poems he takes exception to it. ‘Such a remark as “A white stone”, by itself or extended into a poem, isn’t necessarily either description or nature verse.’ Not necessarily: but as it happens, and in Grigson’s case nearly always, it is just that. And does ‘A white stone’ by itself, without further reflection or relation, really count as a remark? Not to me; but in Grigson’s poetry it is regularly considered sufficient merely to state that something or other is the case:

                    a decidedly
Magnificent day has begun.

At least down our path, against
Our black chasm below
And beyond, a single red
Flower is catching the sun.

For he takes a strict subject-object view of the relation of the artist to nature, and in his tough-guy Wyndham Lewis stance he rejects any merging of the sensibility with the natural scene, any discovery of hidden correspondence between nature and the mind of man.

On the jacket of History of Him he says he regards his prose book Notes from an Odd Country as the best gloss on his own poems. This is revealing, for it is simply a book of jottings – nature notes, brief sketches of odd characters and manners, the unstrenuous observations of an elderly Englishman enjoying the pleasures of a résidence secondaire in rural France. Many will share the pleasure, especially since Grigson seems now more willing to be pleased than he was in earlier days. But if this is the source of the poetry we had better not expect too much of it, for it is not a very powerful spring. Mr Grigson takes the old-fashioned English view of residence abroad. The continent of Europe is properly inhabited by happy peasants, whose function in life is to make delicious wine and cheese for us at moderate prices, to elevate us by their simple virtues, and in their spare time to entertain us with their pretty ways. We are a good deal nearer to Lady Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence than to anything by Wyndham Lewis.

Perhaps that is the truth about Mr Grigson. He ought never to have fallen among literary intellectuals. It has all been a mistake. He doesn’t like them, and his liking for literature – for he has one, though he keeps it well in check – is mainly as an accompaniment to a certain way of life. He has brought some much needed elements to the literary scene – outspokenness and a brusque intolerance of certain kinds of kitsch. But he hasn’t the patience or the tenacity to learn the niceties of a craft or to develop an idea beyond its first rough hacking. He would be a wiser and a happier man if he had stuck to what he really likes, to the diversions of the scholarly country parson – flowers and local archaeology, which are the themes of his most agreeable books. His poems would then have been the by-product of these activities, and recognised as such might have acquired a less awkward air. Most of them would have remained in his private notebooks: but the world would not have suffered too much from that, and it would have given the rest of his work a clearer run.