Jul 25 2019
Alwyn Marriage admires the depth and musicality of John Greening’s long poem about creativity and its loss
John Greening’s latest collection combines three long poems (in the case of the title poem, “The Silence”, very long) with a selection of shorter ones. All are worthy of comment, but this review will focus predominantly on “The Silence”, because, while all the poetry is good, this one is outstanding. I don’t think I’ve been quite so excited to read a poem since I first discovered Alice Oswald’s Dart, in 2002.
Greening’s extended poem, “The Silence”, which runs to 32 pages, is ostensibly about the last thirty years of Jean Sibelius’s life, in which, though already famous throughout the world, the composer produced no music at all. He was rumoured to be working on an eighth symphony, but this never appeared, and the manuscript of it was quite possibly burned on the fire in his cottage in Finland, where he lived with his wife and family.
I say ‘ostensibly’, because the poem is clearly about far more than Sibelius, fascinating though that subject is in itself. In particular, the poem is about the process of creation, and will inevitably resonate with poets. There will, for instance, be few writers who don’t identify with his dilemma when he writes:
Self-criticism, that's what it comes down to: knowing where to make the cut, having the courage to leave something out and an instinct for a buried seed. (page 84)
The autobiographical slant is further strengthened when, earlier on that page, we find the lines:
Every time a rival succeeds, something that was greening withers. Yes, he has had his share of triumphs, but that's all in the past and artists prefer now. You never know if this is your last word or where the next will come from. If there are to be others ... (italics mine).
But withering is certainly not something that is affecting this Greening. Daring to write in rhyming quatrains (abba) throughout, he plays with rhythm, half rhyme, internal rhyme and enjambment. In the hands of a lesser poet, it might well not have worked; but Greening rarely puts a foot wrong. Just occasionally the restrictions of the form produce a less successful verse:
As if any of this matters. Appease the gods with fine cigars. Gaze at the night and its absent moon. While, for art, forget it, and wonder instead about his hair. Perhaps he should simply cut it off to a parody of Nero or one of Hollywood's fading stars. (page 95)
The enjambment between the third and fourth lines here is, to say the very least, uncomfortable. But there are few such instances.
There is emotion and pathos in the poem, but also joy, childlike playfulness and a real understanding of music.
So, write for the circus. Here comes that tightrope walker of a theme to thrill the children. Now show them how you can tame the roar with a glockenspiel, how a solitary trombone will swallow fire, how knives may be thrown at a minor. And don't forget to knock a dominant cop on his keynote as the Viennese clowns tumble into the big top you put up for them. While above you, a jazz trapeze is swinging, and hanging by her sweet Parisian knees: the muse of the circus. (pages 82-83)
Writing an extended poem often gives a poet the necessary space to explore an idea deeply, and to develop a style more fully. I have certainly found this with my own longer poems, which have often turned out to be among my best work; and this is without doubt the case with “The Silence”. Greening’s other long poems in this collection are also successful: “Nehamun’s Tomb”, “Heath”, “From the Peak”, “Chalk” and “Airmail for Chief Seattle”, though the last of these has an enjambment that while some may approve of it, others will find uncomfortable, if not positively ugly:
the door, the smile, the seat not taken a smooth ascent, this sudden sicken- ing plunge.
Chacun a son gout!
I couldn’t help wondering whether there was another playful autobiographical hint in the poem “Chalk”, where we read
Since when, other mysteries than whether it's horse, dragon or sky-spider have shuttled through, though not to the Ridgeway's march-time, rather from somewhere higher, hidden, where minds draw on each other. (italics mine).
Is the choice of words here a small bow to his friend and co-poet, Penny Shuttle, with whom he has recently collaborated in the collection, Heath? Greening values other friends and poets in his writing too: his “Evensong” in which he meditates on what happens after death, is in memory of Dennis O’Driscoll; and the epigraph that introduces the whole book is by Seamus Heaney: ‘Silent, beyond silence listened for’.
Among the shorter delights in this collection, I would recommend “Compleat”, in which Greening describes a fishing trip in minute detail, “Woden”, and “Tree Rings”, with its beautiful final lines:
The swing I had rigged from one of its three massive stems became for a single summer a glade, a sacred grove to cradle you and your book, until one night in a millennial wind the whole thing torquing to itself, groaned, then collapsed across the fence, almost as far as our neighbour's greenhouse. The swing was crushed. I am to this day angry, and thankful, and astonished that such a bough could ever have held you. (page 44)
That ‘torquing to itself’ is deliciously cheeky, and absolutely spot on!
This is an intelligent, satisfying collection and, appropriately for poetry where one of the main subjects is a musician, it is consistently musical.