Sounding European by John Greening

Ever since reading T.S.Eliot’s 1955 essay on Goethe, I have had at the back of my mind the faint aspiration to be considered a ‘European’ author. It’s not something I have really acted upon, although I must have started writing poetry seriously at about the same time as I discovered that rather indigestible essay in On Poetry and Poets. Eliot suggests that a truly European author should demonstrate ‘Abundance, Amplitude and Unity’ (he also throws in ‘Universality’), making it clear from his personal pronouns that this is a male preserve – just one of several elements in ‘Goethe as the Sage’ that make it uncomfortable to re-read. Eliot’s boldness in canonical matters was not quite on the scale of Ezra Pound’s or Harold Bloom’s, but he doesn’t hesitate to enrol Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe in his men’s club. As well as women, he excludes big names such as Cervantes, Wordsworth, Hölderlin on the basis (and this is his shibboleth) that in a truly great European writer it should not be possible to ‘isolate’ any one part and regard it as the essence of the work. Hölderlin gives us access to his fullness pretty much wherever you dip into him. Similarly, Cervantes would not do because he is ‘for us entirely in [Don Quixote]’. As for Wordsworth, despite his greatness, ‘he will never mean to Europeans of other nationality, what he means to his own compatriots’.

I have no idea whether in forty years I have come close to satisfying Eliot’s criteria for Europeanness. Abundance I can claim, certainly. In my new Carcanet collection, The Silence, I have included several translations (versions? imitations?) of Hölderlin. Perhaps this was a way of showing my own European credentials, but perversely it was also a means of reinforcing my allegiance to a particular ‘country, and local culture’ (Eliot’s words – although he adds ‘race’). This was especially true in my reimagining of the celebrated long poem ‘Homecoming’, the original of which is a work of ‘ambitious metaphysical scope’, according to David Constantine, one of this poet’s most distinguished translators. Not being lucky enough to have spent my childhood in the Lake District, it is to the area around Heathrow Airport that I nostalgically return, the place where I was happy, my ‘seed-time’. In the poem I track Hölderlin’s original text, which describes his own return to Nürtingen in April 1801 after a tutoring job at Hauptwyl. The opening (which Constantine, in his biography, calls ‘the most sustained and one of the densest of Hölderlin’s poetical landscapes’) evokes his thrill at looking back from Lake Constance and seeing dawn over the Alps. For me, it was looking up from the Great West Road at the air traffic coming and going over the old Hounslow Heath, yet that itself was a kind of link with a wider European aesthetic:

Out on the Heath, night still glows as approaching images

    shine in the pleasure of travel and skim the pre-war semis.

From Staines to Bell Corner, screeching broomsticks blast

    above rowan, birch and maidenhair with a sly wink.

Slowly the rush-hour struggles around its eagerness to get away –

    children or hardened travellers, all squabbling affectionately

between hotel and multi-storey: it accelerates, brakes,

    speeds off again to the drunkenness of imminent escape.

There, a year is nothing but endless holidays, a shuffling

    sleight of lands on the pilgrim arrivals and departures board.

The Bird of Thunder, meanwhile, stacked high and circling,

    knows all destinations and announces that day is about to break.

Below, curtains are pulled back on bedroom windows

    and from duvets each cold eye meets this high processional.

They know expansion is inevitable; they have heard the groaning by night

    (as others before heard Druids), the reversing engines howl,

spilling kerosene, ruining maths lessons, music recitals.

    The engineers never cease, night or day. It is a gift. […]

These versions of a great German Romantic might be seen as a natural supplement to my earlier translations of Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernst Stadler and August Stramm, poets who wrote about (or anticipated, in Heym’s case) the First World War. These attempts to stir some awareness of the mere existence of such writers outside the UK appeared in my 2013 Carcanet collection, To the War Poets (a book dedicated to my old German penfriend who had in fact stayed with us under the flight path in Hounslow). In that book, I chiefly engaged in dialogue with figures such as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Vera Brittain – a response, maybe, to a different kind of silence, that refusal to talk about the trenches, something of which a post-war generation of writers (think of Ted Hughes) was acutely aware. But my versions of Hölderlin touch on certain spiritual matters which preoccupy me too, and they are also a natural extension of my musical obsessions, since so many of his poems feature in Austro-German classical repertoire.

The long title poem of The Silence comes from a different European source, one as unique as its language. On the cover of the collection is a bust of the Finnish composer Sibelius, whose fame was such in his lifetime that when an American sent a letter to ‘Jean Sibelius, Europe’ it quickly found its way to his forest home north of Helsinki.  Ironically, Sibelius’s music has never quite been taken to the hearts of the leading European nations, and René Leibowitz considered him ‘the worst composer in the world’. It wasn’t until this year that a French orchestra even brought out a complete cycle of his symphonies. And German orchestras have generally avoided him, unless persuaded by a Karajan or a Rattle. Yet what Sibelius has to say feels more essentially European today than anything by the Second Viennese School – and not only because it is obviously in tune with contemporary environmental concerns. I don’t often take lines of poetry from my dreams, but one dropped into my sleep – ‘the forest believes in you’ – and when I woke I knew it had to be part of my Sibelius poem. Although I cut the original 1200 lines to almost half that length (1) (I think Eliot might grant me ‘amplitude’), those words remained, alongside words of Sibelius himself which he placed at the head of his masterly evocation of the forest spirit, Tapio. Tapiola was one of his very last compositions before that notorious ‘Silence from Järvenpää’ descended in the 1920s and lasted into the age of Sputnik:

‘Widespread they stand, the northland’s dusky forests,’ and smoke drifts

from deep within them, a top secret clearing where a man has paused

to light his cigar and launch his genius again. Furrows, crazed

as the bark of pinus sylvestris, eyes down, and something lifts

off his smooth domed head, gathering needles and mushrooms

into its cloud: the cold bone of creation thrown to a Russian

spaceship with a dog inside who longs for a tree, her solo mission

howling for the moon, ‘ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams’.

*

Every day he pushes the envelope aside, leaves a new

emptiness and silence. Those you grew up with, they disappear

into the mouth that has nothing to say but will eventually devour 

even Tapio’s war whoop. The forest believes in you. 

In fact it was in England, most deforested of countries, that Sibelius really found a devoted audience. Cecil Gray (a Scot, in fact, and partner of the American poet H.D.) wrote the earliest biography (2), which is still one of the best, and helped spread the word. In my poem I touch on the composer’s visit to London, where he was taken up by Proms impresario Sir Henry Wood and his English ‘muse’, the enigmatic Rosa Newmarch:

…He weighs up which of the various different ties

will match his swan-white suit, and now descends, the Guest,

to Georgian London, royalty, oysters, Rosa and Sir Henry Wood.

They press his weak hand. They snatch at his coat. How people love

his work here – and love to copy it, though he can hardly disapprove

except when they make of it some gilt-edged drifting cloud 

and moonshine nonsense, as if the very highest art were varnish.

English artists, much as he loves them, lack a vital spark,

internal compulsion to bring out their enigma from the back

of all those sideboards they inherited. It’s not about the finish. 

For all Edward Elgar’s Straussian credentials, das Land ohne Musik had an increasingly troubled relationship with the Austro-German tradition after the First World War. Listeners looking for a fresh start responded wholeheartedly to the Finn, whose ‘mosaic’ approach to symphonic form would prove so influential on Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Maxwell Davies:

Sixty thousand grey autumn lakes and a greeting from the master,

who says: find your own form, let your creative thoughts,

the way they take spiritual shape, determine how the lots

fall, the pieces of the mosaic. Improvise. Make beauty of disaster

and tragedy of utter bliss. Take the turn of the year with you

and when you think of bells, let posterity decide if they’re even

bells or something lighter, more silvery. Be ready for the raven,

the waves, bluish grey, a splash of sun, the cold white cliffs,

a scarred landscape, and there towards the forested, patrolled horizon,

revolution’s border. Step in his boat, the moon rippling,

a steady motion. Everything grieves. But he persists, grappling

with nevermore. The pieces fall before him as he rows on .

I am fascinated by those points at which European culture comes up against something different. My first poetry collection, Westerners (1982), was so called because that is what my wife and I were when we lived for two years as virtually the only Europeans in Aswan, Upper Egypt – but to ancient Egyptians ‘Westerners’ were the dead. Over a quarter of a century later, Iceland Spar (2008) took me to the Thingvellir, site of the world’s oldest parliament, and of a huge fault line where European and American tectonic plates meet each other. Sibelius might seem to be on the fringe of such seismic shifts, a reclusive artist indifferent to the century’s conflicts, but there is considerable political tension in his work, from the simple patriotism of Finlandia to his pointed use of stories from the Kalevala. Finland is, after all, where Russia leans its weight against Scandinavia and so against Europe. When Sibelius was living at Järvenpää, the Russian Revolution was happening not so far away, and the area around Ainola (his house) was the focus of fighting during the 1918 Finnish civil war. Red Guards occupied Ainola and even swept through his study – not noticing, of course, the sketches for that elusive Eighth symphony on his desk. Sibelius’s sympathies were more with the White Guards so he knew he was in danger as a composer of patriotic music. 

‘The Silence’ itself (like many of the shorter poems preceding it in the book) was written before Brexit, although it anticipates the political earthquake in certain ways – and ‘silence’ might even be interpreted as one kind of response. Nevertheless, it is a strongly European poem, with particular things to say about one small nation’s place, as well as Europe’s own relationship with the rest of the world, especially the USA; and I realise now that the same is true of much of my work. There was, for example ‘European Union’, a series of fifteen linked ‘Hungarian’ sonnets, each with a country for a title (written in 1997, before the EU expanded). The form demands that the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next, and in the fifteenth all the previous last lines combine. It is a form as devilish to handle as Brexit itself, but one I have returned to recently in a pamphlet which appears this autumn: Europa’s Flight (from New Walk Editions). This ‘Crown of Sonnets’ is set on Crete, and its complexity might be less in honour of the Labyrinth, and more an acknowledgment of the maze of backstops and cliff-edges into which Britain has recently disappeared. The sonnet (originally an Italian form, but effective in many other languages) does seem to invite a European perspective – or it could be the other way round. The form is undoubtedly very good at containing powerful emotions, which is why it has conventionally been adopted by love poets. 

Last summer I stayed for a fortnight at Heinrich Böll’s cottage on Achill Island. It had been the novelist’s bolt hole at a time when he was much misunderstood back in the Bundesrepublik. Looking out from that western extremity of Ireland towards America, while back in the UK the Brexit debate was raging, it felt once again as if I was on a fault line. And even though I had no internet and the radio seemed to be mainly about hurling, there was no escape from Europe – largely because the Achill ‘retreat’ has become something of a tourist attraction. For Germans, naturally, because of Böll’s celebrity, but I had visits from French and Dutch passers-by too, all curious about what an English poet might be doing in the home of this Nobel Prize-winner. One of the twenty-four sonnets I wrote in the summer of 2018 remembers another Laureate, Seamus Heaney, who advises in his ‘Postscript’ to ‘some time make the time to drive out west/Into County Clare…’

So I did make time to cycle through the bog,

negotiating pot-holes, and deep names,

Gubardascanaveen, Rinnaweeloge,

as if I were sleep-riding. My best dreams

occur in such a landscape, and I know it

like a musical score. Like Bax, the composer

who took a different name, became the poet

O’Byrne, as if that somehow brought him closer

to the Garden of Fand. On Newstalk today

they sped through English nationalism,

the bogland of Brexit; but they had a way

of keeping their balance, while our phantasm

is always on the edge of something dark

and as I round this bend it starts to bark.

But The Silence, the collection as as a whole (which takes a line from Heaney as its epigraph, and which contains no sonnets) is perhaps a fuller expression of my European outlook. The poem ‘Fontevraud’, for example, describes the French burial place of English monarchs. ‘1d’ conjures the Roman occupation. ‘Woden’ imagines the German war-god in a USAF fighter jet. ‘Chalk’ plays with the crumbling symbolism of our borders. And ‘Airmail for Chief Seattle’ is a contemporary flight out of Europe – an English family’s journey from Heathrow to America. Those tectonic plates never stop grinding.

John Greening

Notes:

  1.  See my article about the process of cutting at  http://wildcourt.co.uk/features/2212/ & my Carcanet blog from March 6th on the origins of the poem: https://carcanetblog.blogspot.com/2019/03/breaking-silence.html
  2.  Sibelius (Oxford, 1931)

Recipient of a Cholmondeley Award and a Bridport Prize winner, John Greening has published over fifteen collections, the two most recent with Carcanet: To the War Poets (2013) and The Silence (2019). His sonnet sequence, Achill Island Tagebuch, written while in residence at Heinrich Boll’s cottage appeared in a limited edition from Redfoxpress earlier this year. Other recent books include editions of Edmund Blunden and Geoffrey Grigson, Heath (with Penelope Shuttle), an Egypt memoir, Threading a Dream, and the anthologies, Accompanied Voices and Ten Poems about Sheds. See www.johngreening.co.uk

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One comment

  1. Really lovely to read this piece on your work, especially ‘The Silence’, John, and which you know I love ‘from Staines to Bell Corner’ and all its other wonderfully-visited landscapes and perspectives… Am now re-reading the title poem and finding its layers and indeed its silences profoundly moving and beautifully-made.

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