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A Centenary Reconsideration:  Thinking About Geoffrey Grigson




Reviewed By I. Woncewas

In thinking of Geoffrey Grigson, do we think anthologist first, perhaps, critic next?

Then let us also add, autobiographer, editor, journalist, active promoter of unknown and forgotten writers, painters; scourge, iconoclastic, satirist. Also, botanist.

And conclude: jack-of-all-trades, master of many.

2005 marks the centenary of his birth. 

His magazine ‘New Verse’ was the voice of 1930’s poetry, palimpsest of the culture, touchstone of the period’s ideas. As such, of course, it set itself up horribly. For Larkin, Amis etc it would come to represent everything that was wrong with the period. And what was that? The lean to the far Left. ‘New Verse’ became the platform for Auden and Co, sometimes at their Leftist worst (“A Communist to Others”), though it was never a card-carrying member.

It could also be a pillory, for everything to do with privilege, and that Edith Sitwell was assumed to represent.

Geoffrey Grigson was seventh son of a Cornish clergyman; Cornish in that Reverend Grigson was a Norfolk man many years settled in Cornwall. It was sufficient for Grigson to take up the mantle of Cornishman as, later, he was a Wiltshireman. I mention these identifiers because they were important to Grigson: where he was, when he was, were of major importance: to be a man in and of his time.

Geoffrey Grigson was also a poet. Didn’t I mention that? His ‘Collected Poems’ was published in1963. The poems are characterized by a great awareness of the moment, it’s constituents: colour, the sudden motivating force set against a background of current affairs; modernist manners all too well aware of the older mannerisms of the readership’s background. The coda to this volume is a wonderful sequence of  poems, charting a relationship with all its hesitations, frustrations and triumphs: Legenda.

In 1982 Grigson’s other ‘Collected Poems’ appeared. We find here the Grigson voice: the Grigsonian stanza capturing the donnee, full of breathless surprise, the convolution of iteration and reiteration that is the self rediscovering itself in time and place, and the salt of experience:

                        Your Way 

                       A green lorry piled to a risky sway

                       Of brown cubes of hay lurches

                       My way, under the grey of one more

                       Nearly wet, late summer day.


                       But you are young.

                       I have turned the car

                       And I drive your way.

 At his worst he can seem facile:

      from After the Assassination of Martin Luther King 

              …and notice  how long and black, black is

                   my shadow….


                Because it is black, shoot

                   at my long shadow, malignant fools.

 We do also have the heartbreaking:

                Paddington Street

                By the low gas fire which sent

                Its red suffusion through the room

                I undressed you, to your sweet

                Navel bare, and small, exquisitely

                Shaped you were.

                Yet in that dry warm unharsh gloom

                You reached over (horizontally)

                And took the phone. You rang

                Your husband, and you said,

                I shall not be home. And, I am not alone.

                I loved you. But what hating

                Made you, over me, your breast

                Touching my own, most graceful

                One, reach to the phone?

 A free sonnet; note the characteristic inversion of line 12. Is there is also something of e e cummings in the construction, the mimetic quality of internal positioning, as if it were a psychological trope? Note also the seeming awkwardness of lines 4 and 5, a juxtaposing, where ‘small’ is made to serve two senses, the sense of the second statement breathlessly running on from the unfinished first. Or does the second actually finish the first, in that it extends beyond statement into kinaesthetic expression, a construction that embraces the erotic possibilities and at the same moment, their denial?

From his later, Wiltshireman years, the following startles with its painterliness:

                    Washing her Hair in this Garden

                   Green her shampoo container on that orange

                   Table. And rectangle-shadows are

                   Skewed into blackest diamonds.

                   Now look. How her water-black hair falls again

                   Into the white of the basin.


 The specifics are important here: note the title’s ‘this Garden’, and ‘that orange’. The ‘again’ of line 4 is also telling.

With poems like this I often wonder: ‘What day of the week could this be?’, ‘What hour of the day?’ The ‘Now look’ gives us a bright-lit summer’s day; one of many. Is it also Candide in his garden; the won contentment of the seasoned traveller? It is a Renoir painting; with maybe Monet’s visual diminishment: although he picks out distinct items it is with a myopic vision. I’d also like to say there is something of Mondrian here, but don’t think you’d let me. The period of reference is early century; the poem is from a post-1970s collection; I would argue this belies Grigson’s sense of retirement.

He died in 1985, leaving wife Jane Grigson (to follow soon after), and daughter Sophie.

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