FringeReview UK 2019
John Greening read extracts from his new collection The silence (Carcanet £999) with in-between performances by the Dryad Quartet.
Though I perform and indeed mount poetry readings they’re something I normally avoid. So why after three-and-a half-hours of David Hare’s Peter Gynt at the National (with another three-and-a half to review it looming) traipse to St Mary’s Islington?
John Greening’s self-recommending as a poet, but also as the kind of quiet voice that brings sackfuls of needles pinging to the floor. Or in this case pine-needles since the focus of his new collection The Silence is Sibelius, a 33-page meditation around the composer’s last year, taking in vast tracts of forest and drink, legend and cranes. And failure to finish his Eighth Symphony.
It’s hardly accidental. Greening’s kinship with composers and musicians is well known: for instance a memorably witty and touching poem on Samuel Barber’s funeral, has his 12-tone colleagues at his graveside enjoined to pick up stale bread and ‘throw all their hard pieces on him’. And there’s Greening’s anthology on composers Accompanied Voices: Poets on Composers (Boydell, 2015).
To emphasize this the Dryad Quartet played in counterpoint to poems, sometimes between each, at others between a short series of them. The effect with Greening’s voice uninsistent but authoritative, was a hushed communing. St Mary’s acoustic helped. Greening stood facing the left side of the aisle after his introduction, whilst the quartet played centre-stage.
He began with the single short poem ‘Sibelius’ dated 2015 with its imagery from the Kalevala, that Finnish curate’s egg of myth-kittying we know because Sibelius made it universal. Where ‘the sun holds up/its lollipop as if a young hero might/cross, find and egg, tie a knot in it.’ This relatively dense-packed though lucid imagery finds an analogue in the later long title poem, made up of similar connections, building up not wistfully but organically into the fullest portrait of a composer ever put into verse.
Other poems like ‘Kew’ explore Greening’s upbringing, ‘where I want to look up and see my father/in the glass, returning, and wave to him.’ Others like ‘Heath’ written in a series with Penelope Shuttle also contain witty meditations on departing aircraft. ‘Woden’ explores aviation’s warlike avatars, an F15 pilot about ‘to split the carcass//of Europe into skin/and guts and meat/and bones. What remains/will be what he owns.’ There’s a rhythmic snap to this that marks out another Greening territory, acerbic lyric (remember the Barber).
‘The Silence’ is remarkable for its sustained voice in packed imagery that never tires because Greening’s elastic in deploying different registers. It’s written in a series of quatrains with long-breathed lines, essentially fourteeners. Greening can quote a conductor’s letter verbatim on occasion as sheer sliced prose as a verbal relief, though this is a one-off. His verse, never lyrically wrought to say the pitch of Hart Crane is nevertheless so far removed from prosiness or attenuation, as to catapult his best work in the ambit of Geoffrey Hill. It’s more limpid, lets images and details breathe, but they’re often stooked up too.
Anyone versed as it were in Sibelius will pick up references, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t. For instance Sibelius’ own trope for his Symphony No. 2: ‘as if God had flung down some random mosaic tiles from heaven’s floor and said work on that!’ The whole work’s a gathering-together of these themes. The 3rd Symphony worked in reverse.
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 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…
Sibelius’ imagined imperatives cover more than mosaic tiles, and move across his corralling of Poe’s work – bells and ravens. The imagery continuously unfolds with ‘nevermore’ and where: ‘the pieces fall before him and he rows on.’ This elastic energy means the fourteeners don’t weary. They’re certainly unvarying in mass, and it’s good to pause at one of the many stops Greening provides.
Greening arranges stanzas in movements. Sometimes it’s one orphan stanza, sometimes several range unbroken over a page, map an ebb and flowchart of Sibelius contemplating his 30-year silence, after completing his final breakthrough the symphonic tone-poem Tapiola from 1926, with its contemplation of silence: ‘he’s off the heath, back into his thirty years of forest.’ He’s simultaneously ‘the man in the white suit’ (Sibelius as Alec Guinness is rather delicious). Sibelius disturbs: at once urbane and feral. Greening/Sibelius concludes: ‘nature will always outwit us, and yet we go on learning.’
Alcohol and self-doubt took its toll. The crucial silence is Sibelius’ failing to finish his Symphony No. 8 to his satisfaction and consigning it to the flames of his gas stove in 1945. Far more of it survives than those few fragments recently recorded. A whole stretch of over five minutes was transposed as a commemorative organ piece in 1931. And he sent the first 123 bars to his publisher, though whether he snatched them back remains obscure.
So much bisects the poem’s field it’s impossible to name the main themes let alone subsidiary: family, children, drinking, his relationship with composer/conductor Robert Kajanus whose 1915 Sinfonietta’s premiere he didn’t attend worried it might be better than his work (Kajanus was his first great interpreter). Relationships with his international fame, meditations in times of both the wars of 1918 when Bolshevik Russians occupied; and again later in the 1940-41 war. Greening evokes real dangers, occupying soldiers who somehow leave his desk alone. The final movement is of cranes geese, swans creaking all the way through their ‘oboe voices’ to Sibelius laughing at his own death:
…….pushing on through time
to achieve that last great something, released now from his fame –
its tidal wave, the keys, the bars, the waste – to go on writing.
The excellent Dryad Quartet played mostly Sibelius: first Sibelius’ Valse Triste, sold for a literal song; his 1909 String Quartet: Voces Intimae Quartet movements 1 and 2. Then an early George Butterworth piece that survived his critical consignment of juvenilia to the flames before dying on the Somme. It’s the 3rd movement of his Suite for String Quartet. Aarvo Part’s Psalom was particularly apposite from this composer who considers that music aspires one day towards silence. Finally Sibelius’ Andante Festivo like Valse Triste rendered for quartet made for a fitting hymnal peroration.
St Mary’s was undoubtedly the right choice and the height of summer meant sunlight slanted through to the end. A rapt recital. The Crypt organisers as well as Greening really have hit on an ideal recitation.