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John Greening: Taking a Line for a Walk

That remark of Keats’ about seeing the long poem as ‘the Polar star’ of poetry is always twinkling somewhere in my mind, however dense the lyric and epigrammatic cloud-cover.  I enjoy reading long poems and have tackled a good few that I suspect tend to be overlooked or abandoned – Masefield’s The Daffodil Fields,  H.D.’s Helen in Egypt,  Andrew Young’s Out of the World and Back, John Gurney’s War… Emulation is a powerful incentive. I do relish a fat novel but I was never especially moved to write one, preferring for some decades to produce unproduceable verse dramas. Yet I think something of the novelist’s urge may be at work behind my narrative poems. The longer form remains powerfully attractive for all the reasons Keats gave, even if what I usually end up with is a concatenation of short verse sections – the kind of thing I admire in Eavan Boland, John Montague or Louise Glück.  Only in ‘The Silence’, I think, did I manage a genuine long poem that wasn’t a sequence (it’s made up of 177 rhymed quatrains). That it took the composer Sibelius to make this happen may be connected with the Finnish master’s passion for symphonic form. I do regard the long poem as a kind of symphony. When I worked for BBC Radio 3 in the late 1970s, I even remember saying to the musicologist Robert Layton (one of the leading experts on Sibelius) that I wrote poetry because I couldn’t compose. That’s still true, and I wish I had sent Layton a copy of my book, The Silence: he died shortly after it appeared.

Most of the poems of mine published by Long Poem Magazine have been about specific places, and, although some came more from what I was reading (‘Yews’, for instance, which appeared in Issue 24 and is a series of epigrams about named English yew trees), a surprising number were written after or even during a country walk. I’m not alone in this tendency. Alistair Elliot produced a masterly long poem about walking the Appian Way; P.J.Kavanagh did a shorter one on a walk along the Severn, and of course there’s Alice Oswald’s Dart. Wordsworth is said to have liked to compose (most unromantically) while ambling back and forth along a flat gravel path, but I rather enjoy jotting things down as they come to me while I hike rougher terrain. It’s then that I can really make myself look at things, and even ‘see into the life of things’. I still have the annotated OS maps from two 1980s walks which became poems – ‘The Coastal Path’ and ‘Fotheringhay’ – and which later gave their titles to collections. The more recent sequence ‘Skye ‘ (Long Poem Magazine issue 12) was conceived in much the same way, as an album of linked snapshots. It’s a technique that goes back to my first satisfactory poems, written in Upper Egypt in the late 1970s. I didn’t take actual photographs when my wife and I were with Voluntary Service Overseas in Aswan (nor did local people like having their souls stolen!), so those early imagistic verses were a way of preserving the moment – what Edwin Morgan called ‘Instamatic’ poems.

The extract from my 2021 pamphlet, The Giddings, which featured in Long Poem Magazine issue 20 also describes a walk, albeit a fictional character’s walk, but the setting is still my own undistinguished lowland ‘patch’ of Eastern England.  I was certainly stretching my legs a lot during the month of its composition, but many miles from home in the glorious grounds of Hawthornden Writers’ Retreat. It was essentially a work of the imagination rather than observation. ‘The Giddings’ was largely produced at my desk in the ancient Scottish castle, where resident Fellows are expected to sit and get on with their writing in silence (and offline). However, the earlier ‘Huntingdonshire Codices’ (in issue 22) and especially ‘Huntingdonshire Psalmody’ (in issue 18) were very much the result of my own local rambles. The latter is a complete long poem that I’m particularly pleased to have seen in Long Poem Magazine (it will open my American Selected in 2023, The Interpretation of Owls: Poems 1977-2022, Baylor University Press, ed, Kevin J.Gardner). ‘Huntingdonshire Psalmody’ literally follows the course of one of my favourite strolls during a glorious spring day – a crucial season in English verse since long before Chaucer set out on his epic perambulation. Fragmentary though my tale of that day’s walk might seem to be, it is ‘through-composed’: each section arrived in order. It was also completely unexpected. I had no outline, no complex template of the kind I prepared for ‘The Giddings’, so there was the thrill of creative discovery and a jazzy metrical freedom. One of the reasons I am still pleased with ‘Huntingdonshire Psalmody’ is that it seems to express something of that sense of joy, rare enough these days, and rarer still in contemporary verse. I think in my latter years – even in such dark times – I may have come to understand at last why Rilke equated poetry with praise. 

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