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Interview: John Greening, poet, teacher

08 December 2023

‘I feel closer to God on a country walk or when hitting my stride with a poem than anywhere else’

Adrian Bullers

It’s dangerous to start thinking of yourself as “a poet”. T. S. Eliot used to advise people that they should just concentrate on the poetry. As with any activity, you have to keep at it. Nobody expects to pick up a snooker cue and play like Ronnie O’Sullivan. That theory about it taking 10,000 hours to achieve anything substantial has a lot of truth in it.

My writing probably began with reading nursery rhymes and hymns.
I was intrigued by “There is a green hill far away Without a city wall.” I mean, why would it have a city wall anyway?

I was drawn to poets with a spiritual bent like William Cowper,
W. B. Yeats, Edwin Muir, Kathleen Raine, Vernon Watkins — even Norman Nicholson. I particularly like those who take their beliefs and give them a good metrical workover: Robert Lowell, Anne Stevenson, Geoffrey Hill (though reading Hill can be like reading crossword clues), or R. S.Thomas.

The world doesn’t pay much for poetry,
although it’s prepared to give you money to look as if you’re writing it, or helping others write it — grants, workshops, etc. A common way of making a living was to be a teacher like Heaney, Cope, Hughes, I. C. Smith. I found it suited me. I’ve learnt more about poetry from discussing it with young people than from anything else.

Kevin Gardner and I wanted to follow up on our anthology of modern country-house poems, Hollow Palaces,
and gather poems from the century that explore Englishness. We hoped Contraflow would take readers beyond any clichéd, flag-waving, and potentially toxic associations.

Some of the most powerful poems from the last decades are by Black and Asian writers,
and the topics poets tackled in 2022 were not dissimilar to those from 1922; so we start with an Edmund Blunden, and a series from the 2020s; then one from the 1930s, set against 2010s; until both streams meet in the 1970s and carry on.

Any such hot topic is best approached obliquely;
or let it emerge when you’re writing about something else. Anyone browsing my Selected Poems will find Brexit there, Trump, the war in Ukraine, the various ills that our age is heir to, but I didn’t set out to write about them.

I wish those who fulminate on certain headline issues would just sit down and listen to a late Beethoven quartet,
or Tallis’s Spem in Alium — and then see if they still feel the same way. It’s a case of being alert to what’s really important.

The language of debate itself is now so debased that it’s hard to take much of the discussion seriously.
Even the letters of resignation are illiterate. How can one trust people who use language so casually? I worry when I hear someone criticising someone else for being “disinterested” when that’s precisely what they should be.

Find the right word for something and a kind of miracle happens.
I rather like the idea of Jesus as a poet.

It’s never occurred to me to be proud of being English,
but it matters to me enormously because of the literary inheritance. No poet writes without feeling the weight of their predecessors. You don’t have to be original, but you have to know what you’re up against.

But, yes, there’s a good deal of shame to Englishness,
not least because of the Empire. I’m very conscious of this, because my wife’s family were in the Colonial Service, and it’s something I’ve tried to write about.

I’m uncomfortable with the way we’ve treated immigrants and refugees over the years,
although we keep hearing about a proud tradition of welcoming them. My wife and I taught Vietnamese boat people for a while in Arbroath, and that was an eye-opener. There are some poems I wrote about these delightful people in the Selected.

My earliest poems were about the tensions between the cultural concerns of the West
and the life of often very poor people we knew in Egypt. Nubians particularly fascinated me because of their history of displacement. I titled my first collection Westerners, because that’s what we were; yet, to the ancient Egyptians, “Westerners” were the dead, buried on the west bank of the Nile. We’d originally been going to teach with Christians Abroad, but they wisely redirected us to VSO. Egypt opened my Christianity up to take in much more.

When our children were small,
I wrote a lot about parenthood. Egypt I’ve returned to again and again. History and myth always get my juices stirring; and places with some spiritual resonance; the intersection of timeless moments; coincidences. I wrote a long poem about Fotheringhay (Richard III’s birthplace and where Mary, Queen of Scots, died), and I’ve produced four long sequences about Huntingdonshire, with its many pilgrim routes. The latest, From the East, is out in April.

Little Gidding is only a cycle ride from where we live,
and Nicholas Ferrar features prominently in my 2021 pamphlet The Giddings. I recently brought out a pamphlet of poems about science, and one about classical music. Before that were chapbooks on all kinds of topics — the R101 airship, for instance, and Omm Sety, the Englishwoman who was convinced that she had, in a former life, been Sety I’s consort.

One book I’m particularly proud of is Iceland Spar,
a tribute to my parents, who met during the war. Part of it shadows Verdi’s Requiem, which my father heard in concert just before he died. I’ve also been translating a great deal — Goethe last year; and, most recently, I completed Rilke’s Neue Gedichte, not often translated in full, because poets have been deterred by the large number of biblical themes.

It’s uncommon to have your Selected Poems edited by someone else if you’re alive,
but Kevin Gardner’s restored many pieces I’d never published, knowing that a British poetry magazine wouldn’t take them.

It’s almost assumed nowadays that a UK poet has no faith.
Simon Armitage said as much in a TV interview, though there are fine exceptions.

Mine was a very happy childhood beneath the main flight path to Heathrow,
something I have mythologised quite a lot. I spent my first months next to Kew Gardens; so, if my Eden’s anywhere, it’s there. I write about Hounslow a great deal — including an entire book, Heath, in collaboration with Penelope Shuttle.

has always been mightily important to me:
carols round the piano, listening to Amahl and the Night Visitors, or the annual Royal Choral Society concert at the Royal Albert Hall, and certain magical moments at home, bringing the family together in our cottage — this year for the first time with our grandchild, Edith.

It was never for me as it was for a fellow-volunteer in Aswan,
who heard God literally speak to him and lay out the path he must take; but it would take a lot to shake my belief. I’ve had some pretty intense mystical experiences, when one is suddenly attuned to the all. It’s connected with that shaping spirit of the imagination which is something essentially sacred, as Wordsworth and Coleridge knew. I feel closer to God on a country walk, or when hitting my stride with a poem, than anywhere else.

The serious evidence for life after death is so overwhelming it’s strange that it’s not explored more in the pulpit.
It’s shocking that scientists tend to address the subject so unscientifically. My conviction gives me great inner peace, a sense of rightness, and a clear view to “God or whatever means the Good” as MacNeice put it.

I probably pray more now than I ever did.
Poetry and prayer are close allies. I suspect I’m rather superficial and inefficient and brisk in my praying. How many hours did Herbert spend on his knees, or the deeply troubled Cowper, or Milton, who was one of the earliest, most overwhelming influences on me?

Mechanical or electronic things that don’t work properly make me angry.
And people who say daft things.

Walking a footpath makes me happy.
Listening to a fine live performance of Sibelius. Seeing our granddaughter smile. Laughing with my wife.

I can remember the clink our front gate used to make in Hounslow,
and the milkman’s cry. I like the crackle of an open fire.

On a selfish level, the arrival of a new poem gives me hope for the future.
That’s always reassuring and one feels for a while in tune with things. I’m an optimist — we often catastrophise unnecessarily.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Sibelius,
although he might raid the communion wine. He didn’t write overtly religious music, but he spoke to friends about some of his mystical experiences, invariably filtered through nature. He also spoke of how God had thrown down the constituent parts of the Second Symphony and left him to put the mosaic together. I tend to work the same way.

John Greening was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Selected Poems: The interpretation of owls is published by Baylor University Press at £23.95 (Church Times Bookshop £21.55); 978-1-4813-1734-4. Contraflow is published by Renard Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-80447-037-4.

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