Precursors by Elizabeth Jennings

Quote

Passages of music, a violin’s slow pace, a picture
Recording the sunset but telling more, stating
History’s alarm and hurry. I watched as a child the slow
Leaves turning and taking the sun, and the Autumn bonfires,
The whips of wind blowing a landscape away.
Always it was the half-seen, the just-heard which enthralled,
My nurse pulling her white dress off in the moonlight,
My sister pushing me in a doll’s pram as I recovered
From a slow illness. There is a library somewhere surely of
Pictures piled waiting for a hand to lift them,
Books with long markers in them. This is the world
Once ahead of me, now behind me, and yet
I am waiting still to record some of the themes
Of the music heard before I understood it,
The books read to me long before I could read
And with me tantalisingly near. So I have come
To believe that poetry is a restoration
Or else an accompaniment to what is lost
But half-remembered. Today it is Autumn outside
And as the sun reddens the whole landscape
And a smell of bonfires haunts me, a tune begins
To sing in my mind. It has no words as yet
And a life and a half would probably be too short
To set the music down with appropriate words,
Record a season completely, words before death.

Things Happen

The Family, 1988 by Paula Rego

This weekend, finally, Paula Rego’s retrospective at the Tate Britain, the first time I’ve seen most of these extraordinary paintings outside of books. Spanning seven decades from the surreal to the austere, the experience was as powerful as seeing Goya’s black paintings in Madrid for the first time, the same feverish intensity. The same day, the first visit in almost two years to the Royal Opera House for Leos Janácek’s Jenůfa, also the first time I’ve seen and heard a live performance of the first opera I bought on CD when still a teenager (for reasons I no longer recall).

Asmik Grigorian as Jenůfa and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Claus Guth’s staging of Janáček’s opera at the Royal Opera House

Reading this weekend took the form of drifting between Virginia Woolf’s essays, Geoffrey Hill’s Now and Collected Poems, 1952-1992, Jacques Roubaud’s essays on poetry, and slowly rereading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. I’m also continuing to languidly thin my library, aiming for a collection that is both smaller and more concentrated.

Ovid in the Third Reich

By Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

Reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette

Lately it came to mind, on several occasions, that I should read Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, one of the key intertexts of Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs, volume one of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series. It has a style that carries one along and against my intention I found that I had burned through it in five days.

I started with the best intentions, to keep some distance, and chew slowly on sentences like: “The charm of variety there was not, nor the excitement of incident; but I liked peace so well, and sought stimulus so little, that when the latter came I almost felt it a disturbance, and wished rather it had still held aloof.” What I discovered in Villette was a powerfully intimate voice of obdurate experience that plays against the narrator’s voice. Intention aside, caring little for the paraphernalia of plot, that voice kept me reading late over a few nights, never once finding it tedious or pompous or patronising or superior.

Having reached the end, I admit to feeling it unfortunate that I galloped through the whole thing, but having got the hang of it as a whole, will now turn back to page one, with pencil in hand and read with greater restraint.

Human beings are difficult

“Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? . . . . I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. And . . . I would add that genuinely difficulty art is truly democratic?”

—Geoffrey Hill, Paris Review interview (2000)

Personal Voice

‘ . . . we are affected every moment of our lives by pressures for which a not wholly satisfactory analogy is the pressure of the air around us. I can’t conceive of the discovery and development of a personal voice that is totally or even largely unaware that its existence is threatened the whole time by those things in discourse or communication which are alien to its own being. One shapes the personal voice in some way. One either does or one doesn’t. And I would distinguish the first-rate artist from the others by precisely this ability. He or she is first-rate to the extent of having realised, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all. And the lesser artist is so because he is less able to hear and to elicit the voice of the authentic self from the many voices of the not-self and, indeed, from the many voices of our time, which are themselves drastically inauthentic.’

—Geoffrey Hill, The Paris Review interview (2000)

This strikes me as an acute way of defining the major and minor writers of any age.