My Year in Reading: 2022

The voice remains. It somehow survives that cataclysmic leap from oral epic to self-consciousness fiction. The inimical voice of writers like Beckett, Woolf and Bernhard. This isn’t the first year I read Jon Fosse’s writing, but it is the first in which his voice became a tremendous presence.

I’ve read most of Fosse’s books available in English translation, saving Trilogy, and his writing seems to have that rare transcending quality called literature. In his essay, Anagoge Fosse writes, “Why do we never read with our attention turned towards the thing in literature which makes it so obvious that it both belongs to the world and does not belong to the world? That makes it incomprehensibly comprehensible? Which gives it meaning without meaning? Why don’t we read to see how the paradox of literature is a strange fusion of the extremely heavy and the extremely light, of the material and the spiritual?”

My most cherished literary discoveries encapsulate literature in precisely those terms: writers like Mayröcker, Llansol, Lispector and Murnane. This year, Fosse’s Septology, translated by Damion Searls and Melancholia II, translated by Eric Dickens, left the most significant impression, together with Thomas Bernhard’s Yes, translated by Ewald Osers and Friederike Mayröcker’s brutt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated by Roslyn Theobald.

Much of the summer was spent with Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. A planned chronological reading ended up with the repeated rereading of Tenebrae and For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 before getting entangled, against my usual practice, with explicatory secondary texts. Hill is a highly lucid poet, particularly in his early days. These are poems to get to know throughout a lifetime, but the scholars help to build light.

For a few months, I carefully followed Iain McGilchrist’s prose in The Matter With Things, a book I shall undoubtedly reread, enhanced by my later reading of Geoffrey Hill and Jon Fosse. Perhaps these coincidents only seem so; the future’s roots are buried in the past.

Also notable this year was one of Steve Mitchelmore’s favourites of last year: Ellis Sharp’s mesmerising Twenty-Twenty, which records daily for a year his struggle against the compulsion to write and a return to Beckett’s Company, a reminder to slow down and look back more often.

 

Life, Life, Life!

We create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry, and that is the time to read poetry . . . when we are almost able to write it.

When I was at junior school in London, my English teacher lent me a illustrated volume of poems that he had brought back from a trip to the United States. I read the book cover to cover as though it was a single continuous piece of prose. I have no recollection of the title of the book, though its cover is still retained in memory. That it was American gave the book an exotic air that seems risible now, but was common at the time with the emergence of films and comics from that country.

I read that book under the covers by torchlight discovering Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll for the first time. Children read poetry effortlessly and, of course, six or so years after discovering that I loved to read poetry I began writing poems too. Most of those poems have mercifully disappeared with only a single, painfully self-conscious example from my teenage years still surviving.

Virginia Woolf was not a poet, but I can sympatthise with the sentiment quoted above. These last few years I’ve read poetry with the seriousness that attended my childhood reading of Lear and Carroll, though these days I’ll more likely be reading Geoffrey Hill, Friedrike Mayröcker or Anne Carson, rereading Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wordsworth, or scouring sixteenth and seventeenth century anthologies to chase down Geoffrey Hill references.

I resist the urge to write poems, but I almost feel able and I’m not certain that I’ll be able to hold out indefinitely. In 1945, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson edited an anthology of their favourite poems, including the following piece in the July section:

Let us go, then, exploring
This summer morning
When all are adoring
The plum-blossom and the bee.
And humming and hawing
Let us ask of the starling
What he may think
On the brink
Of the dust-bin whence he picks
Among the sticks
Combings of scullion’s hair.
What’s life, we ask;
Life, Life, Life! cries the bird
As if he had heard

No mention is made in the book of the poem’s origin, but the editors offer a thank you to Mr. Leonard Woolf for permission to include a passage from the works of Virginia Woolf. Although the poem did not appear in print as a poem before 1945, a remarkably similar prose version opens Orlando, published in 1928.

True Poems and Available Reality


During this torrid summer I’ve found refuge in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, a writer who celebrates an elusive reality of mythical dimensions. The ‘marked / visible absences’ at the centre of Tenebrae share common ground with Samuel Beckett’s failed attempts to express the inexpressible and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s deliberate move away from narrativity into metaphor and figure.

Hill’s meticulous use of language renders stark the impoverishment of the vocabulary of much contemporary writing, contaminated by the sound-bites of social media and journalism. To strive against this impoverishment and in search of a particular clarity Hill is indebted to the OED, the ‘rock out of which my present discourse is hewn, the quarry of my distinctions and definitions’.

Language reveals itself though Hill’s voice. This restorative character, distinct from quotidian discourse, is what draws me to writers like Beckett, Llansol and Friederike Mayröcker. It is where, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, I find an hour of inexpressible bliss.

I’m a mere dilettante reader of poetry with a desire to apprehend better, sceptical that a non-poet can write about a poem penetratingly. I would however like to feel less inadequate. The following request yielded some good suggestions and may provide new ways to engage with and appreciate poetry’s unique powers.

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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.