Solemn poetry for a peaceful mood

The Faber Book of Reflective Verse, edited by Geoffrey Grigson. London and Boston: Faber & Faber. 238 pp. $18.95 cloth, $8.95 paper. For someone sincerely interested in shaking the common feeling that ``poetry is in decline,'' Geoffrey Grigson's books are most useful. They provide sufficient tests to see whether, in fact, you even like poetry. As he says in an earlier book, his fecund and easy-to-read ``The Private Art'' (Allison & Busby), the enemy of poetry now isn't ``puritanism or intellectualism, the enemy is indifference.''

If we are indifferent to poetry, if we don't like it, it may be because poetry, though a ``drug,'' to use Grigson's analogy, is not a ``miracle drug''; it is not TV. The drug of poetry, he says, ``is innocent, trancing us at need, with no side-effects.'' The trance is, we note, due to ``a coherence of measure and rhyme''; and one has to attain a certain calmness of mind for the drug to work. One has to turn off the TV. We may not think it worth the trouble.

``From verse as drug,'' Grigson continues, ``we come to need the familiar realities, the believables, the objects of desire . . . the snow, the shower, the pruning-knife, the coat, the chair. . . .'' Indeed. We progress then from Campion, to Herbert, to Hardy. And we are hooked.

Geoffrey Grigson was born in 1905. His several anthologies (of which the new ``Faber Book of Reflective Verse'' may well be the last, he hints) mirror all the years between then and now. Grigson, once known as an advocate of a certain style (the first number of his influential magazine, New Verse, appeared in 1933), now defends the catholicity of his taste. In the introduction to ``Reflective Verse,'' he states in his memorable way: ``Welcome revolution should not lead us to jettison and forget, as we do so often and so shockingly, many poems and many ways of writing or constituting poems which now seem to us vieux jeux.'' A lot of the poems in this book look and sound like poetry used to look and sound.

It's shocking to see this in a modern anthology. Since I can never see your face, And never shake you by the hand, I send my soul through time and space To greet you. You will understand. That is the final stanza of James Elroy Flecker's ``To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence.'' It is in an outworn mode that people now reject out of hand. Grigson replies, ``I know Flecker needs to be followed by a counter-injection of Hardy, of the heart-felt and the unsmooth. But he is stilled, he takes trouble.'' The rhythm crossing the line break between the third and fourth lines strengthens the force of ``send through,'' and the theme -- ``that poetry is our mode of communication with the dead and the unborn'' -- is important to Grigson. It should be important to us, for it suggests why we bother with poetry.

One feature of Grigson's anthologies from Faber is his inclusion of French poems, in French. The tradition of his ``Oxford Book of Satirical Verse'' obviously precluded that, but then he did include some foreigners -- Americans Yvor Winters and John Crowe Ransom, among others. Indeed, lucidity and sense, the hallmarks of French style, are crucial to Grigson's taste and have guided him in compiling his many anthologies.

Well known in England for his writings on art, travel, and natural history, Geoffrey Grigson is perhaps best known in the United States as the husband of Jane Grigson, the popular writer of cookbooks! Oh well. Grigson is himself a fine poet; one is happy to discover in some of his various anthologies poems by the anthologist himself. In his latest and last, he has included ``His Swans.'' As might any of the poems he chose for this book, ``His Swans'' should comfort the reader. But as he says in the introduction, ``Statement of violence or despair or defeat may in its rhythms be conducive of just the human attitudes, the human comfort'' he had in mind when compiling the book. Note the emphasis, ``in its rhythms,'' and listen to these lines from ``His Swans'': Their choral song: heard sadly, but not/ Sad: They sing with solemnity, yet cheerfully,/ Contentedly, though one by one/ They die.

The balance of feeling achieved in these lines depends on the rhythm of the words as well as their meanings. You may have to read it aloud before noticing this. The spell cast is real, and it is innocent, ``with no side-effects'' other than an honestly earned peace of mind.

A fine anthology, revolutionary in its calm acceptance of the ``desirable pleasures of the fairly solemn and peaceable, and simple.'' We are, yet again, in Geoffrey Grigson's debt.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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