Geoff Page reviews “Suite for Percy Grainger” by Jessica L. Wilkinson
by Jessica L Wilkinson
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
It has always been hard to know what to make of the Australian composer and pianist, Percy Grainger. There have been at least six major biographies and “companions” and something of a revival of interest in his music since the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 2011. Melbourne poet, Jessica L. Wilkinson, who has been immersed in Grainger’s life and work for some years, has now produced a verse biography of the man.
As the poet says in her notes at the end, “ … sometimes I wonder if there was not one but many Percys: Percy the Pianist, Percy the Composer, Percy the Folk-Song Collector & Arranger, Percy the Experimenter, Percy the Nordic, Racist Percy, Sentimental Percy, Percy the Language-Reformer, Long-Distance-Walking Percy, Generous Percy, Mother’s Percy, Percy the Lover, Percy the Flagellant, and so on.” Clearly , all this must be a challenge for 118 pages of poetry.
Understandably, not all these Percys are given equal weight but Wilkinson leaves the reader in little doubt about their importance for one another, even while there are few, if any, one-to-one psychological explanations offered. Wilkinson’s list may also be incomplete. She doesn’t, for instance, mention the Antipodean Percy who, in the last stanza of “Colonial Song”, seems to have a considerable understanding of his own “weirdness” and its possible origins: “We are so far, here / so far to go. Sooner / or later it must tell / & we will get weird / brave shoots arising / from the virgin plains.”
As can be sensed from the above, Wilkinson is mainly interested in the man’s undeniable “strangeness”. Her oblique, fragmentary and generally experimental approach to the whole project seeks to reproduce this, and perhaps to dramatise it, but certainly not to “explain” it. That would be a serious challenge even for the most experienced psychoanalyst . It is also important to note that Wilkinson would hardly have been so interested in Grainger’s personality had he not had a substantial body of work in the first place.
On the other hand, there are a few occasions where Wilkinson draws a close parallel between Grainger’s sexual enthusiasms and his compositional practice. In “Cream, Jam & Dizziness”, based on letters from Grainger to K.H. (presumably Karen Holten), the poet talks of: “A stress against the canvas — a stroke for the excitable score / evolving across a taut, wet thigh / notes, struck into the text / and sustained.”
For those ill-versed in Grainger’s work — and his life more generally — it’s a good idea to read the reasonably informative Wikipedia entry before attempting Wilkinson’s book. A few tracks on You Tube might also help. Although much of Suite for Percy Grainger is composed from intriguing details, Wilkinson makes no attempt to be “comprehensive” in any encyclopaedic sense. Her approach throughout is suggestive rather than definitive.
The suite is divided into five sections (“Movements”?) which are roughly chronological: “To Begin & End Together”, “Compositions & Arrangements”, “Archive Fever”, “Loves and the Lash” and “Thots & Experiments”. The poems often use musical fragments on the stave as well as the resources of “concrete poetry ”. Some are lists; others are best described as “found poems”. Many of the poems, but not all, spin off from, and bear the same title as, Grainger’s compositions.
It’s hard to find a “typical” quotation to illustrate the tone of the collection as a whole. The last part of “Gardens”, dealing with the first reactions to what would become Grainger’s signature piece, his setting of the folk tune “Country Gardens”, is reasonably indicative:
if you like, as I play
a few tuneful snippets
to satisfy the first need:
to be loved (by the old folk).
Sharpe says ‘good work’
but it is a shallow success
as Balfour jumps up
at the fragment & says:
‘how awful‘ — with a lusty shout!
(into his handkerchief).
This quotation is also perhaps an example of the strength and limitations of “non-fiction poetry” as a genre. In the absence of footnotes (and extensive reading) we can’t be sure whether this is a lineated version of part of one of Grainger’s many letters or whether it’s a separate poem by Wilkinson based on those letters. To some extent, this shouldn’t matter but to more literal-minded readers it probably will. Some of these readers may wish to pursue the matter further in Felicity Plunkett’s Axon essay, “Hosts and Ghosts” on “non-fiction poetry” and related matters .
Balfour, it should be noted in passing, was not the politician but a friend and fellow musician. The phrase “a few tuneful snippets” is an early indication of the self-doubt that troubled Grainger in his final years. He knew that, earlier on, he had somewhat set aside his composing for his career as a concert pianist (even a society pianist) and his relatively small quantity of original work (as opposed to the setting of others’ work) seems to have troubled him — not unreasonably.
Some experts have argued that at least a few of these difficulties were the result of the undue influence of his mother, Rose. It seems she was both an enabler and a constrictor. It’s difficult to imagine Grainger’s early success without her. Rose’s suicide in 1922, when Grainger was forty, was both devastating and liberating. Wilkinson records it rather brutally: “Rose Grainger jumped off New York’s Aeolian building in 1922 maddened by syphilis and incessant rumours that she and Percy were intimately involved .” One feels impelled to add that Rose caught syphilis from her womanising husband some years beforehand and that the rumours were almost certainly untrue .
One relative omission from Wilkinson’s Suite is much information about Grainger’s wife, Ella, a Swedish artist, whom he married in 1928 and whose nineteen year old (“illegitimate”) daughter he also happily took into the family. It’s perhaps a forgivable prurience to want to know more about how Ella managed Grainger’s sexual proclivities. The poem, “To a Nordic Princess (Bridal Song)”, does provide a few clues. It runs, in part:
Percy is content; he has found her!
a very goddess of the breed
& sharp of tongue—she is his:
henchman! pavement artist!
skilled milkmaid! bells-companion!
free music craft-partner! experienced
lover, hands over eyes for the
parapara spurting on her belly! …
In this context, it may be relevant to consider Grainger’s statement (in “Free Music Gins”) that “Everything in my art is based on violently sentimental emotionalism & must be received on that basis to get anything out of it .” It’s hard to know how considered this statement was but it is certainly part of the puzzle.
Some readers may resist the significant amount of poetic experimentation that runs through Wilkinson’s Suite; it can make for frustration at times. It takes many forms, many of them difficult to reproduce here. They include overprinting and fading, arrows connecting one part of the text with another, distortions of the printed line etc. Most readers will soon see, however, that Wilkinson’s approach is also one that Grainger, with all his work on “free music” and the instruments with which to play it, would have approved.
Wilkinson may not have “solved” the enigma of Grainger’s life and work but she has vividly re-created its dimensions — and forced us to recognise the impossibility of any facile resolution to the “problems” he presented as both a man and an artist.
Plunkett, Felicity. Hosts and Ghosts Hospitality, Reading and Writing, Axon Issue 7 http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-7/hosts-and-ghosts
GEOFF PAGE is an Australian poet and critic, editor of Best Australian Poems 2014. His awards include the Grace Leven Prize and the Patrick White Literary Award.