For the Time Being: Geoffrey Hill

(The gradual slackening of the academic busy-ness is giving me almost enough room to remember that I have had a series of posts lined up almost ready to go for several months now. That ‘almost’ being the fly in the brain ointment… Here’s the review of Big Geoff I did last year for Poetry London, almost timely again, given that he’s ‘recently’ given his last lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry.)

Geoffrey Hill 
Broken Hierarchies: Collected Poems 1952-2012, 
Oxford £35.00

There are poets who, after the first transformative encounter, you spend the rest of your life re-reading in order to catch how their meanings deepen as the work is revisited, and as you yourself attempt maturity. Sometimes this is for the sheer pleasure of reinhabiting a mental space grown strange to you, and sometimes this is because of the necessity of engagement and re-engagement with a writer whose complexities compel them to copiousness, startling self-evolution, and a busy referential hinterland. 

Geoffrey Hill, for many – including his many devotees – occupies the latter camp. Indeed, within a poetry in English where the lowered expectations of the likes of Paxman demand immediate relevance, it sometimes seems as though he constitutes the entire camp. Readers therefore have to decide whether or not to commit to a life of reading Hill as he reads: familiarizing themselves with the great sweeps of cultural history which intrigue him from Milton to Yeats, from Lope de Vega to Cesare Pavese, and the frequent recourse to music as both subject and structural analogy. The questions which need to be addressed in recommending such a life to any reader is: what kinds of pleasure might you expect, and what kinds might it not really be legitimate to seek in poetry in any case?

I heard Geoffrey Hill read in his old Oxford college, Keble, around the time The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy appeared (1983). I didn’t realize it, of course, but this was almost the last appearance of new work before Hill’s ‘silence’, interrupted by the publication of his New and Collected in 1994, but not really broken until the appearance of Canaan in 1996. Had I been able to know this at the time, I might have tempered my view of him, which was of someone very much engaged in what he calls in Canaan ‘the vatic exchanges’:

But who are ‘we’, since history is law,
clad in our skins of silver, steel and hide,
or in our rags, with rotten teeth askew,
heroes or knaves as Clio shall decide? 

Silence in a poet is always interesting – Pound, (Jackson) Riding, MacDiarmid, Longley, spring to mind as writers who endured it in one way or another. Why poets enter silence, and how or whether they emerge from it is always intriguing. But Hill, in my ungenerous mid-Eighties reckoning, was hell-bent not on silence but significance: every poem appeared to be an engagement with another cataclysmic instance of historical brutality – the First World War, the Holocaust – that had to reach a grit-toothed cathexis. I was not as subtle of wit or of ear as I hope I may one day become, and in the intervening years have come back again and again to what we must now regard as the work of his first period. 

It seems, partly through familiarity, partly through its relatively modest dimensions, his most open period. Thus we encounter the stark ironies of Arrurruz – which remind me as much of Pessoa in his orthonymic mode as of Machado’s imaginary voices – set against the subtlety of his construction as a Modernist at a distance, dying in 1922 ‘on the very threshold of modernity’:

I imagine, as I imagine us
Each time more stylised more lovingly
Detailed, that I am not myself
But someone I might have been…
(‘from The Songbook of Sebastian Arruruz’)

Then there is the brilliant use of juxtaposition as a type of paradox in Mercian Hymns – Hill as a boy and the dark age king are never quite mirror images, but never quite themselves, and always locked into a baroque pattern of anachronism and declarative observation:

Coiled entrenched England: brickwork and paintwork 
     stalwart above hacked marl. The clashing primary 
     colours – ‘Ethandune’, ‘Catraeth’, ‘Maldon’, ‘Pen-
     gwern’. Steel against yew and privet. Fresh
     dynasties of smiths.

The later poetry, by virtue of its sheer and apparently sustained prolific nature, seems to have enacted a type of occlusion or even supersaturation of the earlier work, obliging us to re-read it as submerged in the later, or attempt to preserve it from the flood, perhaps even revive it as we would the drowned. In this it has reflected and, arguably, emulated the explosion of publishing and book distribution in our era, as well as the multi- and social media take on the ‘classical’, the ‘Modernist’ and the ‘difficult’, which has extended since the nineties (basically since Hill began publishing again) beyond literary criticism to include internet archives and search engines, graphic novels and cartoon adaptations, multimedia books and apps. Crucially, many of those discourses are alluded to within his later work.

It might be argued that meaning, in the romantic sense of what some experience can mean emotionally to a self, and what some words about that experience might mean to a reader, has always been regarded by Hill with acerbic suspicion. As he states in ‘September Song’ with an ambivalence that is, in respect of its lineation, absolutely poised:

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

In the semantic sense of what it might be supposed a reader can follow, meaning in the later poetry appears at times to have been overtaken by his dense reverberations of allusion and play with discourse to a point where critical assistance is to some degree an ordinary part of our reading experience. But has he out-Pounded Pound, or reconsidered him, and do some modern readers simply make excuses for themselves?

As to bad faith, Malebranche might argue
it rests with inattention. Stupidity
is not admissible. However, the status
of apprehension remains at issue. (The Triumph of Love)

As his defenders argue, in the era of Uncle Google, there being a lot of more or less obscure references is not in itself a problem, though, practically speaking, the reading experience may now be distended to include a hunting and gathering procedure that runs the risk of being more about expeditiousness than literary discovery or scholarly investigation. As academics know only too well in relation to their undergraduates, there is a tipping point where the supportive framework of critic and concordance replaces the encounter with the text itself, where the notes displace the poetry.

Without conceding the poet’s right to difficulty in their art (where shall it be permitted, Cardinal Paxman, if not in the poem?), Hill’s work has arguably reached a stage where he has come to resemble writers who would identify as ‘linguistically innovative’ rather than ‘radically traditional’. The poems in Clavics, for instance, from The Daybooks, compel syntax to follow form in a manner that confronts expressiveness with mannerism:

          Here infinite
          Clavics make spin,
          Keyed-in, commote,
          Bees’ element
     Attuned, compassed, by scent–
          Colours and sun.
As to the ant when chance disturbs the State…

Without, presumably, subscribing to Ron Silliman’s definition of the New Sentence (‘Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy / ambiguity’), he increasingly sounds like the sort of poet whose political and theoretical convictions have led them to, similarly, critique subjectivity, and, arguably, to privilege theory’s gesture over imaginative content. The sort of poet one fears one agrees or disagrees with, rather than reads.

There are several reasonable defences against such a charge, a few of which I’d like to rehearse here. I do this precisely because the literary world appears divided between those who think that to defend Hill is a preposterous and unnecessary act, and those who believe that to read him is. The first I might put as a question. What if, as I’d suggest is evidently the case, he means it? What if the copiousness is not, as it is dismissively regarded by some, a side-effect of medication, but a compelling act of mimesis, the epic portrait of a society which has exploded into something not just beyond the high modernism of his early work, but beyond the efforts of post-modernism to contain and define it? 

Hill is a poet who consistently foregrounds intentionality, and is singularly attuned to the reader’s and critic’s responses to this. As with the argument re medication, there is, after all, little that can be said about Hill that has not already been said by Hill (‘How is it tuned, how can it be untuned, / with lithium, this harp of nerves?’). He is a container of multitudes, though many of these appear to be Geoffrey Hill. 

Can any other living poet display such a range of discourses, of tones, if not exactly of voices? More specifically, he is given to wry self-portraiture. Scarcely a book is without what he mockingly dismissed in one of his Oxford lectures as the selfie, complaining ‘The poem as selfie is the aesthetic criterion of contemporary verse’. But versions of the self, however ironized, distanced or nuanced, will always be held up against that self: that is after all how we assess the irony, the distance, and the nuance. As he says in the ‘Argument’ to Scenes from Comus:

Of the personality as a mask;
of character as self-founded, self-founding;
and of the sacredness of the person.

The fact that the self is a character within, rather than the subject of, these poems does not dismiss the reader’s need to know. The self-portraits vary from the poignancy of Canaan’s possible admission: ‘Formalities preserve us: / perhaps I too am a shade’, to the rueful glimpses of himself as others see him in The Triumph of Love: ‘What is he saying; / why is he still so angry?’

The self as bird in Expostulations on the Volcano points to the self-reflexive element in Hill’s self-awareness (is there a poet fonder yet more suspicious of the prefix ‘self-‘?).

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol,
Tempted by instinct’s sinew to be wise.

It is of course impossible to read this without recalling the confrontation with hubris with which Geoffrey Hill opens his first collection: ‘Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God’ (‘Genesis’) – where we cannot be sure of the pronoun, we can be more confident in the adjective. As Peter MacDonald argues elsewhere, one way to approach late Hill is to read it as a type of defence of poetry. As with his frequent statements of self-awareness, his work is studded with phrases I would characterize in the MacDiarmidean sense of ‘The Kind of Poetry Hill Wants’. 

These in turn range from the magnificent brevity of ‘Erudition. Pain. Light’ from Speech! Speech! to references to the various compositional approaches which inform him structurally, in which, alongside more expected references to English musicians such as William Lawes (‘That this should resemble a consort book / Or a book or ayres, my mere maggotry– / begotten joke’), we find such figures as the Russian polystylist Alfred Schnittke:

…aleatoric light that remains unfinished,
as Schnittke and his music multiform,
struck off in mean unpropitious time
(The Orchards of Syon

This seems a useful steer to the reader of the late work, which is enormously various formally, and seeks therefore different principles of integration – books contrast with and complement books, rather than, as in the early work, where individual poems are set against each other. The end of this copiousness may therefore be conceived of in terms which recall Mahler’s dictum that the symphony must contain the world: ‘Weight of the world, weight of the word, is’ (Scenes from Comus).

In this context, it is useful to construct a more nuanced perspective. There are perhaps three major bodies of work in Hill’s Collected, rather than two: an early period readers grew too accustomed to thinking of as the whole thing; a middle period described in the publicity for The Orchards of Syon as ‘a single great poem’, beginning with Canaan, and including four or more books up to Orchards itself. This is described in terms which correspond to the idea of critical-mimetic epic: ‘a kind of high-modernist Divine Comedy that is at once a prophetic judgement on man’s fallen state and a sad and angry consolation’. There is then a later unit described in Broken Hierarchies as ‘The Daybooks‘, which this publication enables us to begin assessing. 

The final defence is the strongest and most necessary, the one that returns us to the starting point of this review: the nature of the pleasure we take from engaging with a poetic sensibility so powerfully endowed with knowledge, passion and craft. Here I’m not so convinced by arguments about Hill’s humour, which always seems to have a hard-elbowed satiric edge to it, as of Pope, rather than being founded in any sense of joyous absurdity. His listing of works in The Triumph of Love has something of MacDiarmid’s thinking-by-bibliography about it; for all its reference to cartoons and slapstick, fun it ain’t: 

This glowering carnival, kermesse of wrath
and resentment, how early – ? Very. Very deep
among elementary mayhem: Seventy Years
a Showman, A Book of Golden Deeds, The Worst
Journey in the World: Finders. Keepers:
Dandy, Beano, Film Fun, Radio Fun, mis-
teachers of survival: Laurel and Hardy
cutting, pacing, repacing, their
flawless shambles…

But that marvellous use of oxymoron, ‘flawless shambles’, points to Hill as one of our greatest, most rhetorically adept, phrase-makers. How often he likes to confront words with each other, finding in their clash or consort his own unique music. While with his manipulation of masks and histories, critics have feared this ends in a sort of affectless Droste Effect, where readers are left grasping for ironies, his tonalities encourage us to persist, to dwell in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, as the imagination’s proper territory, extending from the phrase to the oeuvre itself.

Here there is indeed ludic lightness, as in this daft, near-anagrammatic opposition:

Waving her arms and hands at Easter mass,
Christ’s happy tictac
Cash in the Attic
appears hypnotic
or so I condescend to see pass.

But there is also a sense of how the earlier work can and should emerge as reconsidered through the lens of the later, as in this fascinating metaphor from Pindarics:

Not to unthink the work done: but a dervish
whirlstorm of sepia and sand
occludes it like a twister on the bed
of a shallow sea. Cuttlefish bone survives,
incongruously reft its light-weft grottoes,
in parrots’ cages or in books of verse.
Seashells are more elaborate and hiss,
tell childhood fortunes, voyage from Madagascar.
Presence of the intrinsic’s here in doubt.

Finally, there is throughout a depiction of English landscape in terms that recall, as The Orchards of Syon does explicitly, the ecstatic sprung rhythms of Hopkins, and in the title poem, ‘Broken Hierarchies’ itself, finds in an orthographic subtlety a corollary between word and world. Thus the more commonly accepted spelling of ‘wisteria’ is passed over in favour of ‘wistaria’, which seems to combine a very English wistfulness and the European form of the aria in a gesture which, in a single word, exemplifies what this voluminous collection achieves, and why it must be read, re-read, and lived with, both for the time being (there will be more), and for the times in which we live: 

When to depict rain – heavy rain – it stands
in dense verticals diagonally lashed,
chalk-white yet with the chalk translucent…
the holding burden of a wistaria
drape amid drape, the sodden
copia of all things flashing and drying…

About W N Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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