I first found out about poetry in 1968 at the age of thirteen. I’d read ‘Welsh Landscape’ by R S Thomas and suddenly discovered how poetry worked and that it was somehow important.
In 1969 I bought ‘The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse’ edited in 1962 by Kenneth Allott. I didn’t read much of it primarily because my eye was drawn to more ‘modern’ poets. I picked it up again yesterday because of the time that it spans (1918-1960) and then noticed that the last poem in the collection is ‘Annunciations’ by Geoffrey Hill which was published in ‘King Log’. I’ve read this poem before so wasn’t particularly excited until (out of curiosity) I looked at Allotts introduction where he praises Hill’s earlier work and complains about the “crabbed density” of some of the later poems in ‘For the Unfallen’. He says-
I find the darkness of many of the later pieces so nearly total that I can see them to be poems only by a certain quality in their phrasing.
Allott then quotes Hill as ascribing this ‘formality under duress’ to the influence of Allen Tate. A debate between editor and poet is then alluded to, Hill wants to be in the anthology but would much rather his latest work is included. Allott goes on –
I understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations (i. e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice) but without help I cannot construe it.
To resolve this stand-off, Hill agrees to supply notes to help with this construal. These run to one and a half pages and, as far as I know, are Hill’s only attempt to explain a poem in detail. The poem is in two parts, one concerning the ‘Word’ and the other concerning ‘Love’. Hill begins by describing the common theme –
I suppose the impulse behind the work is an attempt to realize the jarring double-takes in words of common usage: as ‘sacrifice’ (I) or ‘Love (II) – words which, like the word ‘State’ are assumed to have an autonomous meaning or value irrespective of context, and to which we are expected to nod assent. If we do assent, we are ‘received’; if we question the justice of the blanket term we have made the equivalent of a rude noise in polite company.
It could be said (and I will) that Hill’s career can be seen as an ongoing series of rude noises in polite company. He continues to question, gnaw away at, dissect a wide range of terms that most of us take more or less for granted- justice, spirit, forgiveness, love to name but a few. I think it’s also important to note Hill casting himself as the outsider, as the one who dares to question and so is not ‘received’.
Hill goes on to describe the first poem and points out the ‘key antithesis between lines 6 and 7 –
The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn
(each specimen jar fed with delicate spawn)
Line six, Hill contends, stands for ‘ pain, lust in the blubbery world’ whereas line seven describes pain and lust after it has been distilled by the ‘connoissseurs’. We aren’t told why the world might be blubbery but we are told that the connoisseur may be the poet or the critic. The choice of blubbery is instructive because of it’s obvious whaling connotations and because there is a quote in the OED which goes- “Democracy is the blubbery spawn begotten by the drunkenness of aristocracy”. It almost goes without saying that Hill is an exceptionally close reader of the OED and probably expects the rest of us to do the same.
Hill ends his notes to the first part with –
By using an emotive cliché like ‘The Word’ I try to believe in an idea that I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (‘the banquet’) that it seems to be.
What I say in the section is , I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.
Trying to believe in an idea is a difficult activity and I wonder whether some of Hill’s later work continues to reflect this attempt to believe in the ‘special’ power of poetry. With this in mind, I’m going to have to re-read some of the even more crabbed later stuff.
I have to confess that I’m not terribly keen on the second part of the poem because I don’t think it does what Hill describes. I also find its use of quasi-religious terms and phrases rather tiresome. Hill finishes his notes by saying:
But I want the poem to have this dubious end, because I feel dubious; and this whole business is dubious.
Which sounds like a bit of a cop-out, the poem finishes with a portentous flourish that doesn’t sound at all hesitant but might just be empty…. the kind of thing that Hill complains about in his introduction.