Since my comments on ‘Oraclau’ last week I’ve been contacted by a long-standing Hill fan (whose views I respect enormously) to say that he thinks that it’s by far the worst thing that Hill has published and that he couldn’t finish it. For me, an avid and attentive Hill reader, it’s not quite as bad as that but it’s certainly not of the standard that I’d come to expect and it is doubly disappointing that it should be published when Hill’s ‘visibility’ should be at it’s height. New readers, encouraged by glowing reviews, will have bought this collection and then wondered what all the fuss has been about. I have read the collection right through a couple of times and bits of it again just to make sure that my first impressions were accurate. I now have to agree with my correspondent that the chosen stanza ‘strangles’ Hill and should add my own concern that the collection doesn’t actually say very much.
So, this vague feeling of being personally let down has led me to think about the other occasions when this has occurred. This hasn’t been that frequent but one that really sticks in the mind is Ted Hughes’ ‘Moortown’ which (along with ‘Remains of Elmet’) followed ‘Gaudete’ and marked a return to the rural realism that was his speciality prior to ‘Crow’. I’m one of the few people on the planet that was immensely impressed by ‘Gaudete’ and felt that, along with ‘Crow’ and ‘Cave Birds’, it heralded a new trajectory in English verse. It’s a view that I still hold but I accept that this is a minority view – nothing from ‘Gaudete’ is in the Hughes Collected. I clearly recall being not simply disappointed but also feeling let down because I’d felt involved in the work and could see the value of it. I tried hard to like ‘Moortown’ but it seemed flat and ordinary and it didn’t make me think so I stopped reading Hughes until ‘Birthday Letters’ which is another story altogether.
The second form of disappointment is probably more traumatic, on a number of occasions greater familiarity has led to a quite sudden realisation that previously admired work isn’t in reality very good.
Many moons ago I was an enormous fan of all things Elliot and then I read ‘The Making of the Four Quartets’ by Helen Gardiner, reading with some care the correspondence between Eliot and John Hayward as well as the various drafts. This resulted in a sense of disenchanted, what had previously seemed to be enigmatic and profound became (in my head) something quite empty and more than a little pretentious. I’ve still got a lot of time for anything up to and including ‘The Waste Land’ but the rest leaves me cold. Trying to write something intelligent and objective about Eliot has made me realise how conflicted I feel about him – I don’t actively dislike the work but am finding myself becoming increasingly indifferent to it.
This isn’t the case with Robert Lowell whose later work I actively dislike for a number of reasons. For most of my life I had regarded Lowell as one of the more accomplished and significant poets of the 20th century and was thus delighted when the ‘Collected’ was published in 2003. It then became apparent that the majority of Lowell’s output wasn’t particularly coherent and that the work became more self-indulgent and trite as time went on. I also decided that I didn’t like the man behind the work and I don’t buy into the bipolar excuse for self-indulgence. I realise that this is a minority view but I’m of the view that Lowell ‘peaked’ with ‘The Mills of the Kavanaghs’ with things going downhill from then on. I will concede that the first half of ‘Near the Ocean’ is good but ruined by the political gesture that closes it. I should stress that this dislike comes from paying greater attention to the poems rather than any background reading. I think I’d be prepared to overlook the confessional element of the later stuff if I felt that it was either technically good or interesting. I also recognise that this is at complete variance with the view of Elizabeth Bishop who I continue to admire.
With regard to Hill, I am disappointed but I’m not dismayed. I continue to look forward to the publication of Odi Barbare next year but now that sense of anticipation is tinged with a degree of apprehension.