Geoffrey Hill in the Economist (briefly)

I visit the Economist site about twice a day and enjoy the cool distance it maintains between itself and the surrounding chicanery. It also gives me a reasonable overview that I don’t always get with the FT. This year it seems to be have turned its affections away from John Ashbery and turned instead to Geoffrey Hill, publishing a enthusiastic if brief review of ‘Clavics’ in April but imagine my shock to find a short film of him talking about his work as part of a promo for some Economist cultural event that he’s going to attend.

The film is just over four minutes long and we get captions instead of a person asking questions, although it would seem somebody did ask the questions because Hill is clearly responding to something rather than giving an impromptu talk.

The headlines are:

  • The beard is getting bigger;
  • He chooses to read the dig at E O Wilson from Clavics;
  • One of the captions tells us that his first collection took him six years to write but now he can rattle seven poems off in a week;
  • He makes a new defence against the charge of difficulty;
  • He denies that his ‘poems are a part of Christian discourse’ but does admit to an anxiety as to the fate of his soul;
  • He thinks poems should be ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful;
  • He makes some derogatory things about the Lawes boys and their gang at the court of Charles I;
  • He remains endearingly bad tempered about the current state of British politics and quotes William Morris to underline his view that we are living in a ‘state of anarchical plutocracy’ and that this informs everything that he writes.

Let’s start with the beard, both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ have the same photograph of Hill with a walking stick and looking fierce. Since then the beard has grown even more and is beginning to take on a life of its own. This is probably part of Hill’s re-casting as Welsh bard or it could be a new requirement of the Oxford job. Whatever the reason it is a remarkable achievement and Keith Flett would be proud.

Choosing to read the dig at ‘Consilience’ may indicate that this poem embodies the main theme of the sequence or that Hill considers it ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful. I’d like to think that it’s a mixture of both. I wonder how many Economist types will grasp the reference to Wilson and the positivist/atheist faction?

The newly prolific Hill perhaps needs to be advised that rattling off seven poems in a week is no guarantee that they will all be good poems. The person providing this advice should use ‘Oraclau’ as an example.

With regard to difficulty, defences in the past have related to not wanting to insult the intelligence of his readers and the ‘life is more difficult than anything I write’ riposte. The charge that he chooses to answer this time is that it is often difficult to discern a unified point of view from a poem. Hill agrees and says that his poems are often ‘about’ the difficulty of arriving at this kind of view. This is probably a more helpful answer than the other two.

Anybody who makes reference to Bradwardine and worries out loud about the nature and workings of Grace is (whether he likes it or not) making a contribution to Christian discourse although the confession of an abiding anxiety about his soul will take me back to the work to see if that kind of worry is addressed/expressed.

It can be argued that poems are only beautiful if they are technically efficient. I remain of the view that the recent work (especially ‘Oraclau’) has shown more than a little slippage in the technical department and I also think that he’s aware of it too. This view of technique doesn’t really square with the ‘make them wince’ quip in ‘Clavics’.

I probably need to check but this critical view of the Caroline court isn’t that obvious from the poems.

I’m not aware of the Morris quote and it doesn’t appear (from memory) nin Hill’s essays but I will try and check the context in which it was made. It is typical of Hill to take an observation from the late 19th century and apply to our dark and difficult times. He’s made much more abusive observations on the plutocracy in his work and it is correct to observe the distorting effect that the anarchy of the free markets has on everything. I don’t think that this view is discernible in everything that he has published

So, lots to think about, the Hill/Economist alliance is also something to consider – it’s certainly odder than the relationship between Ashbery and the New York Times. He does need to know that seven poems a week is not a badge of pride and that he should worry a bit more about his technical efficiency but he doesn’t have to because he’s Geoffrey Hill and (in my book) he can do anything he wants to because he has produced some of the most accomplished work since 1945.

A final thought, isn’t it amazing how much ground you can cover in 4 minutes and 29 seconds?

6 responses to “Geoffrey Hill in the Economist (briefly)

  1. I don’t feel able to contribute any intelligent remarks to a discussion of this post of yours, but I certainly wish to thank you for drawing the vidoe to our attention, and (even more) for your ‘Executive Summary’ (as we Economist types like to say). I for one found the interview fascinating.

    You mention the beard. Good point – but what about the sweater?

    You quote Hill’s opinion that poems should be technically efficient and beautiful. I like that! I love poems that satisfy those 2 criteria.

    But here’s an odd thought: I’m perfectly willing to look with fascination at paintings and sculpture that are ugly if they convey something important. There’s Guernica for example, and a lot of Goya; there’s Francis Bacon, and many others. So, by analogy, I ought not to look for beauty in poetry. And I admire – say – Wilfred Owen’s famous poems; although there is, arguably, a certain bleak beauty in those.

    I’m stumped. Perhaps I’ll try to resolve the conundrum by saying that I’ll settle for either beauty OR truth.

    • The fashion dimension is probably beyond as all of my family are of the view that I have no dress sense whatsoever (regardless of what I may think). I am however tempted to contact the Beard Liberation Front to ask their view of the beard both in terms of quality and symbolism.
      I’m not sure that we can all agree on what might be beautiful, I am sure that we can all have fun arguing about technical efficiency. Hill has written some heartbreakingly beautiful stuff over the years but he’s never really been that efficient as a technician- although it could be that my benchmark (Elizabeth Bishop) is impossibly high.
      I’m not sure what I look for in poetry but I do want a poem to ‘speak’ to me – by which I think I mean to have the potential for an encounter with me as a living and breathing and reading human being. I think this is different to the poems that I might be attracted to. This is probably the subject for another blog but thank you for kicking off another cascade of thoughts.


      p.s. How’s the Prynne venture?

  2. I’m tearing myself away from your subsequent two, data-rich, posts …
    … you suggest that want a poem to ‘speak’ to you. What a good way of putting it. Poems can be many things and one shouldn’t be too prescriptive or too narrow in expectations.
    That’s why I persevere with Prynne, although I feel like those guys must do who are looking for the Higgs Boson. I was having a good go at ‘Brass’ but then I went back to Geoffrey Hill, with pleasure and relief – and since then (of course) to Ted Hughes.
    Good luck with your machine-made poems. A memorial plaque awaits you at Westminster Abbey I think!

    • John,

      Thank you for your attention, the poems are surprisingly managing to hold my interest, one of today’s search terms is “ind f(2), f(3) , f(4) ,and f(5) if f is defined recursively by f(0) = -1 , f(1) = 2 and for n = 1 , 2 ,……” and another is “the philosophy of estar wings by herbart” which means that I’ll have to think about a third but in a different machine generated format.
      I think poems that speak to me are the main reason that I do this stuff, I’m reading and re-reading what Celan has to say about the tactile quality of the ‘encounter’ between poet and reader and this has a lot of resonance with me.
      Persevering with Prynne is a good thing to do but it’s also good to read other stuff because the perseverance can become too involving for anyone’s good- I speak from experience.

      Thanks again,


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