I think it is reasonable to suggest that there is far more bad/appalling love poetry in the world than there is good or even average. Many, many capable and technically efficient poets have a complete blind spot when it comes to writing about love. This has always been the case but this sad fact is offset by the fact that some of the world’s finest poems are about love. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are head and shoulders above most other poems of any genre and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ wins my vote as the most perfect poem of the twentieth century.
Prior to ‘Odi Barbare’, Geoffrey Hill was one of those poets who should give the love lyric a very wide berth. I think it’s generally acknowledged that the ‘Oraclau’ sequence isn’t very good and the ‘Hiraeth’ poems are just bad and shouldn’t have been published. I’m not denying the emotional intensity and honesty of what’s been said, it’s just that this isn’t an excuse for the inept.
The good news is that the love poem in ‘Odi Barbare’ is a big improvement on the ‘Hiraeth’ poems, the not so good news is that it’s more than a little odd and the oddness gets in the way. It is addressed to a loved one and it is technically efficient and bits of it might be quite beautiful but there does appear to be a sort of smugness going on.
Amy De’Ath’s ‘Caribou’, on the other hand, contains a number of poems where a loved one is addressed but in ways that are both original and quite startling. I am about to compare and contrast these two but I think I need to state at this point that the Bebrowed perfect love poem remains ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop both because of what it says and its technical virtuosity. I also need to acknowledge that it is very hard to write credible love poems without falling into the traps of mawkish sentimentality, self-indulgence and unoriginality.
Hill’s poem/section/bit XXVIII starts well:
Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,
Scratchy brisk rain as irritable as tinder,
Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel
Taller than we were.
There’s a lot going on in this and it’s well put together. The first line is both economical and striking, to start with ‘Broken’ is a typical flourish that demonstrates an advanced and deep understanding of what language can do. ‘That’ rather than ‘the’ makes it clear that a loved one is being addressed rather than the reader and the search for shelter is a theme that is developed further. I’m very fond of ‘thrum’ as a verb and I’m sure that Hill will be aware of all its definitions as well as the musical one alluded to here. The last line (in the context of a love poem) seems a bit weak but serves to anticipate some of what follows.
Amy De’Ath’s ‘Tall Glass’ starts with this:
So you are the clearest, loneliest tall
glass, and you are free, and you are paler
than a milieu of pale teenage girls
scrubbing, condensing massively into a
huge tear, you are the advert for
the glass you are driniking from, is
this the glass you are drinking
from, is this that glass
This is the first half of the first stanza of two and I really like the way that it makes use of and subverts convention at the same time, I also like the way the originality of what is being said with its hint of obsession and an unstated desire to be clear about the emotions/desires that underline the ‘you are’ observations. The ‘milieu’ image is striking and is additionally enhanced / made even more effective by the deeply anti-poetic ‘scrubbing’. As with Hill, this is accomplished and inventive stuff that becomes more satisfying as things progress.
In the previous post on ‘Odi Barbare’ I mentioned the ‘Sapphic’ verse form (three longish lines followed by one short) and the fact that each of the poems has six verses that conform to this format. My initial response was that this particular constraint is more effective/useful than the ones used in ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ but I’m still not entirely convinced that it works as Hill intends. It seems to me that what the blurb describes as a ‘recadencing’ of Sidney’s example may strangle or damp down the power and force of what’s being said.
This is how Poem XXVIII ends:
What though, wedded, we would have had annulment's
Consummation early, and though in darkness
I can see that glimmerous rim of folly
Lave our condition, Had we not so stumbled on grace, beloved,
In that chanced day brief as the sun's arising
Preternaturally without a shadow
Cast in its presence.
Many of us have been enthralled and fascinated by Hill’s engagement with the workings of grace and this seems to add a further dimension. Leaving aside the many and verious theological niceties, the image of two lovers ‘stumbling’ on grace is odd as it suggests that the first kiss on that chanced day coincides with the appearance of grace and the salvation that usually comes with it. I don’t think that the last two lines of the penultimate verse work but this is probably because I don’t understand exactly (out of the many options) what is being said and the short line seems weak, the choice of ‘lave’ just seems too mannered and draws unnecessary attention to itself. The last verse is much more effective and the final line does provide a good ending. I’m still not sure how grace might be stumbled upon but the poem is so much more accomplished than the ‘Hiraeth’ poems.
I was going to type out all of ‘Tall Glass’ as a demonstration of what a good love poem might look like in 2012 but I’ve now decided to draw attention to these lines from the second stanza:
the huge baby of spring is bouncing towards us
about to cast his reckoning on his heads
and decide we are all right to go on loving if we
like, hope leaning on the air between
tenements, holy mother of snow I miss you-
altitude of bees, tall scarf a richness I know,
I will not fight about it
in the glass there is such a richness.
EWhat this demonstrates is De’Ath’s ability to do very special things with ordinary language and to produce work of real depth without resorting to some of modernism’s better known devices. The baby of spring, the air between the tenements and the altitude of bees all combine to express a range of emotions and desires in a way that seems accurate and honest- which is a way of saying that I believe in the feelings expressed in ‘Tall Glass’ whereas I have a degree of scepticism about those expressed by Hill. ‘Holy mother of snow’ manages to be heartfelt and wonderfully expressive at the same time.