I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.
In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.
Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.
The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.
This is the first verse of Poem VI:
I can hack most laureates' roster-homage
Make a pranged voice nasal through a ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.
The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.
The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.
Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.
With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:
- reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
- put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
- give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
- give instructions or information to;
- shorten, abbreviate, abridge.
None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.
The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.
Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.