Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve found myself in a kind of grim agreement with an increasing number of Hill’s views. Unlike many critics I much prefer, (with the exception of the Day Books) the looser ‘feel’ of the later work. I am therefore pleased to report that Hill throws himself and his staunchly held opinions into The Book of Baruch, his final collection.
These range from the purpose and definition of poetry to what seems to be an honest accunt of his childhood to politics, past and present. There are also memories of ‘Blighty’, meditations on painters, composers and other poets. Staring with childhood we have the difficulties Hill experienced in his very early years, starting with trauma at birth. Stuff like this, if it’s done well, always sets off a series of emotions because I too experienced the same difficulties- a near death experience for both mother and child. Neither parent had another child so we both underwent the only mixed blessing of the only child. Children born in such circumstances have, at best, a mixed response from parents and the wider family. This is Poem 216;
1932 is imbrued with my own blood I am not a Jew though I married one; and I subscribe to their iron scorn, aude Sandy Goehr born in that same livid year. Myself and my mother bled into each other, she was henceforth barren, I solitary; foreign to myself and dire to her. The next immediate crisis - pyloric stenosis - was healed by acid and a glass rod: a method no - one since then has claimed to have undergone or understood.
1932 was a significant year in Europe. The Nazi party gained 37% of the poular vote on the way to taking full control of Germany. The rest of Europe was experiencing poverty and deprivation with the UK’s unemployment rate at 22%. I’d nevertheless question the use of ‘livid’ except that it could describe the angry / bruised face of a newborn. Mother and child bleeding into each other is a striking image, conjuring up in my mind both as a battle against external forces as well as between each other. The next line is an example of what the best poets excel at, the compression of complex ideas into few words. The solitude allows and encourages the only child to make his own decisions without having to take on board the competing wishes and aspirations of siblings. Solitude can also entail being the sole subject of your parents’ gaze. This is not a Good Thing as, in some instances, you become the object of concern, criticism and consequent punishment, either emotional or physical. Being foreign to oneself is freighted with conotations and meanings that are mostly variations of the current common usage. The OED, however, gives this ‘obscure’ definition; “Not of one’s household or family” the only two examples provided are from Pericles and Othello. Like all good poets, Hill chose words with great care and I find this example particularly satisfying as it captures many of the features of a childhood gone awry.
We now come to ‘dire’ which the OED (following Johnson) gives as “Dreadful, dismal, mournful, horrible, terrible, evil in a great degree”. I think most of us would agree that’s a fairly extreme way of describing anybody’s feelings towards one of their children. It’s also one of the puzzles of this particular poem. I also experienced injury at birth and my mother didn’t have any other children as a result of her injuries. Coupled with the fact that we both experereinced mental health difficulties, I immediately recruited Hill into my particular ways of being. Both my parents viewed me with some mystification as if I was some kind of alien creature and I can feel to this day my father’s mild resentment towards what he viewed as an unwelcome stranger.
I was therefore brought up in an emotionally cold home and was physically punished at a very young age because my inability to write ‘neatly’ was seen as laziness. I do know however that nobody viewed me as dire and can’t imagine how traumatising this must have been for Hill.
One of the problems with over-identifying is that I pick out the lines that are striking for me rather than spend time with the poem as a whole. In this instance I know nothing at all about Alexander Goehr and have only recently learned the nature of a pyloric stenosis. The temptation to skip both references is enormous as it may take me many hours of brow furrowing to get to the ‘point’. The Jewishness trope doesn’t appear to fit with the rest and I’m happy to remain flummoxed by ‘iron scorn’. There are 271 poems in this collection, a few of those may help with my current puzzlement.
There are a few more questions about ‘dire’ that won’t go away. How did Hill know how his mother held this view? Did she tell him or was it surmised from her behaviours? Given the kind of damage that this level of abuse can do, how did he achieve such a glittering career? Did Hill’s father play any kind of ameliorating role in this sorry tale? But this is probably the social worker rather than the reader coming out in me.