Tag Archives: Annunciations

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.

Geoffrey Hill explains ‘Annunciations’

I first found out about poetry in 1968 at the age of thirteen. I’d read ‘Welsh Landscape’ by R S Thomas and suddenly discovered how poetry worked and that it was somehow important.

In 1969 I bought ‘The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse’ edited in 1962 by Kenneth Allott. I didn’t read much of it primarily because my eye was drawn to more ‘modern’ poets. I picked it up again yesterday because of the time that it spans (1918-1960) and then noticed that the last poem in the collection is ‘Annunciations’ by Geoffrey Hill which was published in ‘King Log’. I’ve read this poem before so wasn’t particularly excited until (out of curiosity) I looked at Allotts introduction where he praises Hill’s earlier work and complains about the “crabbed density” of some of the later poems in ‘For the Unfallen’. He says-

I find the darkness of many of the later pieces so nearly total that I can see them to be poems only by a certain quality in their phrasing.

Allott then quotes Hill as ascribing this ‘formality under duress’ to the influence of Allen Tate. A debate between editor and poet is then alluded to, Hill wants to be in the anthology but would much rather his latest work is included. Allott goes on  –

I understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations (i. e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice) but without help I cannot construe it.

To resolve this stand-off, Hill agrees to supply notes to help with this construal.  These run to one and a half pages and, as far as I know, are Hill’s only attempt to explain a poem in detail. The poem is in two parts, one concerning the ‘Word’ and the other concerning ‘Love’. Hill begins by describing the common theme –

I suppose the impulse behind the work is an attempt to realize the jarring double-takes in words of common usage: as ‘sacrifice’ (I) or ‘Love (II) – words which, like the word ‘State’ are assumed to have an autonomous meaning or value irrespective of context, and to which we are expected to nod assent. If we do assent, we are ‘received’; if we question the justice of the blanket term we have made the equivalent of a rude noise in polite company.

It could be said (and I will) that Hill’s career can be seen as an ongoing series of rude noises in polite company. He continues to question, gnaw away at, dissect a wide range of terms that most of us take more or less for granted- justice, spirit, forgiveness, love to name but a few. I think it’s also important to note Hill casting himself as the outsider, as the one who dares to question and so is not ‘received’.

Hill goes on to describe the first poem and points out the ‘key antithesis between lines 6 and 7 –

The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn

(each specimen jar fed with delicate spawn)

Line six, Hill contends, stands for ‘ pain, lust in the blubbery world’ whereas line seven describes pain and lust after it has been distilled by the ‘connoissseurs’. We aren’t told why the world might be blubbery but we are told that the connoisseur may be the poet or the critic. The choice of blubbery is instructive because of it’s obvious whaling connotations and because there is a quote in the OED which goes- “Democracy is the blubbery spawn begotten by the drunkenness of aristocracy”. It almost goes without saying that Hill is an exceptionally close reader of the OED and probably expects the rest of us to do the same.

Hill ends his notes to the first part with –

By using an emotive cliché like ‘The Word’ I try to believe in an idea that I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (‘the banquet’) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is , I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

Trying to believe in an idea is a difficult activity and I wonder whether some of Hill’s later work continues to reflect this attempt to believe in the ‘special’ power of poetry. With this in mind, I’m going to have to re-read some of the even more crabbed later stuff.

I have to confess that I’m not terribly keen on the second part of the poem because I don’t think it does what Hill describes. I also find its use of quasi-religious terms and phrases rather tiresome. Hill finishes his notes by saying:

But I want the poem to have this dubious end, because I feel dubious; and this whole business is dubious.

Which sounds like a bit of a cop-out, the poem finishes with a portentous flourish that doesn’t sound at all hesitant but might just be empty…. the kind of thing that Hill complains about in his introduction.