Tag Archives: geoffrey hill

Geoffrey Hill, William Cobbett and Jeremy Corbyn

For the past decade or so I’ve been intermittently musing on the nature of Hill’s politics, citing elements of his work as indicative of a kind of Little Englander High Tory (LEHT). The posthumously published The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin provides additional qualifiers and amendments on both points which I’ll try and outline here.

The first startlement comes with Poem 186;

This, it is becoming clear, is more a Daybook than ever The Daybooks were:
          il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the
          door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry
          which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.
Corbyn must win. Though he is a flawed man it is not my belief that Hogarth 
           would set him down as a tout or a thief.
To ask whether again Labour could ever again take power is beside the point at this
           juncture and hour.
Let me recomence my old caterwaul of 'intrinsic value' if only to rile you.
But why should you be riled at all? No disordinancy has been revealed, other
         than in the cabals that have reviled Corbyn with claptrap lobbymen.
It is the lobby that corrupts the language of praise, determines greatness to be 
         derisory. I should not trust even Hogarth on the topic of Jews and ususry.
         And Cobbett would be worse. I count them amongst my grievous heroes,
         whose structural stature - each minute particular of unbribed observa-
         tion, whether of turnip or fashion - combines in a singular authentic
         judgement upon the nation


I’ll start with Cobbett. For those that don’t know, William Cobbett was an early 19th century journalist and radical who was a key figure in the movement for parliamentary reform. He was also an ardent supporter of and advocate for all things English and rural. I rate him as the finest writer of prose that we have ever had, a talent that makes me smile a lot. I don’t share his politics nor do I admire him as a man but his writings are a constant source of pleasure and inspiration.

Hill has always been a bit evasive about the precise nature of his politics apart from his patriotism and his belief in the need for some kind of hierarchy in the way that we govern our lives. It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that he shared many of Cobbett’s beliefs and compassion for the rural poor. Here he seems to be troubled by his hero’s antisemitism which appears to be akin to the current workings of the Westminster lobby industry.

The statement Corbyn must win is unusually short and direct. I’m taking it that this refers to the 2017 UK general election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party was narrowly defeated by the incumbent Conservative leader, Theresa May. No doubt there will be many books written and many debates had over the Corbyn phenomenon and what it may have signified.

I’m one of those lefty cynics who recognised the gift that a Corbyn leadership would give to an already divided Tory party. As a paid up member of the ongoing failure that is the Great British Left, I’d followed Corbyn’s career with interest and had been unable to work out why the party hadn’t expelled him many decades ago- his views having much more in common with some of the small grouplets of the far left than they do with the parliamentary party.

It is therefore more than a shock to read these three words coming from this self confessed High Tory especially when, elsewhere in the series, he confesses to being a Remain supporter in the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Hill had made his anti-EU views clear in the Canaan collection of 1996 esp with regard to the political strife around the ratification of the Mastricht Treaty- an internal Tory kerfuffle mostly about the loss of sovereignty.

I’m going to glide over the Hogarth reference because I want to attend to all that Baruch has to say about him in another piece. I have however been casting about for commonality between Cobbett and Corbyn and it occurs to me that both of these are political outsiders. Neither were accepted by the political elites/establishment even though both, at times, enjoyed extraordinarily wide public appeal. Cobbett took several attempts to get elected to a seat, even after the 1832 Reform Act whilst Corbyn led his party to two defeats and gave the Tories their biggest majority since 1931.

We are pointed in the direction of two essays where Hill pays attention to the nature of intrinsic value. The first of these, Rhetorics of Value and Intrinsic Value, which starts with David Hume, proceeds to Joseph Butler and George Eliot before moving on to Richard Hoooker before alighting upon Ben Johnson;

“Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the publicke riot. The Excesse of Feasts, and apparrel, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantnonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”

Hill’s comment is telling;

The intelligence that believes in these words, from wheresoever derived, and seals that belief by giving them this cogent stability, affims also its acceptance of a doctrine of intrinsic value, albeit tacitly. The tacit understanding here is that language does not universally descend into corruption in company with a sick mind, or the mind of a sick state. Johnson had no doubt that his own times were sick; but he never doubted the capacity of language, his own language in particular, to guard its sanity and to guard the sanity of those who give it their assent…….. If you do answer with yea, yea! – as I admit that I do- you are henceforward committed to a course of thought and statement that accepts opposition as part of the common lot, which can hardly avoid controversy, and which will be, or from some points of vantage will appear to be, narrowly constrained and constraining.

To this reader, at least, things become a little clearer, the ‘old caterwaul’ is recommended because it identifies the value that both Corbyn and Cobbett brought redressing the sick state and the ways in which both were entangled in controversy. The Tory press took great delight in reminding all of us of Corbyn’s earlier support for the IRA and the PLO whilst his own campaigns gained popular support because he talked of a new kind of politics, one that was based on a sense of commonality and economic justice.

I’m not entirely sure that Corbyn has a notable mastery of language, as time went on his speechifying became increasingly equivocated by the supposed need hedge his bets, especially with regard to Brexit. Given Hill’s notion of value, it does make sense to see the Jeremy Corbyn of 2017 as a figure coming out of the cold to speak truth to power.

As might be expected, I don’t share this view of language as something special and apart from our daily lives. I remain of the view that the words we use are tethered to the lives that we live and the ways in which we live them. Words are very powerful but they aren’t special, they don’t transcend everyday life in the way that most poets seem to claim.

The other thing that I may wish to attend to is how much of this idea of value should be applied to Hill’s own work. For example, can Mercian Hymns be read, at least in part as an attempt at sanity guarding? What about the stunning Mysticism and Democracy poems from the Canaan collection?

The poetic voice in the difficult poem. Geoffrey Hill and David Jones

I embark on this as a result of seeing a paragraph somewhere that puzzled over the nature of Samuel Beckett’s ‘voice’ in his later prose. For some reason this triggered off an internal debate as to the respective voices deployed by Pound in his Cantos and by Charles Olson in his Maximus series. Leafing through these two bignesses, I realised that I didn’t respond well to the voices behind the poem.

This surprised me because both poems have enough of the poet in them to keep me interested but here this turned out to be an appalled fascination rather than enthusiasm.

In this sense, I’m treating voice as the thing in a poem which gives some indication of the poet as a member of the human race rather than as the maker of the poem. I’ve therefore chosen Hill and Jones because the voices they deploy are very different but equally full of humanness.

The Teacherly Voice.

I’ve learned a lot from these two, Jones uses notes to clarify some of his references and obscurities whilst Hill tends to make his explanations part of the poem. From Jones I’ve learned much more about life in the trenches during World War I than any other book could have taught me, I’ve also become reasonably au fait with the tenets and liturgy of the Catholic faith as well as aspects of the history of London.

As an example, there is this from In Parenthesis;

At 350 – slid up the exact steel, thegraduated rigid leaf precisely angled to its bed.

You remember the word of the staff instructor whose Kinross teeth bared, his bonnet awry, his broad bellow to make you spring to it; to pass you out with the sixty three parts properly differentiated.

The note for the first paragraph is “Has reference to adjustment of back-sight leaf for firing at required range. The opposing trench lines were, at this point, separated by approximately 300-350 yards. In other places the distance was very much less. Among the Givenchy craters, the length of a cricket pitch divided the combatants.

This is the gloss for the second- “Scotsmen seemed as ubiquitous among Musketry Instructors as they are among ships’ engineers. There are 63 parts to the short Lee-Enfield rifle.”

The points about sight leaf adjustment and the 63 parts are helpful in attending to the poem, The crater details give additional context but are not needed by the reader. The Ubiquitous Scot is an observation that makes me smile and has a touch of the human about it.

Hill’s A precis or Memorandum of Civil Power does education with regard to Messaien;

Why Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps this has
nothing to do
surely with civil power? But it strikes chords
direct and angular: the terrible
unreadiness of France to hold her own;
and what March Bloch entitled Strange Defeats ,
prisoners, of whom Messaien was one,
the unconventional quarter for which 
the Quator 
was fashioned as a thing beyond the time,
beyond the sick decorum of betrayal,
Petain, Laval, the shabby prim hotels,
senility
fortified with spa waters. (When I said
grand minimalist I'd had someone else in mind-
just to avoid confusion on that score.)
Strike up, augment,
irregular beauties contra the New Order.
Make do with cogent if austere finale.






I was aware of the Quartet but wasn’t aware that Messaien had been in prison, nor was I aware of the Bloch quote although he is one of my favourite historians.

I’ve thus been taught and given additional context to the rest of the poem. I’m also intrigued by Hill’s desire to be understood. He frequently claimed not to be bothered by the difficulty of his work, justifying it, less frequently, by observing that life is difficult and the poems are a reflection of that fact. The ‘grand minimalist’ clarification, I like to think, because he knows how good this series is and he’s tidying up any ambiguities that may have occurred. The score pun is typically terrible but endearing.

The Raw Voice

By this I want to draw out the voice in both that has both startled and moved me. I discover reasonably late in life that I read poetry in order, in part to be emotionally affected. This has come as something of a shock because becauseI’d always told myself that the prime attraction was the quality of the phrase/line/image/idea.

I’ve been thus affected by both Jones and Hill by the unadorned horror in some of their lines. There is a lot of rawness about that is intended to be moving but leaves me cold.

The two extracts here have a personal impact on me because both my grandfathers were seriously wounded at the Somme, events which have permeated down through subsequent generations. My wife and I also lost a child who was only alive long enough to be christened before she died, this has been of enormous significance to both of us and our other children for the thirty six years since.

These two are again from In Parenthesis;

And white faces lie,

(like china saucers tilted run soiling stains half-dry, when the moon shines on a scullery rack and Mr and Mrs Billington are asleep upstairs an so’s Vi – and any creak frightens you and any twig moving.)

And this;

And next to Diamond, and newly dead the lance-jack from No 5, and three besides, distinguished only in their variant mutilation.

Whilst I find both of these raw, as in ‘soiling stains half dry’ and ‘in their variant mutilation’ I also accept that they are restrained, poetic and have the feel of the terrible authentic. Both of these are from part 7 which deals with the first couple of days of the Somme offensive. Both my grandfathers experienced mutilation during this period, one lost an eye and the other lost half his face and took sixteen years to die. I’ve read a lot about WWI and the Somme in particular and nowhere have I come across anything close to this in terms of accuracy and humanity.

Turning to Sir Geoffrey, this piece of theological pondering is from Poem CXXV in the brilliant The Triumph of Love series;

                                               So much 
for the good news. The bad is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.
Wycliff and Dame Julian would have raised
few objections or none to those symmetries.

As I indicated earlier, for fairly obvious reasons this touches a nerve. Beth lived for 16 hours which was long enough to be christened but not to be baptized. Earlier in the poem Hill makes clear that he’s paraphrasing Thomas Bradwardine (14th century polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury). After getting over my immediate response I had a look at Bradwardine and his very orthodox attack on the New Pelagians- I think I’ve written about this in the past as an example of extreme obscurity. The entirely accurate bit that I experience as both raw and distressing is the eternal torments and the guaranteed damnation. It doesn’t matter that Hill attempts to balance this with the ‘good news’ which is that “All / things are eternally present in time and nature”. This still strikes me as more than a little gratuitously self indulgent.

The Human Voice.

I accept that I’ve spent more than a few words here and on arduity on what think of as Jones’ humanity and Hill’s tendency to throw himself, body and soul into some of his later work without being clear as the effect this has had on me personally.

By humanity I intend a mix of empathy and compassion for others clearly and unambiguously expressed. This passage from Part 4 is indicative of what I think I mean;

Corporal Quilter gave them no formal dismissal, nor did he enquire further what duties his party might next perform. Each one of them disposed himself in some part of their few yards of trench, and for an hour or more were left quite undisturbed, to each his own business. To talk together of the morning’s affairs; to fall easily to sleep; to search for some personally possessed thing, wedged tightly between articles drawn from the Quartermaster; tore-read again the last arrived letter; to see if the insisted water were penetrated within the stout valise canvas; sufficiently to make useless the very thing you could do with; to look at illustrations inlast week’s limp and soiled Graphic, of Christmas preparations with the fleet, and full portraits of the High Command; to be assured that the spirit of the troops it excellent. that the nation proceeds confidently in its knowledge of victory.

I make no apologies at all for producing this list of troops’ ‘downtime’ activities as I feel it more than adequately expresses Jones’ very human respect and affection for his comrades in arms. Passages like this occur frequently throughout this long work which can be read as a tribute to those who served on both sides of the trenches.

The Personal Voice

On the other hand, Hill’s later work gives many peeks into his life story and he has no problem with ruminating about his work within his poetry.

The Triumph of Love gives us examples of both;

Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced,
self-molestation of the child-soul, would that be it?

The place in question is Romsley which is close to Hill’s childhood home. It is known that, for many years, Hill had problems with his mental health and eventually obtained a diagnosis and some appropriate help. As someone with similar issues who happened to be a social worker, I’m going to resist extrapolating too much from these lines other than to confess that I readily identify with the unerring accuracy of both self-molestation and the child-soul. One of the main functions, it seems to me, of creative endeavour is to provoke us into comparing our own experiences, emotions and ideas with those expressed in the work. Sadly, far too many mainstream poets since the fifties have poured out their pain into poems in a way that I find distasteful and trite. I’m therefore against the confessional poem but Hill is forgiven because these moments are both oblique and rare.

The Triumph of Love also has this;

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off.

As with all those who were children between 1939 and 1945, the Second World War was formative for Hill and frequent references are to made to aspects ranging from the German resistance movement, Dunkirk, the fate of the Jews and the bombing of Coventry.

The posthumous Book of Baruch has this;

Eagle-eyed ancient history, look down on us from your eyrie with    
           resolved countenance: as when, in the Daily Mail, I read about 
           Spain, and drew dread in, and put the question 'will it come   
           here?' to my dad though he knew well it would.

Here I’m taking ‘Spain’ to refer to the Spanish Civil War and Hill’s father’s response an attempt to soothe the anxieties of a small child- our poet was born in 1932.

Baruch also has;

In my father's time I worked rhyme against form with smears of         
            poisonable blue indelible pencil. He also let me part-expend
            my rage  on any leftover blank page of a 'surplus' police 
            notebook; my lips of purple slake.
He was a good man; I brought him pain and pride.

Elsewhere Hill expresses his anger about his grandparents’ poverty but here we have something more complex going on. His father was a police sergeant and in the thirties and forties would have been seen as a figure of some authority in the wider community. I’m assuming that the pride would come from Hill’s Oxbridge education and subsequent academic career – I have no idea about the cause(s) of the pain.

The voice here is restrained but lyrical- the lines kick off for me my own relationship with my dad and his complete mystification as to why I should enjoy reading and writing.

As a result of these small observations and clear interjections, I feel that I know more about the humanness of Hill than I do of Jones although I’ve read much more about the latter’s life.

I’ll finish here, I’ve found this a rewarding experience in that I’ve had to try and think about both poets’ work as a whole- something that’s quite different from the close attention that I try to pay to individual poems. I hope that others will find it useful.

As some of you may have realised, I’m still kicking around the glories of the wordpress ‘verse’ button and its unusual rendering of the <pre> tag. I now intend to try and find a way to make it ‘work’ in a much friendlier manner. The lineation on the Baruch extracts doesn’t match the format in the book either, will try to fix this as well.

Geoffrey Hill, Hopkins and the working poem.

Hill’s final collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Julian, is blurbed as a ‘meditation on the nature of poetry’ and Poem 71 seems to live up to that promise;

A working poem has, or is, its own microclimate; certainly, in Britain it does so
        posses its nous. Some of us may be distinguished thus, pre-structuralists
        of our antic cause; the streamlet's cluck and treble through meadow and
        arable; gold gobs of mistletoe, the spoiler, the spoils, heaped in Tenbury
        market to go

Something here to be garbled if half understood. I am invoking presence not
        mood. Mood - almost at first standing - abandons us while, in absence,
        presence remains I state it crudely enough for small gains.

But it is not, even so, the same as the 'strain of time' which, according to that
         Jesuit, (resolute, glad, forlorn), draws from us the psychic skin that bound
          us to find the world tolerable, ourselves credible; and reels it in: alien
          a photonegative of all earthly loves; the Aurora palpitating absently
            apart in its waves and coils.

How, knowing this, he could write 'Hurrahing in Harvest' I can barely
          conceive, though it refelcts and reveals 'Spelt from Sybil's Leaves'
          mutually audible, darkly lucent, impenetrable, starkly provident.


I’m particularly fond of the way in which Hill writes, in both his criticism and verse, about the nature and role of verse. He’s previously described poems as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ and suggested that poems are best suited to memoriaiising the dead. On this occasion he appears to suggest that the poem is something apart and evoking a presence rather than a mood. The adjective ‘working’ can refer to something that is functioning as it should or;

Serving as the basis for further work; (of a theory, hypothesis, etc.) that is sufficient for present purposes but is likely to be developed or refined later; provisional; (of a document, drawing, etc.) serving as a draft; preliminary, unfinished.

I’d suggest that it is the second of these that we are meant to attend to although a working poem can also be an effective poem. If we take the second definition then this can be applied not just to indivdual poetry but the entire body of poems that, from the beginning, have been developed and extended by subsequent generations.

I live in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight which has its very own microclimate by virtue of its position between St Boniface Down and the English Channel. Us locals are very pleased about this because it adds to our sense of individuality and apartness, we have our own plants and our own lizards and butterflies which we claim to be unique in the UK. Poem as microclimate may then be said to create and preserve elements which are special and specific to it. It may also perpetuate itself. I’m following the second and “chiefly British” definition of nous as:

Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

Of course, Hill would want the British poem to retain some notion of common sense because he is a patriot and seems to subscribe to this odd view of British culture as the sole repository of plain and unadorned thought. We then have this quite startling description of some of ‘us’ poets being identified by the sound of a running stream and the sparkle of mistletoe piled up at a provincial market. The ‘cluck and treble’ and ‘gold gobs’ give emphasis to Hill’s stature as our finest nature poet.

Turning to mood and presence, I don’t find this convincing because it seems too grandiose and because the notion of presence remaining in its absence smacks of religiosity rather than poem things. It would also seem that the idea of invocation is used to gesture towards the presence of Christ in the christian mass. This isn’t to deny that poems can create a sense of presence, I get this strongly from David Jones In Parenthesis and from Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and from many pieces of music but I don’t experience this in a religious or spiritual sense. It’s more about being able to identify with and personally relate to what’s being expressed than any notion of wider powers. One of the strengths for me of poetry is its ability to compress and distill complex ideas and emotions into a single line or phrase but I don’t think that we should try to mystify things further.

The Jesuit is Gerald Manley Hopkins and I have to state that I’ve never been able to see any value in this poet’s work. Because of Hill’s enthusiasm and advocacy, I’ve spent more than a little time with the verse in an attempt to grasp what it is that I’m missing. I’ve also read quite a bit about Hopkins only to decide that I don’t like him much as a man either. Up until now I haven’t been at all familiar with either of the two poems mentioned above but they are both remarkable enough for the Hopkins penny to begin to drop.

The third paragraph’s apparent denial of what Hopkins may have said about poetry’s power to strip us of our comforting delusions sets up the contrast between two poems doing very different things.

Hurrahing in Harvest turns out to be a joyous description and celebration of God’s presence in the world and is brimful of humanity and faith. The line “Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” could be read as too cloying but is somehow saved by the insistent alliteration. Again this is subjective, I’m irrationally fond of words starting with the same letter and this is particularly pleasing to my ear. I’d also like to draw attention to the use of ‘realer’ which seems to make the line work well. The poem’s final line almost falls over into kitsch but saves itself by the strength of what it is saying- especially the repeated hurling for him.

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves is a bit more complicated and much darker. It contains most of the baseline tricks of the poetry trade but I’m not sure that there’s that much invocation going on. There is however a concluding line which describes life as a torturer’s rack;

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Hill concludes by pointing up this apparent contrast and claiming that one poem ‘reflects and reveals’ the other. We are left with four separate qualities, two of which are a bit tired (‘mutely audible’ and ‘impenetrable’) and two others which will resonate with me for days.

Geoffrey Hill’s final statement and the dead wife.

2019 saw the publication of Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, a sequence that Hill intended to be published after his death and which, according to the blurb, contains “a riot of similes about the poetic art” and its inherent strangeness. This, we are told, is also intended as a ‘summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry” and there are many things here to ponder. As I’ve said elsewhere, these represent an improvement on the five Day Books which Hill published towards the end of his life, which is a relief. The overall tone feels like a return to The Triumph of Love and Comus but I’m not sure that the content is up to the same standard.

The similes are many and vary from the profound to the crude. In fact they are so numerous that this reader has felt a little overwhelmed by the onslaught, some may feel that several are gratuitous.

I’ll probably reproduce all the similes on a later post but now I want to concentrate on just the first four in one poem because they ‘speak’ to me personally and are representative of the better work in the sequence. This is Poem 142;

Ordered reappearance of ideas from chaos: motto-phrase from poeisis of my declared period but not since

Poem as ‘dome of many coloured glass’ caught in mid-explosion on slow-motion film.

Barely in memory a ceremonial and normal life that can contain grief for a dead wife.

Imagination, at such and such a putsch, a form of conservative agitation. In an unjust nation. Freitod its safest ambition.

This is not a creed. Nor is it quite yet an autopsy on public need.

When ingenuity is suppressed let it not be disordinately released or we shall all be gassed by a watercolourist of scant ability and poor taste.

Delete and substitute:

‘For the first time in our history, love for the Fuhrer has become a legal term’.

And not even this will discredit our mystery before the highest democratic posthumous consistory, our wounds shallow, our tears glistery.

Poem as compact design, supreme nadir in the trap of a drain. Poem as dwarfed and distorted mimeo, disseminating in rhyme the murderous bibles as if they were Berlin or Warsaw or Moscow bus timetables.

Had Britain ‘gone under’ in that dire frame I would, a decade later, have become a Home Fires collaborator, I shouldn’t wonder; but through fear rather than greed.

(Please note that the lineation above is not the same as it appears in print, the lines are longer and the subsequent lines after the first of each statement are indented. My only excuse is that I haven’t kept up with the WordPress use of the <pre> tag. Will try harder.)

My personal interest in the above is that three years ago my wife died after a reasonably sudden and unexpected illness and this event caused me to become disenchanted with poetry because, like many things, it seemed quite trivial in the greater scheme of things. I was thus a bit disturbed to see ‘grief for a dead wife’ as part of this particular piece because it seems quite blunt and incongruent with the rest of what’s being said.

Hill was born in 1932 in the West Midlands and his late childhood and early adolescence was overshadowed by the Second World War and especially German bombing raids. This has remained a primary focal point throughout Hill’s work and figures prominently in Baluch. Amongst other concerns, there’s an abiding interest in Christian martyrs and in the workings of Grace.

In the brilliant Triumph of Love Hill defines poetry as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ which I thought was both accurate and lyrically strong. None of the definitions here, for me, are able to match that strength.

This ordered re-appearance throws up a few questions. It is true that some of us write in order to work out what it is we’re thinking because our thoughts and other mental processes seem tangled and incoherent. I’m not however sure that what we’re after in this is an ordering but more a kind of winnowing so that what’s left is what matters- whether or not it makes an orderly pattern.

I like motto-phrase as being more accurate than either slogan or maxim and i can see how this would apply to various schools and types of poetry. I think I’m correct in saying that Hill’s main period of academic / critical interest was the first half of the seventeenth century with forays into later periods. It may be that this is his ‘declared’ period but this is only a semi-educated guess. I’ve always found ‘poeisis’ to be a tricky term because it looks and sounds elitist and because it covers too many areas of endeavour to be useful. Most of Hill’s usage of obscure or ‘difficult’ vocabulary can be justified because that particular word adds precision whereas poeisis, in this instance doesn’t. The limitation of this to a particular period (‘not since’) seems at odds with the more universal business of poetry making that Hill seems to be after.

The multi coloured dome is apparently from Byron’s Adonais, this seems to be the relevant bit-

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

It would therefore appear that the poem in this instance is a kind of frame by frame record of the moment of death, when life is destroyed or shattered rather than ‘just’ coming to an end. I think that the poem is exceptionally good at memorialising the dead but I’m less convinced that it is itself at all like this shattered dome. I’m prepared to accept that the use of Byron’s poem to say something about poetry may indicate that there are further subtleties that may be going on here but I’m not sufficiently intrigued to attend to these here.

It’s not immediately apparent what the next sentence refers to, If we think about a putsch as an act intended to take control of something rather than an insurrection or a coup d’etat then it could be said that a poem is a way of ruling the poet’s emotions. I’m taking ‘such and such’ to have it’s colloquial meaning and to have been used because of the rhyme.

The next observation throws up a number of questions for me:

  • Why is ‘barely’ used in this way?
  • What is meant by ‘ceremonial’?
  • Is this dead wife a generic or particular figure?

It turns out that the first adjective opens up some ambiguity that I didn’t initially recognise. The OED reminds me that there is “Openly, without disguise or concealment, clearly, plainly” in addition to “Only just; hence, not quite, hardly, scarcely, with difficulty”.

Which would seem to give both something scarcely remembered but those memories that remain being clear. this makes sense to me, I have only a hazy memory of my early childhood, for example, but there are some events and experiences that remain very clear indeed.

Hill was a committed High Anglican Christian and his second wife became an Anglican priest. Church services at that end of the spectrum are also filled with liturgical rites and rituals that are referred to as ceremonies. He was also knighted and elected Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, both of which are freighted with the ceremonial.

If this is particular, I’m not entirely sure that any individual life can be said to be ‘normal’, any of my friends would be considered as normal people but none of them hace had lives that conform to any kind of norm. This may however be a minor quibble on my part.

Hill married twice and his second wife, Alice Goodman, is still alive so this may refer to his first, Nancy Whittaker although I don’t know whether or not she predeceased him. In terms of poetry making, the only direct reference that I’m aware of is this from Comus:

That the antimasque is what saves us
challenge by challenge. Still I anticipate.
I did not anticipate the marriage

that I destroyed. It was not then the fashion.

Having given this some thought, after my original startlement, the containment of grief seems a bit anomalous. Obviously I can only speak of mine and my family’s recent experience but grief is a very slippery and periodically persistent thing that doesn’t seem able to be contained. Some elegies speak eloquently of some aspects of individual grief but I think it’s unlikely that they contain all of it for a ‘dead wife’ or otherwise.

I’ll take ‘imagination’ in its broadest and most everyday sense but, rather than a coup d’etat, I’ll take the secondary definition of ‘putsch’ given as “a sudden or forceful attempt to take control of an organization, business, etc.; a sudden vigorous effort, a concerted drive or campaign”. A conservative agitation seems to be a contradiction in terms unless we think of people who agitate in order to keep something, the obvious recent example being the more vocal activites of Brexit supporters in the UK,

It’s fairly evident that some imagination is needed in the business of poetry making but a bit less clear how it can also said to be such an agitation. I’m also a bit suspicious that ‘such and such’ is only there because of the rhyme. ‘In an unjust nation’ isn’t a sentence, which is odd for Hill. The next few lines leads me to assume that the nation in question is pre-war Germany and that this putsch may, after all, be Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. We now come to annoying foreign words. The interweb tells me that freitod is German for suicide. I can think of no good reason in this instance why the English noun shouldn’t be used. To throw in a term that most ‘ordinary’ readers won’t know just puts them off and smacks of elitism and deliberate obfuscation. It may be here that Hill intends to point out the threat to the creative spirit that the totalitarian state poses. The last sentence would seem to argue that remaining silent is the safest response that a poet or artist can make when living under such a regime.

The next line seems like a bit of a retreat. The four similes are set out in the way that you would set out a statement of beliefs. If it isn’t a creed then why should Hill set them out in such a manner and express them in such a rigorous way. The second sentence is intended to be more telling (‘quite yet’) and less transparent. Has this public need died? Is there no longer such a thing as societal privation? Has the need been made public, ie placed in the public domain? Is it instead a need that is felt by members of the public. Or is it both and why is it dead?

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown that Hill’s singular voice and critical acumen stayed with him to the end and that this particular poem contains many elements that we should all give consideration to. I intend to follow this with some thoughts on Hill and Germany.

Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Hopefully, regular readers will accept that I am Very Opinionated Indeed about many things poetry. I don’t have a problem with this but it has recently been pointed out by a friend that these are my opinions and not absolute truths. This has given the bebrowed control panel some pause for thought. I usually qualify my reading of a particular poem by stressing the tenuous and provisional nature therein plus claiming the right to Change my Mind. I do have strong views about the Poem in General which are probably full of bias and prejudice but for which I like to think I can make a case. Geoffrey Hill is another example of someone with a passion for the Poem and equally trenchant views, most of which I happen to agree with and intend now to expand on several subjects where this odd congruence occurs.

What the Poem might be for.
Hill’s views here are slightly more specific than mine but he has this from his essay Language, Suffering and Silence:

“I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, as much as, or even more than, expressions ‘of solidarity with the poor and oppressed’.”

I’m a diluted atheist and thus don’t share the application of ‘grace’ and I worry about any kind of theology but I do share this emphasis on the semantic and co-existent ethical shock which, for me at least, gets to the essence of what the Poem is for. I read this as a radical use of language that undermines the conventions of language in order to effect the opportunity for a reconsideration of our values. The inherent action of grace or of anything else doesn’t seem to be an essential component of how these two components might work together.

Hill’s work throughout contains much memorializing most of which springs from his admiration of martyrs. I’m equivocal on this because I don’t share this enthusiasm to anything like the same extent. What I do share is the ethical duty that we have to bear witness to both lives and events. The best work of the 20th century does this, Celan on the Holocaust, Prynne on Abu Ghraib, Charles Olson on Gloucester, David Jones on the first 6 months of 1915, this could be a very long list. My point, is that our best poets, working in whatever tendency, recognise that the Poem performs this act very well indeed, perhaps better than any other means of expression. It’s not for nothing that poems are read at funerals.

I’m now a little bit troubled by the use of ‘duty’ in the above, mostly because it’s heavy with notions of debt and obligation that I’d rather avoid. I think my intention here is to indicate that makers of the serious poem are to some extent throwing their talent away (see below) if the disregard this function.

We now come to these shocks. The value of this aspect of the Poem seems to be shared by J H Prynne who says this:

“If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.”

I like to think, mostly because I share both perspectives, that these two are saying more or less the same thing although Hill develops this as leading to ethics whereas Prynne talks about the effects of this device on the reader. Prynne is writing here about ‘difficult’ late modern work but I’m assuming that both are making this claim for the Poem in general.

The Teaching of Something Called Creative Writing.
Both Sir Geoffrey and I are at one with this. We’re against it, in fact we’re very against it. The reason for this is both structural and ideological. The structural argument is:

“the academy in itself, by its nature does damage to aspiring poets;
the individuals teaching this particular skill aren’t, in the main any good as teachers and worse as poets;
aspiring poets are thus led by mediocrities to produce increasingly mediocre, unadventurous work;
this is a process that feeds into itself producing the current Poetry Malaise that we all know so well;”
The ideological reason is more an attitude than an analysis. It goes- poetry is a specific skill that needs to be understood and developed by each individual in his or her own way. The key components of this process are reading, re-reading and reflection. The other component is writing material and trying it out in the world. Neither of these have much to do with attending classes and the taking of the note.

One of the reasons I started arduity is my concern as to the way in which the Poem is becoming increasingly colonised by these academic structures who seem to encourage conversations poetry-wise in increasingly abstruse terms. I’m thus less than pleased about the above process even though Sir Geoffrey’s syntax and the occasionally vague nature of his ‘point’ is guilty of this particular sin.

The Religious Poem.
Hill’s critical writing and his poetry have led me to realise the centrality of this element in Western culture. As a devotee of the work of Paul Celan and R S Thomas, I was aware thet worth relating to faith is important but it was Hill who, together with David Jones, crystallized this into a much deeper appreciation. For a Very Long Time humanity has been concerned with the afterlife and a number of Christian devices have been developed to indicate how This Might Work. Primary amongst these is the action (a hopelessly inadequate noun but it probably serves my purpose) of grace. An argument about this ripped apart Europe for most of the 16th century and has been a defining element of our ideas of self for the last two thousand years.

So, grace is in our mental and emotional dna, whether we like it or not. It therefore follows that the Poem must, if even by stealth, must attend to it.

Modernizing Old Stuff.
We both seem to be in agreement that, as a rule of thumb, the updating of a text inevitably does damage to that text. Of course, there are those of us who want to read Beowulf but don’t have the time to gain some familiarity with Old English and others who want to read Gawain but don’t want to delve into the glories of Middle English.

There’s also the problem of motive with some editions especially the desire to produce the work in a way more accessible to the students and readers of the 21st century. Hill has penned a less than sympathetic essay on the Yale edition of the Tyndale bible which worries about both of these issues in a typically curmudgeonly manner. Here are a couple of extracts:

“When the concessions to common sense have been made (for example, the amount of editorial discretion in the old ‘verbatim’ editions which even purists are willing to accept; the current availability of exact photographic reproductions of black-letter texts), it here that one’s case rests against this modern-spelling edition of Tyndale finally rests. A tractable ‘English’ project (‘accessible Tyndale’) has insinuated itself into Tyndale’s intractable purpose (to make the New and Old testaments accessible, in English to the ‘laye’ people’). This is not so much transmission as a kind of contamination.£

and

To make Tyndale’s New Testament of 1534 ‘accessible’ to ‘today’s reader’ is not to discover it as the modern book it once was. The modern book it once was remains in the sufficiency and jeopardy of ‘its difficult early- sixteenth-century spelling’;….

I think the general point here is the bogus claims of the modernisers. The distant past is a remarkably strange and unfamiliar place, the readers of the 16th century had completely different expectations and practices from those of today. Tyndale made his bible for them and not for readers of the 21st century of whom he had no knowledge whatsoever. I’d have a lot more time for the Yale edition if it was made clear that this was prepared with students in mind to give a general impression rather than to make it into something with universal application.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest that modernized texts are a Wholly Bad Thing, just as translations are essential to my monoglot reading. It does nevertheless insist on a recognition that these transpositions might reflect more of the transposer than she or he would acknowledge. I’m aware that there may well be a charge of elitism here but I’m less and less bothered by this because it seems reasonable to question some of the more fatuous claims made by the modernisers.

On a personal level, I accept that every translation and modernizing produces a new poem but I am outraged that some of these do irreparable damage to the original. David R Slavitt’s verse translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is an example of a new Very Bad Poem that manages to obliterate this important poem under the guise of accessibility.

A final note on this particular prejudice: I’m trying to teach myself Middle English (for all kind of reasons) and am currently paying attention to the marvel that is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I started with J A Burrow’s 1972 edition primarily because of his expertise in All Things ME. Before getting very far, I moved on to Andrew and Waldron’s The Poems of The Pearl Manuscript. The main noticeable difference is that the latter retains the original spelling whereas the Burrow’s blurb has “The aim of this addition has been to remove unnecessary impediments while retaining the integrity of the original”. This justification is lazy in the extreme, especially given Burrow’s prominence and scholarship. Using ‘was’ instead of ‘watz’ is a kind of contamination in that it destroys the way the word sounds for the sake of modernizing something that is already clear enough. I don’t understand the use of ‘integrity’ in this context because that’s the very thing that is lost from the beginning.

The curmudgeonly view of the OED
The second edition of the above, especially in online form, is essential for most readers and writers of serious work. It is the standard point of reference for the English language and I never cease to be amazed how this project has been put together and maintained over the years. There are however gaps and inaccuracies as with any large work of reference and Hill has gone to some length, as has Prynne, to point some of these out.

These trenchant observations are from Hill’s essay Common Weal, Common Woe:

“In the entry on dexterity (‘2. Mental adroitness or skill….cleverness, address, ready tact’) the reader is appraised that sense 2 occurs ‘sometimes in abad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness’. The citation from Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (‘The dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’) is ambivalently placed and, in its brief citation, elusive in tone. Read in context (towards the end of Book Eight) the phrase still holds a good deal in reserve. Clarendon is alluding to the manners and morale of Antrim’s Irish and Montrose’s Scottish highlanders, from whose ranks it was planned to raise an army ‘that was not to depend on any supplies of money, or arms, or victual, but what they could easily supply for themselves, by the dexterity that is universally practised in those parts’. “

“How far, if at all, does Clarendon’s sense of his word confirm to the editorial definition? This is not a case to be explained by ‘sometimes in a bad sense’. Whatever is happening to the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ connotations is happening within the space of eighteen words, where what is ‘good’ is determined by the necessities of the ‘good’ cause and what is ‘bad’ by the unexplored hinterland of ‘what they could easily provide for themselves’.”

and this on Hopkin’s use of ‘disremember’:

“On the other hand they make a public exhibition of the contributors’, or editors’, inability, over half a century, to recognize the one usage which significantly changes the pitch of the word (‘qØite ! Disremembering, disrembering all now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v. Chiefly dial. dísmémbering ấll now’) The Second Edition heads its entry ‘v chiefly dial. [f. DIS 6 + REMEMBER v.] To fail to remember; to forget. (trans and absol.)’. If this may be thought sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkin’s context. ‘Disremebering’ in ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’, is not, as the Dictionary presumes, ‘failing to remember, ‘forgetting’ it is ‘dismembering the memory’.”

Now, it can be argued that both of these are mere quibbles and of no greater importance than one individual’s nit-picking. This would be entirely reasonable were it not for the fact that Hill knew a Very Great Deal about both the 17th century and the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins and therefore his observations would seem to be worthy of serious attention.

I’m an Eng. Lang. obsessive and am firmly of the view that it’s important to get this stuff as ‘right’ as possbile. I make extensive use of the OED as do many others to make sure that a) we get a better understanding of what we read and b} we ensure we make appropriate use of the words that we write. I’ve encountered entries over the years where the definitions seem to be partial or insufficiently nuanced. Obviously I don’t have Sir Geoffrey’s learning and am thus unable to qualify the doubts that I have but it is a worry that our sole point of reference would appear to contain quite a few flaws.

In conclusion, it may seem that all of the above fits with Hill’s reputation as an angry purist but I like to think that it’s more about being passionately involved with the Poem and having keenly held views about what it does and the various things that get in the way. I’m also of the view that there is nothing at all wrong with being opinionated provided the position expressed, as with Hill, can be supported by facts.

Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 
consolation.

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

The above has been recently published and it is a very welcome antidote to the bewildering foibles of The Day Books. The blurb on the back is revealing. I make no apology for these two lengthy excerpts:

Written in long lines of variable length, with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme, the verse- form of the book stands at the opposite end from the ones developed in the late Broken Hierarchies where he explored highly taut constructions such as Sapphic metre, figure poems, fixed rhyming strophes, and others.

and

Thematically, the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of evident helplessness………….. the references to alchemy, heterodox theological speculation, and the formal logics of mathematics, music, and philosophy are made coolly, as art, and as emblems for our inadequate and perplexed grasp of time.

I have to report, on an initial read-through, that this collection makes me smile a lot because it feels like a return to the aspects of Hill’s work (Comus, The Triumph of Love, Mercian Hymns) that I enjoy the most. I didn’t enjoy any of the late work mentioned above and that part of the blurb reads a bit like a gentle response to those of us who expressed our doubts.

Because I haven’t yet begun to pay serious attention to the sequence as a whole I thought I’d allow my youthful enthusiasm give a few examples of what I find (at the moment) to be the most grinworthy (technical term).

Poem 109 is a meditation and pronouncement on Stanley Spencer and Things Scottish. Up until yesterday afternoon I either didn’t know or had forgotten (both are equally likely) that, according to the DNB, ” the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to record shipbuilding on the Clyde” and that the Resurrection series was one of his more significant works of that period. Hill’s poem starts with “The Resurrection, Port Glasgow, of nineteen forty-five to forty-seven, is not the triumph that the late Referendum could have been”. I’m taking it that, although the blurb refers to Brexit, this is the vote on Scottish Independence. Hill’s readers will recognise the characteristically complexity of the sentence and the fact that this may not need to be said. Art criticism is well beyond my capabilities but I will observe that it would seem unlikely that Spencer had Scottish independence in mind at the time, regardless of his fondness for the shipbuilders on the Clyde. It’s a remarkable enough line to draw me in further. The other question that arises is whether Hill’s view of the triumph that could have been marks a shift in Hill’s political beliefs and associated patriotism.

The next ‘stanza’ is “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national / tradition. The tradition of the Clyde is now said to have died with Jimmy Reid.” The first sentence might be read as a statement of the mostly obvious whilst the second would seem to contradict it. Those of us of a certain age and political persuasion will recall that Jimmy Reid was the leader of what turned out to be the Clyde’s final industrial action. It would seem reasonable that the ‘tradition’ here refers to the history of radical socialism for which the Clyde workforce was rightly renowned. Again, this seems to signal a shift in Hill’s politics. The phrasing of the first sentence is reassuringly typical of Hill’s way of expressing Big Thoughts and this particular thought is consistent with both his earlier poetry and criticism. I’m taking it that ‘impart’ is a carefully chosen verb.

A brief note here about formatting, each poem is in prose. Each new paragraph begins at the left margin and the rest of the lines are indented by five spaces. The WordPress rendering of the pre tag makes it difficult to accurately reproduce how this looks on the page so I’m incorporating the lines into my paragraphs with ‘/’ marking each line break.

The next paragraph is; ” A kind of colloquial good, ‘Waking up’, ‘Tidying’, ‘Reunion of Families’- / Nineteen forty-five – forty-seven bore an obligatory hope – can stitch together a public shroud from private kindness; so that political / bloodymindedness must mourn its vital progeny born dead.” This is where we get into vintage Hill territory, what exactly might be intended by a ‘colloquial good’? Why is the hope of 1945-47, prompted by the election of a Labour government, said to be ‘obligatory’? If we take colloquial to refer to common or conversational speech might this ‘good’ be a quality in society that is beneficial for everyone? Or might it refer a thing being seen to have value by the ordinary people of Glasgow?

The years referred to also deserve some attention. This was perhaps 20th century’s most significant in British politics with the foundations of a social democracy and the National Health Service being laid. The hope was that a class ridden society could be transformed into something more equitable and just. Hill was born in 1933 and, as a bright teenager, would have been more than aware of these momentous shifts.

One of the definitions provided by the OED for ‘obligatory’ is; “Frequently humorous. So customary or fashionable as to be expected of everyone or on every occasion.”

We are therefore directed to the mood of optimism amongst ordinary people that the inequalities of the past would be eradicated and that significant improvements in living standards were about to occur. Of course, these hopes were not entirely met, the standard excuse being that the size of the post war debt to the US prevented the Atlee government spending enough to make a significant/lasting difference. Hill’s use of this adjective would seem to be an attempt at a kind of arch humour, that this was a hope that everybody felt obliged to share no matter how realistic it may be.

Jimmy Reid was to many the epitome of political and industrial ‘bloodymindedness’ and since then there have been very few figures in the UK labour movement to achieve similar prominence and success. Of course, successive governments since 1971 have colluded in the slow death of the British shipbuilding industry and the consequent damage done to communities. Trade Union legislation has also greatly limited the ability of workers to take action against unfair treatment. I’m hoping that this is what Hill is referring to with the still born progeny.

The last stanza is the longest and most direct; “Scotland is not England, of course; and, of the two, the condition of England / is worse. Spencer’s was an English muse, nevertheless; a power of sorts / among her foreign peers; and with a very local sense of redress that, / undeniably beautiful, pressed down on Clydesiders a sentimental appeal, / like skeins of festal coloured knitting wool that they may well have / wished not to possess.

This seems to be fairly straightforward the condition of England is (not was) worse than that of Scotland. Spencer and his source of inspiration were English and, although he created beautiful work set on the Clyde, he was hampered by a sentimentality that may not of been popular with the community that he was depicting. There’s also this local sense of a need for justice for wrongs done. The grin factor is obviously subjective but I think it’s important to recognise and celebrate the things that give us pleasure. In this instance the pleasure comes from a recognition of Hill’s personality (another loose and subjective term) and what would appear to be his method of thinking. The altering of syntax is a fairly consistent device over the last 30 years or so which some find annoying but I feel is an important illustration of how big or difficult thoughts are arrived at. I’m absorbed by this process and feel almost involved in the production of the work. This may seem overly personal but the late Hill at least does have this attractive-but-maddening tendency to throw himself, lock, stock and barrel into his work. Poem 109 is an example of Hill getting hold of a theme and shaking it to bits. Spenser is described in admiring tones in the two previous poems but here thoughtful consideration is given to a quite specific aspect of his work. I smile here because of the way in which the point about sentimentalising / prettifying is made and because I’ve been a member of a community that has had similar treatment from time to time and been less than pleased. Of course, Hill the curmudgeon is still present with the born dead progeny, a simile designed more perhaps to shock than inform. I’m also intrigued by this apparent political sea change. Hill described himself once as a ‘Red Tory’ and this strand is the most apparent in his work along with more than a smattering of patriotism. Both of these would seem to run counter to what’s expressed here and in other parts of the sequence to this is invites further exploration.

However, the elements that made me smile the most on an initial reading is “like skeins of festal-coloured knitting wool” and the need for redress being pressed down. Both of these are, to my ear, redolent of Hill at his very best

New arduity pages

I’ve decided to put my work about poetry in the future into the arduity project, which is also getting a bit of an overhaul. Bebrowed is now going to be used for the creative projects that I’m involved in. The extant bebrowed material will remain here with copies of some being on arduity as well.

These are the most recent arduity pages:

prynne100

J H Prynne, the Neolithic and Landscape. A tentative survey from the English Intelligencer in 1967 via Wordsworth and then to Kazoo Dreamboats.

appleton100

Andrew Marvell’s Appleton House: a Poem of Many Parts. In which we explore the world of the mid-seventeenth century with the aid of this involved and multi-dimensional jewel.

jpeck100

Part Two of John Peck’s M in which concern is expressed but then resolved by the nature and effect of obscurity, intersperersed with admiration for this densely rewarding piece of work.

delaunay100

Cecilia Corrigan and Ian Hatchett’s Titanichat which is an excellent illustration of how poets can make use of web technology. Work like this challenges the reader to consider how he or she is able to recognise language.

reznikoff100.

Reading Charles Reznikoff. A brief demonstration of this poet’s importance in his own right and for the future of the Poem. A very much neglected talent.” title=”reznikoff, an introduction”>Reading Charles Reznikoff. A brief demonstration of this poet’s importance in his own right and for the future of the Poem. A very much neglected talent.

johnm100

Pages pt 2, an open letter to John Matthias in which consideration is given to the cultural clutter that informs our lives and the workings of memory in this brilliant piece of work.

hill100

Growing old playfully with Sir Geoffrey Hill. In which we consider the poignant reflections on aging in the surprisingly enjoyable Ludo.

vanessa100

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia: an introduction. In which we extol this staggering and strategically important conceptual work which throws down a gauntlet to the rest of us.

simonlib100

A tentative introduction to Simon Jarvis’ Night Office (2013) which is a brilliant very long poem that rhymes and addresses the nature of the liturgy and the fate of ruins, a poem that uses constraint to say important things.

The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:


     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone
     
   

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

: ”

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.