Tag Archives: paris review

J H Prynne in The Paris Review.

This is the first Prynne interview in Quite Some Time and it gives some valuable insight into both the man and his work. What follows is not so much an analysis but a further development of the arduity position on this particular exponent of the poetic craft. I’ll probably follow this with a crass comparison with Geoffrey Hill’s interview in the same rag many years ago, mainly because I haven’t done this for a while.

It’s probably best to proceed by means of headings;


Prynne studied under Donald Davie and was initially focusing on Pound and William Carlos Williams and then Davie signposted Charles Tomlinson whose work in turn led to that of Wallace Stevens who is described as ‘a seriously intellectual poet of cerebral focus committed to an active intelligence of mind’ which Prynne didn’t find in either Pound, Creeley or Olson.

He is quite self deprecating about his early attempts at poetic practice and explains his repudiation of Force of Circumstance by describing it as being the product of ‘the extremely uncomfortable experience of being a beginner’. He does however see this collection as his way of making a start on the difficult business of placing his work in the public sphere.

As might be expected, there is some disparagement of the Movement group whose work is described as very defensive and traditional who were attracted to Eliot much more than Pound. We’re pleased about this because it is very similar to the arduity view although I’d add that the traditional thread has led to the dismal state of nearly all anglophone work today. I now have by my side Penguin Modern Poets 14 from 1969 which contains some of Tomlinson’s work and was bought at about that time when, as a callow youth, I was devouring as much poetry as I could. Prynne describes Tomlinson as a landscape poet and that, together with Williams, he provided a backdrop to Prynne’s early thoughts about producing his own work.

Re-reading poets that you’ve almost forgotten about is a mixed experience, the least pleasant of these has been Robert Lowell whose malevolent mediocrity clashed in a Very Big Way with the clear impression made on my adolescence. Tomlinson turns out to be much better than I recall, one page has the corner folded over so I’m guessing I did at one of the readings what I used to do. The mix of Stevens and Tomlinson does seem to be unlikely but that might be because I haven’t paid much attention to the latter. It’s also at odds with my previous belief that Prynne’s early main interests were in Wordsworth and Olson.


It turns out that Prynne’s view here is much more qualified than this reader had previously assumed. He doesn’t like the Mayan poems and think that some parts of Maximus are unduly self-indulgent:

I’m afraid the same would have been true with Olson. Some intelligent friend should have said, Look, Charlie, it’s all very well, but there comes a point where you’re answerable for certain uses of material. Your readers and students are going to say; Are we to follow down these roads. And if so, where are they going to take us? If you don’t care about these questions, then you’ve abandoned one of the important things that it means to be a poet. Yeats made a regular ass of himself in his adoption of spiritiualist blarney, even if he was just playing with it.

(The odd punctuation in the above is produced verbatim).

More on Prynne

J H Prynne Interview in the Paris Review.

Reading J H Prynne

Being Surprised by J H Prynne’s “Morning”.

Infusing with J H Prynne.

Infusing with J H Prynne Again.

J H Prynne and Money- the case of Biting the Air

Mind-altering verse, the case of Prynne’s Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian./a>

J H Prynne’s Truth: an intial recce

J H Prynne’s Al-Dente

J H Prynne, the Neolithic andLandscape.

J H Prynne and Beginnings

Prynne on poetry

Prynne and difficulty

Catching up with Prynne

Prynne on Wordsworth

Reading Prynne very carefully

Prynne’s Mental Ears

Impenetrable Prynne?

Prynne’s Sub Songs

The ‘same’ refers to Ezra Pound and his use of bonkers (technical term) economic theories in The Cantos. Olson’s irresponsibility refers to ‘bungling around’ with various fields of study, Prynne highlights archaeology, Nordic myths, Old Icelandic verse, and glyph languages as examples where he was affecting a knowledge that he didn’t have. I now have a couple of confessions to make. I read Maximus in a vain attempt to get a foothold on All Things Prynne. Needless to say this wasn’t forthcoming but I found the poem completely involving. I also discovered that Prynne had done some work in putting part three together prior to publication and then he and Olson had some kind of falling out. From this I’d assumed that Prynne admired the work without any but the smallest reservations. That’s thus a conclusion that shouldn’t have been leapt to.

The other confession is that I reckon I’m pretty good at sniffing out this kind of bungling in The Poem but on this occasion I assumed Olson did know what he was referring to even though I didn’t pay too much attention to the mythological elements. What I have paid some attention to is Olson’s use of A N Whitehead’s Process and Reality, a difficult work that argues, this is a mangled and very selective precis, that we should be concerned with events rather than things. In fact I’ve used Maximus on arduity to give a shining example of the 20th Century Philosophical Poem. In the light of the above, I may have to revisit at least the parts of the poem that I felt were fairly pertinent in order to check the amount of Bungle that might be present.

Another illusion shattered is the Black Mountain College that lives in my head. This stands at the pinnacle of academic/creative excellence but mostly because of the Rauschenberg / Johns / Twombly trio and Josef Albers rather than the poetry squad. Prynne is critical of what he saw as the bullying culture perpetuated by the teaching staff during Olson’s tenure and makes the same charge of bungling, citing Robert Creeley leading an ‘absurd’ discussion on ‘Putnam’ when he meant George Puttenham.

I’m going to skim over the part that deals with Ed Dorn because his friendship with Prynne is well known and I’m less than keen on his work although I’d probably have a completist’s interest in the ‘fifty binders’ of correspondence between the two.

Marx, Mao and Adorno.

I’ve always thought of Prynne as an old-fashioned leftie without thinking through what that might mean in any greater detail. Here Prynne, by way of illustration, contrasts his position with that of Keston Sutherland, well-known 100% Marxist and his former pupil. He describes his own Marxism as being ‘peculiar and extraneous’ and elaborates this by describing his view of Marx’ work as being ‘a humanistic projection of political narrative. He seems to express some regret at Sutherland’s increasingly Hegelian stance and points out that he’s not really interested by this particular slant. There’s also this preference, if that’s the right noun, for Hegel’s dialectic of nature. I like to think that all of this ‘fits’ with my initial characterisation mainly because it’s redolent of my discussions with activists of that generation.

Prynne’s enthusiasm for Mao takes me by surprise. This leaps out as an extraordinary observation:

I would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than I am in the good period of post-Maoist China which is full of unwholesome abandonments of serious disposition.

Which is qualified later with reference to Joseph Needham by:

Contradiction was something he was very familiar with. But the later career of Mao Zedong was a matter of great distress to him, and indeed it was to me. Because it all flies off the rails, most conspicuously with the Cultural Revolution. But there’s a period before this, too, when the agricultural policies are imposed on commune-type farming practise, which have disastrous, terrible, destructive consequences. We in the West didn’t understand that for a very long time. Information was very slow to come through.

Starting with the obvious, the ‘bad period’ was much, much worse than bad. The Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961 was a policy of criminal stupidity that killed, by means of famine, between 20 and 45 million people. Those with even a vague understanding of the events (me) know that this was purely ideological and driven by Mao. As with Stalin and the Russian famine of the early thirties, the Great Leap Forward, for me, far more than the Cultural Revolution, destroys Maoism in all it’s forms. It negates all of the many achievements of the Mao period because that number of lives can never be a price worth paying. End of short but heartfelt rant.

In terms of ideology, there’s also this:

The essay “On Contradiction” is one of his major essays. Most Western readers find it nonsensical, and pour scorn on my interest in it- fat lot I care. It’s been a serious connection for me because Mao has a complex understanding of the task of the dialectic. He believes that dialectic is a principle of relationship within the material order itself, and not just within the intellectual order. It has meant a lot to me.

Purely in the interests of research, your humble servant has glanced at “Contradiction” and can report that it doesn’t look like nonsense but nor does it convert me to the dialectic as a method. The arduity position remains entrenched because I don’t understand how it’s supposed to work and how some contradictions can be selected over others. During the summer, in the interests of fairness, I waded through ninety pages of Hegel applying the dialectic to aesthetics and it still doesn’t make sense. With regard to ‘the principle of relationship’, Mao has this; “As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantative development, is like likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions”. The obvious response to this is that it’s incorrect and to draw attention to “as a matter of fact” and “chiefly” but that doesn’t mean that Prynne is deserving of my scorn. It is nevertheless fascinating with regard to Kazoo Dreamboats to learn how much Mao there is in some of even the later work.


Further tearing my assumptions asunder we have this which begins with reference to Mao’s dialectic:

It has meant a lot to me. As Adorno’s Negative Dialectics did. I’m not an Adornoite. Quite a lot of Cambridge literary intellectuals have signed up for an Ardorno-type commitment. I’ve never quite been of that commitment, but his understanding of the dialectic process, particular to self-enfranchisement from the metaphysical German tradition, which is so overbearing and so constraining- Adorno finds ingenious and very witty ways of liberating himself from the constraints of the German tradition.

This assumption was that All Things Cambridge were/are wholehearted Adornoites so it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that Prynne has never ‘quite’ been fully signed up to his way of thinking. I’ve just looked back and in 2010 on the bebrowed blog I made an attempt to marry together Adorno’s view on poetry with the Prynne ‘project’. What I didn’t emphasise enough at the time is that Adorno is wrong about the poem and makes the same (ish) mistake as the rest of German tradition in ascribing too much importance to the Poem as a privileged mode of expression.

The simple equation of Prynne = old fashioned leftie Adornite is now mostly jettisoned and replaced by a Maoist old-fashioned leftie with a non-Ardonoite interest in dialectic. I’m not entirely clear why this should matter to me all that much, I’m much more interested in the poetry than a poet’s politics. It may be that, as with Hill, politics clearly matters to Prynne and perhaps the poetry does, from time to time, form a satisfying backdrop to a particular poem or sequence.

Kazoo Dreamboats, a Maoist Poem?

I don’t like KB because I’ve never been sure what it’s trying to get to and I’m not keen on its tone. Incidentally, my bebrowed blog contains more than a few meanderings on this particular piece of awkwardness. ‘Maoist’ is not an adjective that I would have chosen even though it contains two longish quotes from Contradiction. However, the interview’s discussion about Mao starts with:

The discussion about Mao starts with:

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me. That interest is written on the surface and in the crevices all over Kazoo Dreamboats.

I’ll get to this shortly but I’m told that JC in the TLS has poured further scorn on Prynne (fat lot he cares) for confessing in this that he doesn’t know what KD ‘means’. This is an example of the kind of lazy jibe that gets thrown at serious writers, especially Hill and Prynne, of serious work by lit hacks that Should Know Better. Having paid some attention to the words on the page, this is not what Prynne says. He’s very clear that the poem is an exercise in self-contradiction, an account and examination of positions. It’s a should-know-better quip because it ignores the areas that good poets have been exploring down the ages but particularly in the last century. It’s lazy because it preaches to the converted, to the reactionary ignorance of the mainstream literati and it’s a quip because it’s designed for an easy laugh (sneer). In fact, Prynne gives an unusually detailed examination of KD and its composition. This is how it starts:

It was full of an extremely complex system of self-contradictions which ought to produce serious disorder in the thought process, and I simply said to myself, I’m going to let it do that. I contradicted some of my deeply held beliefs and opinions. I deliberately as if by kind of necessitous instinct wrote myself into overt opposition to them.

I’m about to take issue with the implications of this rationale but it can’t be argued that it doesn’t provide more of a ‘meaning’ than most poets of every hue are happy to provide. Can it? My concern here is as a practitioner rather than a reader and whether or not these kinds of process and deployment are more than a little self-indulgent. I’m a Prynne fan and have paid close attention to most of his later work but I’m not that interested in this kind of game, what does interest me is whether the poem is any good. As a maker of poems I’m fairly clear that I wouldn’t inflict this kind of exercise on my audience/readers because it isn’t very interesting. even to me. Of course I didn’t know this rationale when I first read the poem but this information only serves to increase my dislike.

For those who don’t know, it may be as well at this point to mention that all of KD is in prose which takes us into the tricky object that is the prose poem. This isn’t mentioned in the interview but, as it’s the first of this type for a Very Long Time, it might be worth some further consideration.

What does catch my eye however is this idea of a poem as a very ‘complex system’, a notion that gets a more detailed treatment in the Mental Ears and Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems essays. These have lodged a notion of trajectories and connections that slide past each other without actually making the connection, a conceit that has helped this reader get a better grip on ‘difficult’ poetry in general. The question here is whether or not KD is such a system or more of a progressive sequence.

Those who have looked at KD will know that there are a list of 22 ‘Reference Cues’ which are books, essays and pieces of music from the sixth century BC up to the present day. Extracts from some of these of these are produced verbatim in the text of the poem. A few are quite lengthy and are marked off as blockquotes, there are two extracts from the Mao Essay, the second half of one of these is reproduced above, and Langland’s Piers Plowman is used as a repeated device at the beginning of the poem (see below).

Some of these cues are reasonably standard but others aren’t, this is all of them as they appear:

  • V. Adrian Parsegian,Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists (Cambridge 2006).
  • Alexander Atland and Ben Simons, Condensed Matter Field Theory (2nd ed., Cambridge 2010).
  • Andreas Kayser, Mark Knackstedt, Murtaza Ziauddib, ‘A closer look at pore geometry’, Oilfield Review, 16 (2004), 44-61.
  • Leucippus (5th cent. BC), as reported by Diog. Laert,. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk IX, trans. Hicks.
  • Parmenides of Elea, On Nature (c. 490-475 BC), trans. Burnet.
  • Melissos of Samos (follower of Parmenides), On nature (fragments), trans. Fairbanks.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BC), Physics Bk 1, trans. Fairbanks.
  • Kung-sun Lung (d. 252 BC) Pai-ma lun (‘On the White Horse’), trans. (entire) by A.C. Graham in his Disputers of the Tao (La Salle. III., i989), pp.85-90.
  • Richard Bradley, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ in Chris Scarne (ed.), Monuments and Landscape in Early Modern Europe; Perception and Society during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (London, 2002).
  • Mao Zedong, ‘On Contradiction’ (August, 1937).
  • William Langland, Piers Plowman (c.1360-87), B-Text, ed. Schmidt, C-Text ed. Pearsall.
  • Simonides of Ceos (c 556-469 BC), Frag 453, ‘Lament of Danaë’, sung version by Ed Sanders, ‘Danaë in a box upon the sea’ on DOCD 5073 A 05 (1990): Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), Danae (1554-6, Museo Nazionale, Naples).
  • Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia (1590), The Fourth Ecologues.
  • Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, Trans. I.T. (1609).
  • William Shakespeare, Sonnets 1609, &c.
  • William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798), &c.
  • P.B. Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817), &c.
  • Alban Berg, Lecture concerning his opera Wozzeck (1929).
  • Tadeusz Borowski ‘The Man with the Package’ in his This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (London, 1976).
  • Cui Jian, ‘Yi Wu Suoyou’ (1986); http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeL_CZFI&t8.
  • Christian Wolff, Early Piano Music (1951-1961), played by John Tilbury and others, inlay note to MRCD51 by Michael Parsons (2002).
  • Kevin Davies, Lateral Argument (New York, 2003).

With regard to the first of these, Prynne has this to say:

When I saw that this book,….., had been published by the Cambridge University Press, I just knew it was going to be an important book to me. I couldn’t tell you why but I’d already encountered this phenomenon of molecular forces and I knew I was going to care about it, partly because it was going to support a certain instinct I had about the structure of material things, which was increasingly an important question to me. I’d become a materialist in some abstract sense of the word, more progressively as my thought practises have developed.

In the interests of completism, I have a copy of this tome on my hard drive and have to report that I have major problems getting past the first three pages. This is because I’m mostly clueless about science and Very Bad at equations but it’s also because I don’t find it interesting. However, if I was interested, then I might make some effort to get a grasp on the outline of the theory But life is probably too short to make it a priority.

KD and Piers Plowman.

Moving on to something that I’m more familiar with, Prynne explains the presence of Langland (the use of “I saw” at the beginning of some paragraphs) with:

The one major thing was this extremely unexpected and forceful presence of Langland and the Piers Plowman enterprise. He just appeared, I took that very seriously. Partly because the structural contradictions in Langland’s thought were so central to the whole idea of his being a poet and doing the tasks of poetry. The Franciscan idea of a sacred poverty was so important to him and was so visibly violated by everything in the social world around him. He cares deeply and is worried stiff by what kind of answers he can find to the questions of human conduct, the questions of equitable justice, the questions of honourable satisfaction of one’s sacred religious duties. The line movement and the whole structure of these rather long lines that Langland writes are movements of profound worry. He suffered this poem, and didn’t avoid what writing it seems to have been thrust upon him.

It so happens, for entirely different reasons, that I’ve been making my slow but attentive way through the Pearsall edition of Piers for Quite some Time and I’m now intrigued about these ‘structural contradictions’ and what it might mean to suffer a poem. This tentative response is especially provisional because I’m only halfway through the poem but feel that I might be able to identify something of what might be meant. I must also confess that I’m only familiar with the ‘C’ text although I understand that this is a milder social critique than the ‘B’.

As Pearsall points out, the main concern about the Franciscan itinerant preachers was that they had betrayed the original principles of their order by using their position by pursuing material gain rather than adhering to their initial vow of poverty. I’m not convinced by Pearsall’s suggestion that Langland was further trouble that his role could also be seen as a travelling beggar. What does seem more pertinent is the role of Rechelesness, a character who is both cynical about and defiant of Christian teaching and practice. This oppositional view is expressed with such force and clarity that this character might be seen as our poet’s alter ego, as the embodiment of doubts and anxieties that have beset our poet. These kind of doubts may well cause this kind of afflicted soul to be ‘worried stiff’ about the answers to his questions.

Prynne describes the difficult business of becoming and being a poet in a particularly heartfelt way and I’m guessing that he’s also suffered more than a few poems in his long career. I’m sure that many poets are familiar with the experience of being compelled to express some keenly held concern yet are daunted by what the result of such a poem might be I struggle with an unhealthy mix of cynicism and moral doubt which continues to hinder my attempts to address the things that mean the most to me.

In the course of writing the above, I’ve given more than a little attention to KD and have to confess that I find it more or less unreadable. This comes as a shock as I usually take great pleasure in attending to the rest of the opus. Prynne indicates that he’s quite ambiguous about it and seems a little mystified as to why he wrote it in this particular way. I still have to observe that I don’t think it works.

In conclusion, a fascinating interview with many other elements that I’ve omitted. It gives many insights to both the man and his work over the last 50 years. If anyone needs a copy, please e-mail me at bebrowed@gmail.com and I’ll send you the pdf.

John Matthias, annotation and collaboration

First of all, the three volumes of John Matthias’ Collected Poems have now been published by Shearsman and must be read by all those of us who value intelligent and exhilarating verse. What isn’t in these three volumes is the remarkable ‘Trigons‘ which John nevertheless regards as part of his collected work.

I’ve been writing about John’s work here and on arduity for the last three years primarily because he makes the technically difficult look effortless and because he provokes thoughts in quite a startling way. The great Guy Davenport said that John is “one of the best poets in the USA” and nobody with any sense could disagree with that.

John and I have corresponded over the last three years and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude both for his support and for introducing me to the magnificent work of David Jones.

We’ve been talking about ‘Trigons’ for the last year or so and about the complex business of annotation. John has provided a set of notes on Trigons for a poetics seminar earlier this year and we’ve now agreed to collaborate on expanding these into an annotated on-line edition of the poem.

The purpose of this blog is to think aloud about what annotation/glozing might be about. I’m reasonably particular about what I feel that I need in that I’d rather references were over rather than under explained but I don’t need notes that state the bleeding obvious and ignore some of the obscurities that I need help with. I’m also aware that increased familiarity with the text leads to a proportionally increasing impatience with the notes. Having acknowledged this I then assumed that this particular poem would be relatively straightforward given the plethora of real people and events and that the only real difficulties would be the use of musicology and neuroscience.

I now have to report that I was wrong. I’ve only started on the first section of the first poem in the sequence and have hit a number of complications. The first relates to familiarity. The first part of Trigons I relates to Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller on Crete and Patrick Leigh Fermor on Corfu. Now, I assumed that most readers would be reasonably familiar with Miller and Durrell but might need some help with Leigh Fermor. My focus group tells me that this may not be the case: Miller gets confused with Arthur; Durrell gets confused with Gerald and nobody has even heard of Leigh Fermor. I’m prepared to accept that this particular focus group isn’t packed with poetry fans but they all read fiction, are intelligent yet only one can name works by Miller and Durrell- both of whom are best known as novelists.

What I didn’t know until I read John’s notes was that Durrell had written ‘Prospero’s’ Cell’, an account of his time on Corfu, and that Miller wrote ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, an account of his time as a guest of Durrell’s. Delving a bit deeper I’ve come across a Paris Review interview with Miller where he says he considers ‘The Colossus’ to be his finest work because “the Colossus was written from some other level of my being. What I like about it is that it’s a joyous book, it expresses joy, it gives joy”. Needless to say I’ve now started to read this and have placed a pdf of it on arduity for download. In ‘Prospero’s Cell’ Durrell suggests that Corfu may have been the setting for ‘The Tempest’ – I can’t find a copy of this on the web but the advantage of working with the poet is that I can always ask him for the exact reference if we think it’s needed.

I’ve also acknowledged to myself that I don’t like Durrell as either a writer or as a man and that I need to keep this prejudice out of the note whilst tempering my enthusiasm for all things Miller.

The next problem is a little more difficult to resolve. In 1943 Leigh Fermor led a group of English and Cretan resistance fighters to kidnap the German General Kriepe, an event that John refers to in some detail. Now there are three views about this adventure:

  1. that it was a heroic act in the brave campaign against the German occupiers;
  2. that it was a foolish act that achieved nothing except the death of civilian victims of the ensuing German reprisals;
  3. that it had nothing to do with the Germans but was a less than subtle attempt to ensure that the reprisals were inflicted on villages controlled by the communists.

Although I wasn’t aware of the Kriepe kidnapping, I did know about the murky role of the British in both the Greek resistance and the postwar Greek civil war. I also knew that the Greek left have been particularly vituperative about this ever since. The poem goes on to make mention of the Colonel’s coup (1967-74) and the torture of dissidents that took place on an epic scale during those years. I therefore made the assumption that some reference was being made to the essentially tragic nature of Greek politics since 1945. This isn’t actually the case – which leads to this dilemma- how much of the above do you provide and how much do you leave out? The temptation is not to comment on anything other than the facts and link to a more detailed account but each of these accounts unsurprisingly takes one of the above lines and trashes the other two. I think we’ve agreed that I’m going to provide a factual note that mentions the three main theories but only observes that the SOE decided to ditch the communist resistance in the months prior to the kidnap. I think we’re both happy to leave any over-reading (resistance – civil war – coup -Euro fiasco – rise of the extreme right (again)) to the attentive reader.

With regard to collaboration, our current modus operandi seems to work because we’re both enjoying the process and I think it helps that we’re both exploring what can and can’t be done with the internet re glozing. I’m also incredibly grateful that I have the poet to keep my wilder fantasies in check.

This is the incomplete first part of our efforts, it’s very much in draft form but I’d be immensely grateful for feedback as things progress.

Pennsound’s Matthias page has the man himself reading from Trigons and other works.

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and their readers

Many months ago I did a reasonably light-hearted piece attempting to compare Prynne and Hill. I now probably regret doing this because it now seems to be more about me than it is about them but I’m trying to think of it as a record of what I once thought.

This is a kind of pared down version focusing on both poets’ attitude towards their readers. I’ve chosen these two because they are the best poets currently writing in English and because this particular aspect might cast a slightly more accented light on their work.

I’ve also been thinking about readerly activity and what (if anything) this may bring to the poem. This was prompted by thinking about what Celan has to say about the ‘encounter’ in his notes to the Meridian but also by Prynne’s observations on one aspect of ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I’ll begin with the assumption that people who publish poetry want their poems to be read and to be responded to, and that Keston Sutherland is correct in observing that poets prefer readers who pay attention to the poems rather than indulge in ‘drive-by’ readings.

The charge of elitist obscurity has been levelled at both Prynne and Hill over the years and this usually implies a degree of contempt/disdain for the ‘ordinary’ reader. I’m going to skip over the dubious notion of ‘ordinary’ and focus first on what Hill has to say in response:

Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.

This is from the Paris Review interview which was published in 2000, I’m taking it that Hill hasn’t changed his mind since then. I’m particularly fond of the robust nature of this response and the entirely accurate observation that everyday life is far more complex and difficult than anything that a poem can be. I’m not entirely clear that the contrast between difficult and accessible has a direct correlation to that between democracy and tyrrany, I’m much more persuaded by the view that simplification tends to lose more than a degree of accuracy.

Of course, as readers and supporters of Hill we are meant to feel more than a little smug because the implication of this is that we are adept/clever enough to grasp the full complexities of what’s being said. I’ll give a personal example, I reckon that I really understand and appreciate Hill’s ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ poem because I’d read her work before reading the poem, this fills me with a warm glow because Hill and I have read the same stuff and have both felt moved and inspired by it regardless of the fact that Gillian Rose is a reasonably obscure figure outside the narrow world of British academia.

There is an argument that goes that everyone should be familiar with Gillian Rose and have read ‘Loves Work’ but this is just as elitist as feeling smug. The ‘life’s difficult’ argument is difficult to refute and we do need poetry and other forms of expression to capture and reflect the full complexity of what goes on. With regard to Hill, I have to question whether the work is actually attempting to capture the full spectrum of his subject matter or whether he is instead using a range of obscure references to back up a rather ‘thin’ argument. It is questionable, for example, whether the inclusion of Thomas Bradwardine in ‘The Triumph of Love’ or Gabriel Marcel in ‘A Precis or Memorandum Of Civil Power’ are sufficiently relevant of whether both are being used for Hill to display his erudition. There is also the possibility that he is trying to educate us in that most references are ‘signposted’ in one way or another.

This isn’t however intended to be a lengthy discussion about elitism but more about how both men present themselves to their readers. The obvious difference is that Hill throws all of himself into his poetry and Prynne doesn’t. At all, ever, in fact Prynne has recently expressed the view that ‘self-removal’ is an essential step in poetry making.

When I worked in the real world, my staff had to do fairly intensive work with people with a range of personality disorders and most of my time was spent ensuring that these workers did not give too much of themselves away because some clients had an uncanny knack of exploiting this information in a number of nefarious ways. Some workers were very good at this and maintained appropriate boundaries whereas others were a complete disaster and had to be rescued from quite bizarre and challenging situations. With this in mind it’s fair to say that Prynne manages his boundaries very well whereas Hill leaps over them with great enthusiasm.

Prynne’s own view of what he does has a self-deprecating tone, anticipating and agreeing with the charge of ‘difficulty’. There is however this telling remark from ‘Poetic Thought’:

So, the poet working with poetic thought requires to activate every part of the process, into strong question where the answer is obscure, or into what looks like strong answer where the question evades precise location. Language will have to keep up with this as best it can, must not be damaged unreasonably but equally must not be sheltered like a
sick child: it can fight its own battles. There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time.

This came as a bit of a shock when I first read it as it seems to carry a degree of personal arrogance and disdain towards those of us who pay attention to his work and then I thought about it in the context of ‘self-removal’ and Prynne’s brief question to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ in ‘To Pollen’ and realised that Prynne isn’t primarily interested in his current reception/reputation but he is writing for posterity, banking on the hope that ‘in due time’ his work will be recognised as work of ‘durable value’.

This isn’t to say that Hill isn’t interested in his ongoing reputation but that he does seem to want a close relationship with his current readership as well, he wants to entertain us with bad jokes, educate us with obscure references (Bradwardine’s writings on the New Pelagians and the fact that one of the boats at Dunkirk was called the ‘Gracie Fields’ are both reasonably obscure, aren’t they?), and he wants us to know about his childhood and the way he feels about his rural poor background. Olson and Matthias do this as well but Hill on occasion gives us more information than we actually want or need.

Some time ago in one of these comment threads Tom Day expressed the view that Hill wants us to like him so that he can then despise us for doing so. I think this is making too many assumptions and takes us into quite murky depths, it may well be correct but I prefer to think that, like may of us with a reputation for being personally ‘difficult’, Hill simply finds it easier to communicate a sense of himself by the written rather than the spoken word.

I also have to say that, as an occasional maker of poetry, I’m more of the Prynne school of self-removal and disregard for readers because I write for myself according to my own idiosyncratic standards and I do know when I’ve written something that accords with those standards and that is the only thing that matters. Unlike Prynne, I’m not writing for posterity but I am writing for me within the scope of poetry. I also recognise that I have this blog where I can choose how much self-disclosure I need to do – there’s also something to be written about the making of verse and the blogging about it and how that feeds into each. I am concerned about how this is received- I’m beginning to get used to having a readership- and I do post the occasional poem but this is more about display than reception.

In terms of posterity, I am more than willing to wager that in fifty years’ time Prynne and Hill (for completely different reasons) will be seen as the major poets of our time. I now see Prynne’s attitude as completely consistent with his refusal to compromise (this is a Good Thing) and I continue to enjoy the relationship that I feel I have with Geoffrey Hill the man as well as the poet.

Reasons to like Geoffrey Hill

I’ve started to re-read Hill and have given some consideration to Tom Day’s view that Hill wants his readers to like him but then despises us for doing so. This isn’t going to be a lengthy analysis of the man’s psychology but rather why we should feel some affection for Hill as well as admiration for the strength of his work.

I’d like to start with why I find myself feeling genuine affection for Hill. First of all, he’s very, very clever and I like cleverness, his views and mine coincide on a number of subjects, we’re both against the teaching of creative writing and dislike ‘confessional’ poetry especially when written by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. We both like the work of Anselm Kiefer and the poetry of Paul Celan and we share a strong interest in the history of 16th and 17th century England. We’ve also had more than our fair share of mental health problems.

So, there’s a number of affinities and it is generally easier to like someone when you have some common ground.

I don’t share Hill’s faith but I do respect it as it is clearly something that’s very important to the way that he is in the world. I view his politics as absurd, so absurd in fact to be part of the man’s charm (if that’s the right noun).

I am of course envious of Hill’s skill as a poet but it’s what he chooses to do with that skill that makes him likeable to me. The re-reading just undertaken has been an interesting process, there’s more pomposity and, paradoxically, more self-laceration in the work if you try to look at the man through the poems rather than for meaning.

There’s a couple of lines from ‘The Triumph of Love’ that speak to me in a very personal way-

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

My family is one of those ‘places’ where grief has stood mute-howling since the Somme offensive and which was then intensified by deaths in the following generation during World War II. It takes a lot to express this stuff when it is very close to home. I appreciate that the rest of this particular part of the sequence is Hill at his little Englander worst but ‘mute-howling’ and ‘self grafted to unself’ are the mark of a compassionate man.

Prior to this re-reading, ‘Comus’ was my favourite because it seemed to contain a more personable poet and I always took great pleasure in reading it for the breadth of thought and the amount of self-deprecation. I also thought that ‘Without Title’ was the weakest collection because it struck me as self-indulgent- especially the ‘Pindarics’ and the very bad Hendrix poem.

Both of these views have now changed, ‘Comus’ has been replaced in my affections by ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ and I’m now more tolerant of the ‘Pindarics’ (the Hendrix poem is still very bad). I’ve also noticed that some of the earlier poems aren’t very good, ‘A Short History of the British in India’ from ‘Tenebrae’ now seems ineffectual and naff.
‘Without Title’ contains three poems on Ipsley Church Lane which are brilliant. I’m not normally keen on nature poetry but these three poems manage to address something in me- I find them almost therapeutic and have often stood in this lane in my head as a way of keeping my particular demons at bay.

Speaking of demons, I think it’s important to recognise that it isn’t easy being Geoffrey Hill, there’s the struggle with faith, the struggle with verse and the struggle with chronic depression amid bouts of OCD. There’s also the fact that Hill doesn’t think like the rest of us which can also be quite isolating. What’s likeable is that these struggles are never rammed down our throats, the nearest we get is the acknowledgement that poetry is a “sad and angry consolation”.

The full text of the Paris Review interview with Hill has now emerged from beyond its pay wall and this gives me another couple of reasons for liking Hill. There’s: “There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life”. Which I love because of the image of language hovering above itself- articulating what I feel about Milton and Celan and pointing to my own fumbling and inarticulate aspirations as a poet.

One of the things that has always interested me about Hill is his interest in martyrs and martyrdom. In the interview he says: ” My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment”. What is striking is that he mentions likeability prior to suffering.

“In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” is a remarkably humane tribute to the life and work of a remarkable woman. It contains:

I did not blunder into your room with flowers.
Despite the correct moves, you would have wiped
in the championship finals of dislike.

He’s right but I can’t get the image of Hill as suitor (with flowers) out of my head- an image that manages to be both funny and touching.

The poem ends with:

I find love’s work a bleak ontology
to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

‘Love’s Work’ is searing in its honesty and the way that it looks at the prospect of imminent death. Gillian Rose was one of this country’s leading intellects and was particularly effective in the demolition of cant. In writing this poem, Hill lets us see as much of himself as we’re ever likely to get.

So, is Hill likeable? I think that he probably is and I don’t think Day’s assertion that he wants us to like him in order to despise us for it holds water. The sea-change that occurred when Hill started to put more of himself into his work doesn’t mean that he’s still playing out the extent of his permanent damage. Does it?