Tag Archives: robert lowell

Disappointing verse

Since my comments on ‘Oraclau’ last week I’ve been contacted by a long-standing Hill fan (whose views I respect enormously) to say that he thinks that it’s by far the worst thing that Hill has published and that he couldn’t finish it. For me, an avid and attentive Hill reader, it’s not quite as bad as that but it’s certainly not of the standard that I’d come to expect and it is doubly disappointing that it should be published when Hill’s ‘visibility’ should be at it’s height. New readers, encouraged by glowing reviews, will have bought this collection and then wondered what all the fuss has been about. I have read the collection right through a couple of times and bits of it again just to make sure that my first impressions were accurate. I now have to agree with my correspondent that the chosen stanza ‘strangles’ Hill and should add my own concern that the collection doesn’t actually say very much.

So, this vague feeling of being personally let down has led me to think about the other occasions when this has occurred. This hasn’t been that frequent but one that really sticks in the mind is Ted Hughes’ ‘Moortown’ which (along with ‘Remains of Elmet’) followed ‘Gaudete’ and marked a return to the rural realism that was his speciality prior to ‘Crow’.  I’m one of the few people on the planet that was immensely impressed by ‘Gaudete’ and felt that, along with ‘Crow’ and ‘Cave Birds’, it heralded a new trajectory in English verse. It’s a view that I still hold but I accept that this is a minority view – nothing from ‘Gaudete’ is in the Hughes Collected. I clearly recall being not simply disappointed but also feeling let down because I’d felt involved in the work and could see the value of it. I tried hard to like ‘Moortown’ but it seemed flat and ordinary and it didn’t make me think so I stopped reading Hughes until ‘Birthday Letters’ which is another story altogether.

The second form of disappointment is probably more traumatic, on a number of occasions greater familiarity has led to a quite sudden realisation that previously admired work isn’t in reality very good.

Many moons ago I was an enormous fan of all things Elliot and then I read ‘The Making of the Four Quartets’ by Helen Gardiner, reading with some care the correspondence between Eliot and John Hayward as well  as the various drafts. This resulted in a sense of disenchanted,  what had previously seemed to be enigmatic and profound became (in my head) something quite empty and more than a little pretentious. I’ve still got a lot of time for anything up to and including ‘The Waste Land’ but the rest leaves me cold. Trying to write something intelligent and objective about Eliot has made me realise how conflicted I feel about him – I don’t actively dislike the work but am finding myself becoming increasingly indifferent to it.

This isn’t the case with Robert Lowell whose later work I actively dislike for a number of reasons. For most of my life I had regarded Lowell as one of the more accomplished and significant poets of the 20th century and was thus delighted when the ‘Collected’ was published in 2003. It then became apparent that the majority of Lowell’s output wasn’t particularly coherent and that the work became more self-indulgent and trite as time went on. I also decided that I didn’t like the man behind the work and I don’t buy into the bipolar excuse for self-indulgence. I realise that this is a minority view but I’m of the view that Lowell ‘peaked’ with ‘The Mills of the Kavanaghs’ with things going downhill from then on. I will concede that the first half of ‘Near the Ocean’ is good but ruined by the political gesture that closes it. I should stress that this dislike comes from paying greater attention to the poems rather than any background reading. I think I’d be prepared to overlook the confessional element of the later stuff if I felt that it was either technically good or interesting. I also recognise that this is at complete variance with the view of Elizabeth Bishop who I continue to admire.

With regard to Hill, I am disappointed but I’m not dismayed. I continue to look forward to the publication of Odi Barbare next year but now that sense of anticipation is tinged with a degree of apprehension.

 

Geoffrey Hill and language

This again is an interim report on Hill’s critical writings. It must be said that there are aspects of Hill’s thinking that are attractive to me. He dislikes Sylvia Plath’s “cruel psychopathologising”  of her dead father and Robert Lowell’s use of personal letters about the break up of his marriage. He makes the arch observation that there is no automatic parity between the depth of the suffering and the quality of a poem.

My issue with Plath and  Lowell is somewhat different, Plath can write about her dead father if she wants to but she should not have infllicted  her mental illness on the rest of us because mental illness isn’t interesting. She may be guilty of cruel psychpathologising but the greater sin is in thinking that the state of her mental health is worth expressing in a poem. It isn ‘t, so I’m arguing on the grounds of taste whereas Hill is using morality to make a similar point.

The situation with Lowell is a  little more complex. Hill clearly feels that Lowell’s earlier poetry is much better than the later works. I would find it hard to dissent from this and would point to “The  Mills of the Kavanaghs” as his finest poem. The use of the letters is a well-worn battleground and I am surprised that Hill chooses this rather than Lowell’s use of the confessional mode  in general to condemn.  The persistent throwaway references to being unwell belie a man who excuses his sins and then expects te rest of us to forgive him. “Skunk Hour”  is an example of a vastly overrated poem with a malevolent vein running right through it. In short, I’d be happier if Hill had criticised Lowell for being a weak poet and for giving bipolar a worse name than it already has.

The essay ‘Language, Suffering and Silence’ also contains this:

“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 a 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 centur require a memorialising, a memorising of the dead as much as, or even more than, ‘expressions of solidarity with the poor and the oppressed’.

Hill goes on to suggest that the best way solidarity can be expressed is by the giving of alms and quotes Hopkins extolling the virtues of alms-giving to Robert Bridges.

This paragraph took my breath away when I first read it and I was instantly ready to sign up to the G Hill Church of poetic endeavour.  I then read it again and the doubts began to creep in. Semantic shock is very much what poetry should be about because poetry frees us up to inflict these shocks upon the reader and thus to encourage a different was of looking at the world. Semantic shock being also ethical shock is much more problematic, I can only think of Paul Celan who achieves this, and places an immense burden on the shoulders of verse.  As for this being the action of grace, I’m afraid that Hill is ascribing too much importance to the creative  act.

With regard memorialising the dead over expressing solidarity with the oppressed, Hill has written many in memoriam poems in his career and that’s all well and good but I don’t think it should stop the rest of us expressing solidarity if we want to. I’m against the self-pitying misery school of poetry but I have no problem with poems that are politically engaged and engaging.

One more point, in ‘Translating Value’ Hill quotes himself:

“A poet who possesses   such near-perfect pitch is able to sound out his own conceptual discursive intelligence……[He]  is hearing words in depth and is therefore hearing, or sounding, history and morality in depth.”

Hearing words in depth encapsulates what we should all be trying to do but very, very few actually achieve. I think Hill here has hit the poetic nail on the head.