Tag Archives: RS Thomas

Geoffrey Hill explains ‘Annunciations’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn

(each specimen jar fed with delicate spawn)

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

Hill ends his notes to the first part with –

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first time (line)

In 1969 or thereabouts I was your average bright but disaffected schoolboy.  Like all of my contemporaries I thought that poetry was effeminate and vaguely  silly. There then occurred a moment of revelation, our averagely disdainful English teacher distributed an anthology (“The Albemarle Book of Verse”) to the class and we started to go through some poems. Instead of going along with this, I flicked through the book until I came across “Welsh Landscape” by RS Thomas.

I read the middle bit first-

It is to be aware

above the noisy tractor

and hum of the machine

of strife in the strung woods,

vibrant with sped arrows.

You cannot live in the present

At least not in Wales.

It’s the sped arrows that lifted me to another place. I suddenly understood with that line what poetry could do, how it could transform language and turn ordinary words into art  by altering their usual placement and thereby transposing the sense. I also knew that poetry had just become a major part of my life (it has remained so for the last forty years. What is interesting for me is that the poem isn’t that good and the line about sped arrows  is a bit formulaic- this is hardly an example of what poetry can really do- but it was sufficient to lead me into the world of the poem. I often wonder what would have happened had this random event not occurred, would there have been others to draw me in or would I have remained blissfully ignorant of all the stuff that currently fills my head?

As a writer of poems I’ve noticed recently that (unless I’m careful) I write like R S Thomas, I still adapt his voice, I still end stuff with weak last lines just like him- it’s as if I’ve never really let go of the blueprint that he gave me in 1969.  This is especially odd as I have nothing in common with Thomas’ faith (he was a vicar) or his Welsh nationalism.