Tag Archives: Sir Geoffrey Hill

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.£


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.

The Poem’s Bad Other(s), Sir Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis amongst others.

The notion of the Bad Other came to my attention through Barbara Cassin’s recentish work on the Sophists and Aristotle’s view of this disreputable rogues masquerading as philosophers. Without getting too much into the detail of the Cassin view, she suggests that Aristotle’s contemptuous denigration related to the fact that these scoundrels were ‘doing’ philosophy in another way and were relativists to boot. This led me to think about whether British poetry in it’s current parlous state has any equivalents and why.

Because I’m vaguely aware of the fact that in Europe the O word can have a range of different and sometimes conflicting connotations, I think it may be as well to set out a few definitions. These are entirely subjective and provisional and I. as ever, reserve the right to amend them at any time and for any reason.


This is whatever the maker designates as a poem, for whatever reason or for no reason at all. An important sub-set, which doesn’t concern us here is whatever the reader experiences as a poem which is different from that which is perceived as having poetic qualities.


In this instance, work which is poetry in the definition above and therefore the same as the rest of the form but which has components or aspects that are quite different and thus viewed with the same level of denigration with which Aristotle looked upon the Sophists. So, Other Work here refers to material that manages to be the same but different.


Cassin, paraphrasing Aristotle, uses the term ‘evil’ to describe the way that what we think of as mainstream philosophy thought of its Others. I don’t understand the ‘e’ word and, anyway, it seems too portentous to describe this particular reaction which I’d prefer to describe as not being ‘proper’. There’s also something, and this is very approximate, about being a charlatan and therefore Worthy of Derision.

Having thus set myself up for a fall, the following selection of contemporary baddies hopefully and tentatively sets out some likely candidates for the above pigeon-hole in what passes for our current literary culture.

Sir Geoffrey Hill.

Here is an Other who, by means of appointment to the Chair of all things Poetic at Oxford, has been transformed from Bad to Good even as the quality of his work has, erm, diminished. The main features of Hill’s Otherly Badness spring from a reputation in academia for ferocity, for the alleged difficult obduracy of his earlier work and what some have sneeringly referred to as his ‘post Prozac’ period heralded by the publication of The Triumph of Love in 1998. There’s also the alleged difficulty of the work throughout his career which doesn’t really hang together if it’s read with the attention that it deserves.

In terms of difficulty and obscurity I’d like to provide the second and final part of Mysticism and Democracy from the Canaan collection which was published in 1996:

Let this not fall imputed to our native
                            obdurate credulities.
Contrariwise within its own doctrine it spins,
remote saturnian orb:
the imperial granites, braided, bunched, and wreathed;
                                the gilded ornature
ennobling lowly errors - exacted, from exalted -
                   tortuous in their simplicity;
the last unblemished records of service
                                       left hanging
in air yellowed with a late half light
as votive depositions
                     not to be taken down.

To my entirely fallible mind, this is strong poetry at its best but was seen by the mainstream as Wilful Trickery as evidenced by the ‘mangled syntax of the first line, the use of obscure vocabulary and the length and complexity of the final sentence.

All of this is Badness is compounded by Hill’s odd view about the relationship between Things Mystical and Political together with the fact that his political views are hopelessly eccentric and definitely Other. Unlike some of our other Badnesses, Hill produces material that looks like poetry even when it doesn’t sound like poetry. One of the most frequently quoted proofs is his response to critics in The Triumph of Love:

And yes - bugger you, Mcsikker et al, -I do
mourn and resent you desolation of learning:
Scientia that enabled, if it did not secure,
forms of understanding, far from despicable,
and further now, as they are most despised.
By understanding I understand diligence
and attention, appropriately understood
of actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgement
of what is owed the dead.

It is the first two lines that have caught the attention of the Critical Crew as further proof of Bad and Other but I would argue that this fails to do any kind of justice to all of this section in the round. Some consideration of the following seven lines might reveal is that the desolation of learning embodied by MacSikker and His Friends is juxtaposed against the diligence and readerly that Hill’s work requires. Ending this is the recurring Hillian theme of ‘memorialising’ the dead.

So the Poem stares upon its Other and takes note of ‘Bugger you’. of ‘saturnian’ and of ‘ornature’ and declares Badness to be at work, continuing to condemn in this fashion until the Oxford Chair is awarded. This turn of events with its brief flurry of media interest causes the work to be cast as suddenly valuable and somehow essentially British. Of course, the irony is that the late and very prolific period have demonstrated to most of us that quantity and quality rarely go hand in hand but we are at least grateful that over fifty years of stunning work is not going to get Left on the Shelf.

An entirely coincidental digression

Whilst deciding which part of Jerusalem Deleted to use (see below) I had a look at this week’s TLS and, to my surprise found that Sir Geoffrey had penned the opening review. Being a fan, I read this extended discussion on the work of Charles Williams with increasing delight, not because of Williams but because this encapsulated Hill’s critical work at its combative best. So there I am, grinning inanely when I get to this:

I do not believe that Williams is a great poet; but he does make isolated major statements; and he is powerful and weird in essential ways. He engineers passages of poetry that obstruct and disoblige our own polemic and populist bias. “The edge of a possibility of utter alienation intrudes”, to adapt a sentence of his own about magic, quoted by Lindop. Nothing is more essential to British poetry in its present condition than that a sense of “utter alienation” should obtrude on it.

Now, had I started this on Saturday (it is now Monday), I may well have included this obtruding alienation in my title. As it is, Hill has neatly and, as ever, concisely set out what the Bad Other does and how necessary this is right now. I’m taking it that he rightly sees his own work, even as the Good Other’ as making a positive contribution and I can’t argue with the extent of the obtrusion but, as an Extremist in Most Things, I would question whether the alienation is sufficiently utter. Still, it remains weird to know that someone’s politics and faith can be so distant from my own yet view most things Poetry in more or less the same way.

Simon Jarvis as the Partially Bad Other.

Simon has a theory which, unlike the vast majority of his fellow academics, he has put into practice in his poetry. The broad outline is that writing within the formal constraints of rhyme and metre is the best way to produce philosophical or Big Thought verse. The more I think about the ‘P’ word the less convinced I am that it is either helpful or useful so I’m going to stick with thoughts that are concerned with broad principles and ideas rather than narrow ones. Of course, the Poem already considers itself to be expressing Big Thoughts quite successfully but is mistaking depth for affectation wrapped up in a distinctly Larkinian melancholia. There are many and varied reasons for this state of affairs that I don’t wish to dwell on except to point out that the Poem is most discomfited by work that follows the traditional rules in producing material that is focused entirely on serious stuff.

This badness is further solidified by length, digression and complexity, none of which the current Poem is either familiar with nor particularly keen on. There are three works that are guilty of all these Badnesses, Night Office, the middle one of these is gloriously and defiantly complex, the nature of ruins being one of its many themes:

It was my chrysalis : I can escape
now from the very feeling that a line
must mean I wear a gag or seal with tape
prose mouth or verse mouth when the words are mine
only so far as yours too. No more drape
the necklace with dead nightingales! Refine
with purer sense each word; I may walk free
from nugatory beauties, and may see

the split line on the ironstone alone
for its own moving contour : I may go
in thought through all the villages of stone
without a single symbol, since I know
I do not need a theory to come home,
nor is it necessary that I show,
by some exemplary device of hurt,
I scrub the human patinas of dirt.

There in idea every ruined brick
glows inconsolably, until these shades
fall on its surface, and the twilight's thick
slants of illuminations through the glades
dampen each damp-course like a pretty trick
of light's undying glimmer when it fades
little by little on the little cluster
of walls and buildings lit with this rich lustre.

Night Office runs for about 220 pages of rhyming, metrical verse expressing complicated ideas about faith in the present. It's also extremely digressive. All of this slaps a gauntlet around the face of the Poem in the 21st century by following on from and developing what Alexander Pope (Poet) about Poetic Constraint quite some years ago, which is probably why it's been (mostly) ignored by those who should know better.

Which brings me neatly to my next morsel of Insightful Observation, or sweeping and generalised guess, whichever is preferred. In conversation with a close friend from across the water, it would appear that those in North America are more ready to ‘engage’ with and pay attention to Bad Others than we Brits who either ignore or deride or (see below) take one look and express vehement exasperation. This sad state of affairs, as with most Bad Others, belies more than a little anxiety from the advocates and practitioners of the status quo as to the quality of the work that they advocate. Whilst this might be a Stab in the Dark, me thinks it might be worthy of more detailed attention.

Back to Jarvis and his latest work Jerusalem Deleted which was published by Enitharmon in 2015 and has ‘The modern state is a transformed church.’ as one of its three epigraphs. I’m quoting at some length to give a more rounded demonstration of Badness:

Public realm excellence in bus stop kerbs 
          antepenultimately must or gasp
             or hymn the last task of the transformed church
starring the pavement with its studs and marks
  sown through the high street where no foot disturbs

my perfect flight : a nonstick alloy parks
my protocarcase in the loading bay.
        The turning apron at the covered way
Is quiet now, I wake up and feel the air
          soft on my wet face, and, as I lie there,


my cheek invents some message in the breeze
  which blows from anywhere; the distant real
speaks through its bright gag, and the thin birch trees
           induce evacuated sense to feel
        itself still fettered to the truth which frees


me here from abstract freedom, which I steal
  back to my station of deleted duties
           the wrong anthology of rights & beauties.
The stones of Spalding! Mabbug was deserted.
        I rose and Wandered down the High Street. No


         strap or lock held me: then to what inverted
            world, or non-polity, had this truck so
  brought and deposited me not inserted
in any social order but this row
toytown postmodern, infant greens and reds


burnt at the edges where the rebel heads
         had assailed it? Retail units stood
  scratched in the thermoplastic pouch each outlet should
          pretend to speak with, and their fascias shut
vertical rhythms, at the middle, where


the bad backlit acrylic sheet was cut :
         patch illuminations through the matt
   light-tongued their lost brands. In the cool dawn air
I let cold cathodes from the closed steak hut
              shine on my set face. Could I just stay there?

Having typed that out, a further thought bobs up on my horizon: there is a Badness that is bad because it demands fairly focused attention which, as with lengthiness takes some time. Jerusalem Deleted is not a drive-by read (technical term), it requires a degree of concentration and readerly focus but(and this is the point) it more than repays those efforts.

I was once one of those who baulked at the Obscure but with the increasingly reliable interweb it’s bothering me less and less. For example, the poem concerns a war between two(ish) factions who took a different view of the nature of Christ at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Mabbug referred to above is likely to be Philoxenus of Mabbug, a strenuous advocate of one of the above factions. Of course this stuff is obscure yet the information required for clarification is very close at hand. Anyway, this is the kind of subject matter that scares the Poem very much indeed because it remains firmly in the Poetry Tradition, it tests out a position made clear by one of the poem’s canonical figures and yet it expresses ideas and offers opinions and depicts the human condition at a depth that is anathema to the blandified cacophony (short, straightforward, technically inept, criminally simplistic) that gets touted as the Poem today.

One of the several badnesses in the above is that of language use in this ongoing trek through a landscape ruinated by war. The inventive cheek, the speaking real, the closed and upright rhythms and the light-tonguing patch illuminations do present challenges to the reader but they also suggest and provoke different ways of Thinking about Things which I find particularly involving.

So, Bad Others are either scorned or ignored and sometimes both. This refusal to engage with and respond to the many challenges presented by these defiers and several other makers of the Bad that spring to mind belies a very real anxiety about the Poem’s current level of inadequacy, the sad fact that it isn’t up to the task. It really isn’t. As Sir Geoffrey says an obtrusion of utter alienation is required and it is required now.