Geoffrey Hill, Amy De’Ath and Love (poetry).

I think it is reasonable to suggest that there is far more bad/appalling love poetry in the world than there is good or even average. Many, many capable and technically efficient poets have a complete blind spot when it comes to writing about love. This has always been the case but this sad fact is offset by the fact that some of the world’s finest poems are about love. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets are head and shoulders above most other poems of any genre and Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ wins my vote as the most perfect poem of the twentieth century.

Prior to ‘Odi Barbare’, Geoffrey Hill was one of those poets who should give the love lyric a very wide berth. I think it’s generally acknowledged that the ‘Oraclau’ sequence isn’t very good and the ‘Hiraeth’ poems are just bad and shouldn’t have been published. I’m not denying the emotional intensity and honesty of what’s been said, it’s just that this isn’t an excuse for the inept.

The good news is that the love poem in ‘Odi Barbare’ is a big improvement on the ‘Hiraeth’ poems, the not so good news is that it’s more than a little odd and the oddness gets in the way. It is addressed to a loved one and it is technically efficient and bits of it might be quite beautiful but there does appear to be a sort of smugness going on.

Amy De’Ath’s ‘Caribou’, on the other hand, contains a number of poems where a loved one is addressed but in ways that are both original and quite startling. I am about to compare and contrast these two but I think I need to state at this point that the Bebrowed perfect love poem remains ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop both because of what it says and its technical virtuosity. I also need to acknowledge that it is very hard to write credible love poems without falling into the traps of mawkish sentimentality, self-indulgence and unoriginality.

Hill’s poem/section/bit XXVIII starts well:

Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,
Scratchy brisk rain as irritable as tinder,
Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel
Taller than we were.

There’s a lot going on in this and it’s well put together. The first line is both economical and striking, to start with ‘Broken’ is a typical flourish that demonstrates an advanced and deep understanding of what language can do. ‘That’ rather than ‘the’ makes it clear that a loved one is being addressed rather than the reader and the search for shelter is a theme that is developed further. I’m very fond of ‘thrum’ as a verb and I’m sure that Hill will be aware of all its definitions as well as the musical one alluded to here. The last line (in the context of a love poem) seems a bit weak but serves to anticipate some of what follows.

Amy De’Ath’s ‘Tall Glass’ starts with this:

So you are the clearest, loneliest tall
glass, and you are free, and you are paler
than a milieu of pale teenage girls
scrubbing, condensing massively into a
huge tear, you are the advert for
the glass you are driniking from, is
this the glass you are drinking
from, is this that glass

This is the first half of the first stanza of two and I really like the way that it makes use of and subverts convention at the same time, I also like the way the originality of what is being said with its hint of obsession and an unstated desire to be clear about the emotions/desires that underline the ‘you are’ observations. The ‘milieu’ image is striking and is additionally enhanced / made even more effective by the deeply anti-poetic ‘scrubbing’. As with Hill, this is accomplished and inventive stuff that becomes more satisfying as things progress.

In the previous post on ‘Odi Barbare’ I mentioned the ‘Sapphic’ verse form (three longish lines followed by one short) and the fact that each of the poems has six verses that conform to this format. My initial response was that this particular constraint is more effective/useful than the ones used in ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ but I’m still not entirely convinced that it works as Hill intends. It seems to me that what the blurb describes as a ‘recadencing’ of Sidney’s example may strangle or damp down the power and force of what’s being said.

This is how Poem XXVIII ends:

What though, wedded, we would have had annulment's
Consummation early, and though in darkness
I can see that glimmerous rim of folly
Lave our condition,

Had we not so stumbled on grace, beloved,
In that chanced day brief as the sun's arising
Preternaturally without a shadow
Cast in its presence.

Many of us have been enthralled and fascinated by Hill’s engagement with the workings of grace and this seems to add a further dimension. Leaving aside the many and verious theological niceties, the image of two lovers ‘stumbling’ on grace is odd as it suggests that the first kiss on that chanced day coincides with the appearance of grace and the salvation that usually comes with it. I don’t think that the last two lines of the penultimate verse work but this is probably because I don’t understand exactly (out of the many options) what is being said and the short line seems weak, the choice of ‘lave’ just seems too mannered and draws unnecessary attention to itself. The last verse is much more effective and the final line does provide a good ending. I’m still not sure how grace might be stumbled upon but the poem is so much more accomplished than the ‘Hiraeth’ poems.

I was going to type out all of ‘Tall Glass’ as a demonstration of what a good love poem might look like in 2012 but I’ve now decided to draw attention to these lines from the second stanza:

the huge baby of spring is bouncing towards us
about to cast his reckoning on his heads
and decide we are all right to go on loving if we
like, hope leaning on the air between
tenements, holy mother of snow I miss you-
altitude of bees, tall scarf a richness I know,
I will not fight about it
in the glass there is such a richness.

EWhat this demonstrates is De’Ath’s ability to do very special things with ordinary language and to produce work of real depth without resorting to some of modernism’s better known devices. The baby of spring, the air between the tenements and the altitude of bees all combine to express a range of emotions and desires in a way that seems accurate and honest- which is a way of saying that I believe in the feelings expressed in ‘Tall Glass’ whereas I have a degree of scepticism about those expressed by Hill. ‘Holy mother of snow’ manages to be heartfelt and wonderfully expressive at the same time.

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6 responses to “Geoffrey Hill, Amy De’Ath and Love (poetry).

  1. I agree that Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ is flawless and moving in so many ways.

    Not a big fan of love poetry either. I realised that I have now written about 40 entries in my blog on different poems, and I’m not sure there’s a love poem in the lot…I wonder what that says about love poetry, or about me!

    • In my case I think it’s an awareness of how love poetry doesn’t seemed to have moved very far in the last two thousand years. I think those that do it well set out to work ‘against the grain’ but these are very much a minority. Having said that, I did put a love poem of mine on here some time ago……

  2. This comparison may also “say” that you are missing the “point” of Hill’s poetics, which, to use the sort of terms — what, neo-romantic? — you are getting on with, is to question one’s heart-felt emotions. I know you know this; and you may say that his failure to do that here makes it fair game as foil for something better. But then perhaps using the terms of your discussion will hardly ever do Hill’s conceptions justice. I’m not simply “defending” GH; he doesn’t need defending and you do it as well as anybody who’s willing to talk about him these days. In this case, however, I’m interested in your judgements; yes increasingly so. As to the laudandum, the use of “about” seems suggestive of some primary decision about what makes a subject poetic. Between aboutness and richness there’s lots to talk about which doesn’t require Hill as foil.

    • I don’t think that Hill needs defending either and what I think I’m trying to do here is to try and document my relationship to the work which I experience as more than a response or an analysis. I feel that I have more involvement with this material than I do with the work of others (with the possible exception of Celan) and this involvement is a kind of ongoing unfolding into the work which continues to develop an appreciation (rather than or as well as an understanding) of what’s going on.
      Hope this makes some kind of sense.

      • You experience your relationship to a poem as MORE than a response or an analysis? Meaning that your experience is of a process? A work-in-progress perhaps? You “experience” your relationship as a process? That is, your relationship is a process. I don’t mean to quibble; I wouldn’t spend time trying to understand what you think you are doing if I didn’t feel it was important (at least to me; I’m not sure your other commenters worry about just how you see what you are doing).

      • There are several strands to this. First of all I enjoy writing and I read a lot of poetry, I’m also very opinionated. As an autodidact, I’m aware (but not too neurotic about) of how little I know. As a manic depressive I find that writing this helps to keep my personal demons at bay.
        I’ve avoided defining this blog because that might ‘fix’ it in one particular place but the running thread does seem to be my relationship with poetry and with some poets in particular. I seem to write about this relationship as it develops, which involves some degree of analysis and response but I don’t sit down with a poem in order to analyse it, my motivation is more about deepening the way that I relate/identify/involve myself with the material and the person that produced it.
        I don’t think that this is more than analysis, I just think that it’s different. I use the term relationship because my first reaction to this material is emotional. Some poems and sequences bring on a rush of pleasure that comes close to elation whereas others trigger disappointment.
        I didn’t start this to have such an attentive and civilised readership, I did it because of my need to write and to put this stuff somewhere other than a cardboard box. I’m very pleased that the web has enabled me to do that – and to encourage some debate.

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