Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

Speech! Speech! has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. It’s meant to be the middle part of a sequence that starts with The Triumph of Love and ends with The Orchards of Syon. I’m familiar with both of these but I’ve never been able to pay attention to the filling in the sandwich until the last week when I noticed that the blurb has “allowing us to glimpse the mythical in the insistently modern, the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana”. Obviously, being congenitally attracted to the odd, I immediately sought these out and was not disappointed.

First of all, a couple of clarifications. Hill isn’t terribly keen on the current state of our nation and is instead very keen on an England that never actually existed. Politically Hill would be most at home with UKIP because of a shared patriotism and a detestation of all things EU. Hill is not, however, stupid and his views should be seen as part of the long line of Tory paternalists that stretches back to the 18th century rather than the inanities of this current crop of patriots.

The relationship between myth and the time of writing is one of the things that poetry has always done, what it hasn’t done with any great success is ‘deal’ with the problems of fame and celebrity. I’m interested in the figure of the celebrity in our culture because of what this says about us and the contents of our collective heads. I’m indifferent to the British Royal family and I was completely mystified by the extent and depth of national trauma brought about by that particular car crash. I saw Diana as a particularly vacuous member of her class who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I still don’t think that she will have more than a fleeting effect on the rest of us. It transpires that Hill is not of this view, that he is firmly entrenched in the nation’s grief and has written about it.

We need to take a bit of a pause here, you have just published one of the finest poems of the last 30 years, a work that is a remarkable and innovative and wonderfully human meditation on the many traumas of our recent past and yet you choose to follow this up with a sequence that contains a number of mawkish sentimentalities about a product of the culture that you effect to despise.

This is the first Di-related stanza:

         22

Age of mass consent: go global with her.
Challenge satellite failure, the primal
violent day-star moody as Herod.
Forget nothing. Reprieve no-one. Exempt
only her bloodline's jus natalium.
Pledge to immoderacy the outraged 
hardly forgiven mourning of the PEOPLE,
inexorable, though in compliance,
media-conjured. Inscrutable I call
her spirit now on this island: memory
subsiding into darkness | nowhere
coming to rest.

(The vertical line between darkness and nowhere is the closest I can get to how it appears in print. There’s an acute accent above the o in ‘her spirit now’ which WordPress doesn’t (won’t) render)

There are a couple of typographical tics which we can reasonably avoid but the capitalised ‘people’ might require some attention. I’m taking the Latin as ‘birthright’ which would seem to make grammatical sense of the line and would suggest that those who are to be exempted are her two children. I’ve spent at least twenty minutes with the OED and what I know of Hill’s work and have come to the regrettable conclusion that “Pledge to immoderacy” doesn’t actually work, even allowing for Hill’s penchant for obscure words and secondary definitions. I think I know what he’s aiming for in his typically convoluted way but I think there are more precise ways of saying it. The rest is reasonably clear but I’m not sure that it’s accurate. My (admittedly dim) recollection of those strange few days is that the media were unprepared for the extent and depth of the collective grief. One of the things that interests me about celebrity is the mutual involvement of the media, the audience and the individual. Diana fed the media’s need to report this new and much trendier addition to the cast of dysfunctional misfits and the audience could take sides in the ‘narrative’ whilst the celebrity felt that she could manipulate sections of the media into supporting her ‘position’. I can’t explain this grief but I have to report that relatively sane friends of mine got caught up in it and were clearly feeling some pain. The last three lines are oddly mawkish and I wonder why Hill feels the need to say them unless, of course, it’s an example of the mythical in the present as advertised in the blurb.

Thirteen stanzas later we get these two:


    35

Say you dispute the audit - no offence
to her intended (or to her intended)-
pending the hierarchies so soon to be
remade | though not with her demotic splendour.
Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one's country | bearing with it
always something over- or under-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing - marching - in and out of tune
to Holst's JUPITER | as to JERUSALEM.

   36

Huntress? No, not that huntress but some
other creature of fable. And then for her|
like being hunted. Or inescapably
beholden (this should sound tired but not
emotional to excess). Half forgotten
in one lifetime the funeral sentences
instantly resurrected - how can they do it?
Whatever of our loves here lies apart:
whatever it is you look for in sleep:
simple bio-degradation, a slather 
of half-rotted black willow leaves
at the lake's edge.

(Again all the accents are missing).

This is much more to my taste, there’s the assertion of the patriot, the brief riff on the power of a Christian funeral – even if ‘resurrected’ might be going a little too far – there’s nothing clumsy here, the phrasing and word-choice seem to be adept and accomplished rather than mannered. The image of the charwomen speaks to me of a culture and a set of values that disappeared at about the time that the nation discovered sex (1963) and does so with exceptional skill and warmth. Some might argue that 36′s bracketed aside is both arrogant and out of place but I’m of the view that it’s a mark of the confidence of an able and accomplished craftsman who simply knows what he can get away with and does so.

Given my interest in the man and his work, I’m intrigued by ‘apocryphal’ which, for the moment I’m taking to mean “of doubtful authenticity” rather than relating to the Apocrypha. Hill can be relied on to promote the patriotic cause and I’ve always got the impression that he saw this as something innate in him and in others so this puts a new light on things. It certainly adds another layer to an already complex and contradictory picture. It’s also very heartening to note the completely unfunny ‘intended’ jape and the use of ‘slather’ which the OED tells me is limited to Scotland and the North of England but is also one of the most expressive nouns in the language.

So, I’m now going to persevere with Speech! because it might have other really good bits and it may persuade me to like ‘Orchards’ a little more.

4 responses to “Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

  1. Of course the vast collected poems is either now in print or about to be, which may provide an occasion to rethink Speech in a much larger context even the American trilogy. I also understand that there are many revisions in the book. I’ve also rather liked the shortened versions of Triumph, Speech, and Orchards in the Penguin selected of 2006. A good comparison with Speech would be Berryman’s Dream Songs, a work also containing a range of poems from the absolutely terrific to the gawdawful. Poems from Canaan, especially Respublica, also contextualize Speech, and in fact GH himself, I understand, thinks of that book as part of the main work of the American period that I’ve called a trilogy and which he calls a quartet.

    • In the UK Amazon is listing the publication date as ’2013′ so I guess we can all get it for Xmas. This revision business is intriguing, the one example that I’ve seen, from Odi Barbare, transforms the poem into another poem which strikes me as more than just revision or amendment- it’ll be fascinating to see what he’s done to the rest. I’m going to proceed with Speech in search of the terrific and I’ll try and skip over those that aren’t.

  2. Yes in BH he’s taken out a lot of the diacritics.

    Apparently Diana reminded him of his grandmother (or another female relative, I forget), hence the sentimentality.

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