Tag Archives: Geoffrey Hll

Odi Barbare Poem VI for the fourth and final time.

Most of you will be delighted to know that I’ve decided to accelerate the reading of this piece of oddness, mainly because I want to get to the last verse in order to ask a few questions. So far we’ve established that:

  • writing seven poems a week is not the same as writing seven good poems;
  • Hill’s interest in things military may stem from his guilt that he never took part in combat;
  • writing bad lines is not made any better by acknowledging this in a poem;
  • over the last few years Hill has gone from being the bad boy of British poetry to its darling at the very time when his work is not at it’s best;
  • pattern poems (usually) aren’t very good.
  • Sir Geoffrey Hill can (of course) write whatever he wants because he is Sir Geoffrey Hill and has already written several of the finest poems in the language.

This is all of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage,
Make a pranged voice nasal through ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

This astounding people (Disraeli), their spears
Beating shield-hides, murmuring high a basso,
Hive-like, buzzing rage become torpor almost
Blood self-enthralling.

Assegais whish-washed in the fleshy Empire
Jelk you inside out like a dumdum bullet;
Death by numbers, one-shot Martini Henry
Redhot on target.

Errant Chelmsford, yet if slow Pulleine then had
Ordered form square, he could have saved their breakfast,
Might have subscribed that long-abandoned letter
Dead on the table.

Stand-to you viewers. Mark how Chard and Bromhead
There with plucked Hook posthumously ill-fictioned
And a Welsh Jew - Land of My Fathers bless them -
Staggered the impi.

Though your own sapped psyche so courts retraction
Soldiery's grand comedy plays to curtains.
Who denies this I would expect the Queen to
Rise up and smite him.

Let’s start by getting the proper nouns out of the way, Lord Chelmsford was in charge of British forces during the Anglo-Zulu war and is blamed by many for not returning with his troops to Isandlwana when he was told that it was under attack. Subsequently Chelmsford tried to blame Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine for the disaster because he had been left in charge of the camp. It does seem (from this completely amateur point of view) that neither did very well although Pulleine’s failure to ‘form square’ may not have been his major sin. Chard, Bromhead and Hook were all heroes of Rorkes Drift- a battle that occurred at about the same time and in which we repelled (staggered) the Zulu forces. The Queen is likely to be our own current monarch but could also be Queen Victoria who met and was won round by Chelmsford after the war even though no-one else was. I am assuming that the ill-fictioned Welsh Jew is one of the characters in the film ‘Zulu’ that I have referred to before. It is unlikely to refer to Hook who was born in Gloucester although the majority of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift do appear to have been Welsh.

I have no idea what that long-abandoned letter refers to nor do I know how to find out.

So, Isandlwana overrun due to upper class English incompetence / cowardice etc whereas Rorkes Drift defended by herioc Welsh squaddies singing ‘Land of My Fathers’ in the process (bless them).

I’m trying really hard to ignore the fact that ‘then had / ordered form square’ is so obviously bad and has no part in any kind of poem. It doesn’t work on any level, if poetry is supposed to be ‘heightened’ language then this is surely language demeaned – isn’t it? This isn’t ‘wrong’ in the sense that Keston Sutherland has described, it’s just unimaginative, weak and (dare this be said?) lazy. It doesn’t even have the excuse of ‘dissonance’ all acknowledged in Poem 13 of the ‘Clavics’ sequence, it’s just bad.

Readers of the disappointing ‘Oraclau’ sequence will not be surprised to note that Hill’s recently discovered Welsh ancestry continues to influence his world-view. This may be quaintly idiosyncratic or merely self-indulgent, depending on your taste.

Films have been made about both these encounters as Hill would seem to acknowledge by addressing his audience as viewers although ‘Mark how’ is more theatrical than cinematic – I don’t know of any plays depicting either battle.

The last verse is the reason for paying so much attention to this poem because I don’t know what to make of it and would like some assistance with the following:

  • whose psyche is being described?
  • why is this psyche said to be sapped?
  • what does having a sapped psyche mean or indicate?
  • why would a sapped psyche court or woo (ie ask for) a retraction?
  • is this retraction a denial of a previous assertion or the action of pulling an object back?
  • is it altogether reasonable / sensible to equate the horrors involved in soldiery with theatrical performance and death with ‘curtains’?
  • why should people wish to deny that soldiers sometimes get killed?
  • isn’t it extremely unlikely for either monarch to take any heed of what Hill expects?
  • which of the 26 main definitions of the verb ‘smite’ is being used on the last line?
  • would it be worth my while to try and work this out?

So, we have the derring-do of the buzzing rage and the whishery washery of the insect like savage, the well-known incompetence of the British officer classand the unabashed heroism of the Welsh squaddie. We also have the fact that the British were using dum-dum bullets counterbalanced by the savages’ entirely unreasonable use of the spear whilst omitting to mention the appalling rationale the British had for using such atrocious devices against spears and daggers. We have some bad lines, some lines that sound better than they are and more than a few syntactical tics.

Up until the last verse it is reasonably clear what’s going on but the last four lines are either deliberate and self-indulgent obfuscation beyond my ken or they don’t make any kind of sense, even for a ‘hierarchical Tory’.

I now find that I’ve come out of this reading in a more negative mood than when I started which might say more about me than the poem but it’s not an exercise that I intend to repeat with this sequence any time soon primarily because I don’t have to and life really is too short.

Commentaries, Annotations, Glossaries and the Poem

For the past few months I’ve been trying to broaden my reading to incorporate poetry written before 1570 and also to get to grips with the joys of Middle English. Thus far this has involved engaging primarily with Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton, for both of these I’ve made use of editors which has proved to be a ‘mixed’ experience. I’m also in pursuit of most things relating to David Jones and this morning I received Rene Hague’s commentary on The Anathemata. Obviously I haven’t begun to read this in depth but this from the preface encapsulates some of my concerns:

I very soon met two difficulties. The first was the problem of whom I was addressing, and what knowledge, apt to help him in his interpretation, could I attribute to him. For while it is annoying not to be told, something of which you are ignorant, it is equally, or even more annoying to be told what you have known since childhood: it is as bad as having an obvious joke explained to you. I could only take my own friends, so often better informed than I, as a standard. I found it impossible to be consistent, and in the end I had to write as though simply for myself, with a friend reading over my shoulder.

The second difficulty arose from the impossibility of defining a literal meaning. That exists at no more than syntactical abstraction, which has little use unless it allows the reader to move onward into the intricacies of allusion, allegory, spiritual and even mystical interpretation; and here (even though a commentator may provide a useful starting-point) every reader must do his own work based on his own reading and thinking. Anyone who has studied the great poets closely and for many years will know how endless is that work, and how entrancing.

Needless to say, Hague has now been promoted to one of the Few who write well about poetry and understand the needs of the attentive reader. This balance is a useful benchmark and I would add, from recent personal experience, explanations or definitions that the reader doesn’t understand- I don’t think I should need to consult the OED to understand this kind of explanation. The other infuriation comes from notes/glosses that are wrong, that are factually incorrect and (usually) misleading.

In order to exemplify what Hague is describing, I set out below the sinners and saints in my recent (ish) reading with some examples. I readily accept that each reader brings a different knowledge base and vocabulary to this material but (as ever) this is a subjective view and I’d be grateful for other responses from interested readers.

Roger Ellis on Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘La Male Regle’.

Editors of Middle English poetry place modern definitions alongside the line in question. This particular poem is an extended version of what Drayton categorised as ‘ah, me!’ poetry in that the poet spends a lot of time bemoaning his plight and generally being sorry for himself. These lines are from the second stanza, Ellis’ definitions are in italics:

 And now my body empty is, and bare
of ioie and ful of seekly heuynesse, sickly
al poore of ese and ryche of evel fare. in things bringing ease; in misfortune

I would argue that this last line is done an enormous disservice by this inept heavy-handedness. Not many readers will need to be told that ‘ese’=’ease’ but if they did then it might be better/more helpful to give the phrase as ‘ill at ease’. With regard to being incorrect, ‘in misfortune’ completely misses the point. I’m not any kind of expert in these things but I can think of many more precise definitions and ‘evel fare’ doesn’t really need an explanation because most of us will be able to define both words for ourselves. It could of course be argued that this edition is aimed at students who might need this kind of assistance, I would then point out that in that case there is an even greater need for precise definition and not what appears to be lazy platitude.

Alexander Dyce on John Skelton’s ‘Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’.

Skelton was writing about a hundred years after Hoccleve at the start of what is thought of as the early modern period (a decidedly movable feast). This is the second verse of one of his more minor ‘ditties':

Allectuary arrected to redres
These feuereous axys, the dedely wo and payne
Of thoughtfull hertys plungid in dystres;
Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and greene;
Of lusty somer the passing goodly quene;

Dyce’s edition of Skelton’s verse was published in 1843 and is a delight in that it is hopelessly partisan and idiosyncratic but you can feel the enthusiasm for the work bouncing off the page- the notes can be read on their own merit although it does help to know something of the period. However, Dyce often omits words and phrases which should be glossed and also gives explanations that the interested reader (me) may not understand.

This is how Dyce deals with the above:

Allectuary- Electuary. Arrected – appointed. Redres- relieve, remedy. Axys – (access) fits, paroxysms. Of thoughtful hertys plungid in dystre- Skelton borrowed this line from, Lydgate whose ‘Lyf of our Lady’ begins: “O thoughtful herte plungid in dustressed”. Thoughtfull is anxious, heavy, sad. Herber – arbour.

So, how many of us are familiar with ‘electuary? Was this a common word in 1843 and do we need a definition of ‘redres’ when we aren’t given one for either ‘condute’ or ‘enverduryd’? Because of his enthusiasm I should nevertheless confess that Dyce annoys me far less than Ellis.

At this point I could repeat what I’ve said elsewhere about commentators on Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Marvell and Wordsworth but instead I’ll move forward to the present and the problem of the introduction.

Ann Hassan on Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Speech! Speech!’

Thus far I’ve only read the introduction the Hassan’s commentary but it does contain one roadblock of a sentence. Following Hague, I’m of the view that the reader should be encouraged to undertake his or her own reading and to do the work of attention in all it’s senses. Early on in her introduction Hassan has this: “Hill’s stock preoccupations (in shorthand the triumvirate of martyrdom, memory and responsibility) are still present.” This glib, albeit ‘shorthand’, observation has no place in such an introduction because it sets out a position rather than encouraging readers to form their own impressions and views. For this reader, I think I know Hill’s work reasonably well and I’m deeply sceptical of a ‘triumvirate’ that omits God and England but I am deterred from preceding by the simple fact that this kind of generalisation isn’t helpful and may portend even more infuriations to come. There’s also a degree of complexity in Hill’s work that makes the adjective ‘stock’ either simplistic or (more likely) wrong. I will continue eventually however because I’m a Hill completist, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to this particular sequence and there are 294 pages for me to get lost in and annoyed with.

Poetry and the academy (again)

In the early days of this blog I allowed myself the occasional extended rant about the damage that something called the academy does to something we call poetry. The general thrust of this centred around an academic elite having more and more complex discussions with itself and thus locking most ‘serious’ poetry up in a box that excludes the rest of us.

I’d like to be able to report that I’ve mellowed and now appreciate that complex poetry requires complex analysis and that this must be expressed in precise terms which many may consider to be obscure. Unfortunately, recent exposure to academic work continues to confirm the original view although in a slightly modified form.

I read a lot of history and spend many a happy hour arguing in my head with views and perspectives that I don’t agree with. I’d like to be able to read about poets and poetry that interests me, especially work produced between 1580 and 1670 (ish) although I wouldn’t be adverse to reading outside these parameters. The problem is that I can’t finish the vast majority of those that I’ve tried. I start off with the best of intentions but soon get weary and decide not to proceed any further. This weariness is usually due to:

  • the points being made don’t seem to be well-founded;
  • an ideological agenda is being pursued which requires the author to shoehorn the work into a box that doesn’t fit;
  • academic eagerness leading to an ‘over-egging’ of the pudding;
  • increasingly convoluted arguments to make a very small point;
  • an emphasis on the wrong things;

There are some critics that I read with enormous pleasure even though I disagree with almost everything they say, I read and re-read Stanley Fish on anything and I do the same with Jacques Derrida on Paul Celan. I also read Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne on anything but my primary motivation stems from my interest in their poetry.

I do appreciate that there are academic trends and that these develop over time, I also understand that academia is competitive but it does seem that academic success is more likely if authors produce work that questions the prevailing status quo (and is well written).

I do not want to single out particular books but I have started about ten that have been published in the last five years. I’ve been attracted by the subject matter and the thesis that’s set out in the introduction and have started with more than a degree of enthusiasm because all of these books promise to do what I think ought to be done.

The over-egging of the pudding is particularly tiresome, it does seem that there is a tendency to develop entire theories on the flimsiest evidence. Some historians also fall into this particular trap but there is a growing trend which emphasises the things that we don’t actually know rather than those which we can only guess about. I’m not inherently against speculation but I am of the view that authors should make it clear when speculation is taking place.

I have tried to be reasonably broad in my reading, I’ve engaged with works about individual poets, about groups of poets, works with a political bent and those with a theological/philosophical angle and none of these have lived up to the promises set out in the introduction. Some of this can be very dispiriting, I’ve been taken through many pages of context and supporting evidence only to arrive at a ‘point’ that is so small as to be meaningless. I’ve been through pages of ideologically right-on posturing to arrive at a ‘point’ that is laughably wrong (as in factually incorrect).

We now come to specialisms and context. I am familiar with the history of this particular period and am therefore reasonably aware when authors provide only partial or inaccurate context. There may however be many readers who ‘only’ have a background in literature and would often struggle to make a judgement about the context that is provided. I’m not suggesting that this is deliberate but too often sweeping generalisations are made in order to prove a (usually speculative) theory. The other side of the coin is represented by J H Prynne who spends many pages in his ‘Love III’ commentary emphasising just how complex and obscure certain theological debates were in the 1620s.

we now come to over-complication which is usually due to putting forward a hypothesis on very, very thin evidence but can also stem from being overly-enamoured with theory. The love of theory is (to say the least) unfortunate because it can often deter the hapless reader (me) who ‘just’ wants to know a bit more about the poems. I could go on for a very long time about how the work of Edmund Spenser has been hijacked and fought over by various theoretical perspectives to such an extent that the poetry has been largely forgotten, looking at recent academic work would lead the neutral observer to conclude that Spenser only ever wrote about Ireland and that this was done in order to promote and strengthen a profoundly dodgy (technical term) imperial project. Needless to say a few critics have attempted to buck this trend but they do tend to get swamped by this kind of errant nonsense.

I’m not in any way adverse to theory but do nevertheless feel that theoretical concerns should be used to inform our understanding of the work and not the other way round. Literary theorists also suffer in the main from a very simplistic view of how things work/worked in the real world. There seems to be a number of straight lines that go from society to any particular poem, so we have a burgeoning economy or a flourishing legal profession or religious controversy having a direct and discernible influence on the way that poems are put together. I shouldn’t really need to point out that life is inherently messy and doesn’t always follow the lines that we draw for it. The refusal of some literary critics (from a variety of theoretical perspectives) to understand and accommodate this unfortunate fact is especially frustrating.

It’s also interesting to note that historians tend to do better on poets than literary critics do on history. Roy Foster has produced the definitive work on Yeats and Edward Thompson’s book on Blake and the Muggletoniansis an absolute delight.

In conclusion, with a few honourable exceptions, the academy continues to produce work about poetry that is incredibly introspective and usually inaccurate. This does enormous disservice to the work and to the interested but non-academic reader.

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.

Four new poems from Geoffrey Hill and a CD.

These are published in the latest edition of Archipelago which is the Clutag house journal, the cd is produced by them as well and contains readings from ‘For the Unfallen’ through to ‘Without Title’.

I’ll start with the poems because these are taken from ‘ODI BARBARE’ which will be published this year and they mark a further departure from what I’ve thought of as ‘late’ Hill. This level of oddness started with ‘Oraclau’ in 2010 which was a remarkably unsuccessful celebration of Hill’s newly discovered Welsh ancestry and all things Welsh. The sequence stuck to a form that seemed to ‘strangle’ rather than enhance the poetry. This was followed by ‘Clavics’ a series of pattern poems with more than a nod towards George Herbert, the subjects ranged from the 17th century Lawes and Vaughan brothers to an affinity with Yeats and a defence of mysticism. I felt that this was much more successful but continue to fret about the pattern. If the four poems in Archipelago are representative then the next collection will be equally disconcerting but in a quite different way. It would appear that Hill wants to make us think and wants to entertain us at the same time. This trait has been apparent since ‘Mercian Hymns’ and comes to the fore in ‘The Triumph of Love’ but here it’s given a kind of uncompromising twist. I’m not articulating this very well but that’s because these poems something quite radical going on and I’m intrigued by it because I don’t know what to make of it.

The poems are sequential and numbered XL-XLIII so I’m assuming that this is from a sequence although no other indication is given as to its length. Each consists of six unrhymed quatrains and each of these has three longer lines and ends with a shorter line which is centred. This form/pattern is reasonably generic so it isn’t obvious where this particular ‘nod’ is aimed.

The first poem has a lot of the Welsh in it, some opera and Hopkins and contains this:

Goldengrove notebooks ripped for late bequeathing
Dyscrasy Publike its own gifts to plunder
Hazardings unscathed by the large alignments
Made for survival:

Make believe Merz | might be collage of rip-offs
Bless the mute parlous for our safe bestowings
Meteor showers sign expropriation
Cypress's roof-tree:

It may be that I’m having a dim few days but I am struggling to get the ‘sense’ of the above, I’m aware of Hill’s prior use of the Goldengrove trope and I’ve worked out that ‘Merz’ refers to the work of Karl Schwitters but I do come unstuck with ‘its own gifts to plunder’, ‘the large alignments’ and all of the last three lines quoted above.

I appreciate that each stanza may be a ‘ripped off’ element in the poem which is a collage but there’s a degree of difficulty going on that seems more unyielding than Hill at his most obdurate. I originally thought that I was being confused by what appeared to be ambiguity but this isn’t actually the case although there is the question of whether ‘make believe’ is intended as adjective or verb or both. This isn’t helped by the truism that follows, collage being essentially ‘about’ re-using images ripped off (in both senses) from elsewhere.

I am usually attracted to the difficult and would normally relish this kind of stuff but this isn’t the kind of difficulty that I’m accustomed to from Hill, it seems to be somehow insubstantial, almost as if it’s over-compensating for the not having very much to say. I hope I’m wrong and that the rest of the sequence will make things clearer for me.

I’ve also run through the various defences of difficulty that Hill has put forward over the years (not wishing to insult the intelligence of his readers, life is much more difficult than the most difficult poetry and, most recently, he often fails to reach a definable ‘point’ in his poetry because there are many things that he doesn’t have an answer to).

None of this explains or justifies what seems to be going on here as we have what seems to be refusal to be clear and an insistence on the portentous for its own sake- the poem’s last two lines are “Deep penillion woven to snow’s curled measures / Heard past unhearing.” There’s also the return of | to denote a pause and the deliberately arcane spelling, here we have ‘Swoln’ as well as ‘Publike’- I find all of this mannered and more than a little pretentious. Hill has also started to use a new device, the full stop that occurs half way up the line instead of at the bottom- or it may of course be a colon with only one dot instead of two. This is just as annoying as Neil Pattison’s use of a space between the colon and the end of the word, like : this. I’m thinking of starting a national campaign against this sort of affectation before things get out of hand…

These concerns aside, Geoffrey Hill is one of the two finest poets currently writing in English and these four poems are still miles in front of the vast majority of what passes for poetry on either side of the innovative / mainstream divide. This is the opening of poem XLIII:

Lucrative failing no poor oxymoron
Gravely highlight solo polyphony this
Shagged ur-pragmatism of standup comics
working rejection

The third line could not be written by anyone else and is sufficiently. startlingly brilliant to give me hope for the rest of the sequence.

The CD is a joy and should be played (along with Prynne’s partial Paris reading of ‘To Pollen’) instead of the muzak that currently infects our shops. It is clearly spoken, at an appropriate pace and enhances the poems on the page which in my experience is unusual. Of particular interest is the broadening of range and tone, there are still echoes of poems in ‘For the Unfallen’ and ‘King Log’ in much of the later work. The reading of the first and last parts of ‘Mercian Hymns’ is a particular delight.

This issue of Archipelago contains poems by (amongst others) Andrew Motion, Allan Jenkins and Alice Oswald all of which seem entirely happy in their lack of ambition and bland flabbiness which probably indicates the very low expectations of their readers (discuss).

(In accordance with new central command directive 1-7/dk-3, this has been read and corrected prior to the send button being pushed).

What short poems do

When I was 15ish, I was of the view that poetry was about compression, that it’s primary purpose was to condense and intensify life as it is lived. I hadn’t arrived at this conclusion from any deep knowledge or understanding but I did know that Paul Celan had written the most obviously important poetry that I had come across and that the more austere later works were staggeringly good. This view was solidified by Samuel Beckett’s ‘Lessness’ which seemd intent on paring things down in a similar way.

Over the last forty years I’ve weaned myself off this early certainty and discovered the many joys of the longer poem and the pleasure to be gained in losing myself for page after page. The problem with having Celan for a template has meant that very few poems have met my early standards and those that do tend to be part of a sequence rather than a ‘stand alone’ poem. I was thinking about this the other day when writing about Andrew Marvell’s ‘Garden’ sequence and found myself trying to work out what I look for in short poems.

The first and most obvious quality is brevity but the kind of brevity that says a lot without appearing to try whilst the second is about depth or perhaps profundity but a depth that is worn lightly and thus avoids ramming the ‘point’ down my throat. The third is about a good start but a better finish in that the opening should attract my attention and hold my interest whilst the end should be both sharp and accomplished.

I want to use four short poems to try and demonstrate what I mean, I’ve chosen these because I think that they are successful in their own right (although three do belong to a sequence) and because they all manage to kick off a series of related thoughts which may or may not have been part of the original intention.

Reitha Pattison’s Fable I

I’ve written about this recently but I want to use to show just how much a few lines can hold:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

The first element relates to fables and various other forms of the same kind of thing. Emblem books during the 16th and 17th centuries made great use of these stories so I’ve been led back to Whitney and the popularity of the emblem form and the conscious use that Spenser and others made of emblems. The illustration in Whitney’s great collection of the dog and his reflection is remarkable in its directness.

I’ve also been reading Alistair Fowler on the impact of the epigram on what is referred to as the English Renaissance and beyond and Pattison’s Fables do share many epigrammatic features which has brought me to think again about the use of such forms as life lessons and their equivalents in the popular culture of today.

The mix of Providence and an agrarian work ethic is startling because the two are not obviously related and it’s taken me a while to think this through. Providence is defined by Alexandra Walsham as a the “sovereignty of God and His unceasing supervision of and intervention in the earthly realm” whereas ‘work ethic’ is a term used by Weber to ‘explain’ the relative economic success of Protestant northern Europe when compared with the Catholic south. The story of the ant and the grasshopper tells of a grasshopper who does little during the warm summer months and an ant who puts stores food for the winter. Of course, the grasshopper has no food and starves having been rebuked by the ant for his idleness. The original point is reasonably straightforward but Pattison plays with it to bring other dimensions to bear.

Geoffrey Hill’s poem LI from ‘The Triumph of Love’

I am aware that the above sequence really needs to be read in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated but this particular poem meets all of the above criteria and succeeds in its own right. It also provides what is perhaps the central point of the work as a whole:

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape
is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in crass section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This is particularly satisfying because it’s a quite statement in the middle of some quite dramatic flourishes which attempt to encapsulate some of the worst aspects of the 20th century and provides the key as to why we have come through those appalling experiences. So it’s a kind of riposte to those who see only brutality and mindless slaughter but it’s also a self-contained statement of faith in a ‘particular grace’ and the finer qualities that each of us possess and which run across and outweigh our many and various ‘faults’. It is a remarkable statement and one that continues to provoke a number of questions- as a more or less committed atheist, the notion of grace means little to me but I would argue that the other three qualities do play a huge part in getting us through although I’m not entirely sure that the geological analogy works for me it is still remarkably accomplished, keenly felt and a brilliant statement of quite a complex and nuanced position.

Andrew Marvell’s Poem VI from ‘The Garden’

I’ve written recently about another poem in this sequence so I don’t intend to repeat myself here. This particular poem stands out from the others both for its tone and for the things that it appears to be saying which ‘work’ on a number of different levels:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I’m firmly of the view that Marvell has never been given his due and I think the above is an example of both masterful control and an ability to say complex things in startling ways. Nigel Smith’s commentary tells me that the above continues to give critics fertile ground for controversy and debate but I just think that it’s very, very well put together and contains a satisfyingly high level of ambiguity. ‘Green’ had a number of connotations apart from those relating to the environment in the 17th century, as did ‘shade’ and the contrast of these thoughts with the more psychological description is at odds with the rest of the sequence but also indicates just how different this period was from our own- something we tend to overlook especially when thinking about the English Civil War. I’m currently pursuing the role of green in the period and it is fascinating.

Paul Celan’s ‘I know you’

I want to finish with this because I started with Celan and he is the best and what follows demonstrates this. We often think of Celan primarily as Jew and in relation to the Holocaust but the four lines below were written to/for his wife, Giselle. By the early sixties the marriage had become strained primarily because of Celan’s ‘difficult’ behaviour which was due to his mental health problems. As someone who has similar problems, I read it as an exposition of the kind of tensions and pain that such issues can cause:

(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,
I, the transpierced, am subject to you.
Where flames a word, would testify for us both.
You - all, all real. I - all delusion.)

This has also generated swathes of critical attention and debate but for me it’s heartbreakingly accurate, the use of ‘transpierced’ speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and the third line encapsulates so much of the desperation that many of us go through. It is also fitting that the entire poem should exist in a bracket.

There are very few poems (of any length) that manage to speak to me in this way and I remain awed by Celan’s incredible ability to make difficult things very solid. I’ve been thinking about the Meridian notes a lot recently and this for me embodies what Celan says about the poem as creating an opportunity for the encounter with the reader that is almost tactile. This does that for me.

Clavics

As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
          Be laws. Again
          Swift and neat hand
          Notate the viols
          Flexures of styles
       Extravagant command
          Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
          Narcissus then
          Crowns fantasy
          Feasts what feasts brings
          Imaginings
      Consort like winter sky
          Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
          Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

Because Metaphysic is what you will
  Marking time is not bearing time
     As Inevitable
      The pale sun's rime
        Until
        No sun
      No dying climb
    Statute's oxymoron
   Impassionate lost thistle-rhomb
No intercept from zero friskly drawn.

The above is the third poem in Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Clavics’ sequence. I’ve tried very hard to format the above accurately but this hasn’t been a complete success- The line ‘Extravagant command’ should end after the line above and Consort…’ should end after ‘brings’ which is two lines above. ‘As inevitable’ should end after the line below it. There are thirty two poems in the sequence and they all have exactly the same shape.

I was one of those disappointed by ‘Oraclau’ because of the prevalence of lines that don’t work and the attempt to adhere to a rigid form. I was also less than impressed with the way in which Hill deals with Wales and Weshness.

‘Clavics’ arrived at the same time as my recent depressive episode and I was initially thrown by the uniform shape of the poems, some of which is achieved by letter and word spacing and by slight variations in font size. I then put ‘Clavics’ down and got on with being depressed.

Recently I fell across Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of ‘Clavics’ in  The Independent. He ascribes the shapes of the poems to George Herbert indicating that the first section ‘looks like a modified version’ of ‘The Altar’ and that the second is a copy of ‘Easter wings’. Mackinnon goes on to describe the book as the ‘sheerest twaddle’ and ends by stating the Hill is wasting his own time and that of his readers.

I may be wrong but isn’t Mackinnon one of the critics directly addressed (abused) in ‘The Triumph of Love’? I only mention this because ‘sheerest twaddle’ manages to be both extreme and less than specific.

Some things can be said about ‘Clavics’ before we get to any consideration of quality. The first thing that can be said is that we are back in the 17th century and that this is ground that Hill knows very well indeed. The main focus of our attention is meant to be William Lawes, the musician and composer, brother of the less talented Henry who features fleetingly in ‘Comus’.  The rest of Hill’s seventeenth century cast are also mostly present (the Vaughan twins, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Charles I etc) but there are also references to more contemporary concerns.

The tone is an odd mix of the comedic quips from ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which still aren’t funny and the later and more personal asides from ‘Comus’ and ‘Treatise’. In fact oddness seems to characterise the whole sequence. We have jokes that aren’t funny, elements of erudition that seem merely boastful and some very strange obscurities which feel quite ‘dark’.

I don’t really want to engage with Mackinnon as he’s had lots of attention already from this but his observation about shape is only partially feasible. ‘The Altar’ is unlikely to be the model for the first section because of the number of lines, line length and especially the variation in line length in the middle.  As for ‘Easter wings’, the shape is exactly the same except for a gap between lines 5 and 6 and that my pdf of the first edition has the poem lying on its side so as to resemble a pair of wings, something Hill acknowledges in poem 20 referring to this shape as an ‘egg timer’.

There are some poems that ‘work’ really well and make a Geoffrey Hill kind of sense. The incidence of really naff lines is much less than in ‘Oraclau’ and I think I’m probably offended by some of the darker sentiments but that is likely to be Hill’s intention.  This is odd because I’ve viewed his earlier attempts to shock as either childish or quaint.

The other point is that reading this sequence, for all its many faults, is a far more useful way of spending time than paying attention to any of what passes for mainstream English verse.

One of the more significant contemporary themes appears to be the atheist gang headed by Richard Dawkins who gets a couple of mentions. More intriguing is the first part of poem 26 which obliquely addresses the central theme of “Consilience” by E O Wilson. This purports to set out a way of unifying the many varieties of scientific thought, I read this some years ago and didn’t find it particularly persuasive but it also contains one of those extended rants against relativism which is also Dawkins’ underlying fear about religion. What Hill has to say about “Consilience” is more than usually enigmatic with a riff on ants, bees and butterflies. Wilson’s major research has focused on ants. The last section of the poem takes us back to Charles I, the Vaughan twins and William Lawes which seems to have nothing to do with the above debate until you get to the last line- “Talk of closure keeps open the matter.” which does.

I feel much more inclined to ‘bother’ with “Clavics” than I do with “Oraclau” even if it isn’t in the same league as some of the earlier work. At the end of the last poem Hill asks “Is it slight cant / Wishing to end well?” This stanza as a whole is oddly revealing and throws up further issues for attentive readers.

The first epigraph reads “CLAVICS: The science or alchemy of keys – OED 2012″. I think I might need to unpack that once I’ve spent more time with the collection as a whole. Coincidentally, Poem 28 contains a direct quote (“Ah my dear”) from Herbert’s “Love III” which I’ve written about recently.