Tag Archives: mercian hymns

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
   
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

                 yet
    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.

Poems, Sections and Bits, a few technical questions for Geoffrey Hill.

Just before Xmas I bought the Clutag CD recording of the reading that Hill gave in February 2006 to launch ‘Without Title’. As well as being an absolute delight, (apart from the destruction of one poem by the great Eugenio Montale) the way that Hill introduces some of his publications has caused me to think more about the sequence/collection and section/poem terminology. Before we go any further I need to observe that this disturbance is of a different order to that caused by Prynne’s omission of the penultimate poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence in his recentish Paris reading.

The problem is caused here by the fact that I thought I understood the nouns used to describe these things. I thought that I knew that:

  • a number of poems published in a single book but without a unifying theme is called a collection as in John Matthias’ ‘Kedging’ or Hill’s ‘Without Title’;
  • a number of things published with a unifying themes is called a sequence and the things are called poems or prose poems;
  • sequences and collections may be divided into sub-groups of poems, these groups are known as sections;
  • parts of sequences or collections are never called bits because the term is too general to be helpful.

It turns out that this is not the view of our latest poetic knight and current Professor of Poetry at Oxford so I may well be wrong on all counts but nevertheless the questions remain. In the reading (referred to by Hill as a ‘recital’) he refers to the poems in ‘Mercian Hymns’, ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’, ‘The Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ as ‘sections’. In the introduction to ‘The Orchards of Syon’ he refers to the poems as ‘poems’ and then rapidly corrects himself to ‘sections’. The poems in ‘Comus’ are referred to as ‘bits’.

Let’s start with ‘Mercian Hymns’ which is a sequence of prose paragraphs or prose poems about Offa, one of our first kings. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that the past and the present are blurred and merged to create an account of England and a study in power. It is one of the very best things produced since 1945 and the argument about the poem / section terminology is less relevant because the each page carries a sequential Roman numeral and contains two or more paragraphs which would need to be called ‘prose poems’ which would be clumsy / inept / naff etc.

The ‘Charles Peguy’ is a sequence and is defined by Hill as “my homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat’”, it consists of ten poems each made up of a varying number of quatrains. I was going to make a case for each of these as autonomous pieces that can stand in their own right until I recalled that part 4 runs on to part 5 as in:

So you spoke to the blood. so you have risen
above all of that and fallen flat on your face

5

among the beetroots, where we are constrained
to leave you sleeping and to step aside

So, parts 4 and 5 may be sections of one autonomous poem whereas the rest are all ‘stand alone’ poems within the homage (sequence).

Moving on to ‘The Triumph of Love’, I can make a case for all of the numbered ‘sections’ as autonomous poems but I do have a problem with CXIII which in its entirety is “Boerenverdriet? You eat it – it’s Dutch liverwurst” which is a footnote to the use of the word in CXI. Admittedly some of the very short ‘sections’ are a couple of lines of snatched monologue but they can still stand as poems. The other puzzle with CXIII is that the rest of the gloss to the sequence is provided by a fictional editor whose interjections are placed in brackets within the poem. This may be due to the fact that another gloss is provided for the next word – “Lothian [Macsickker - Ed]” and Hill didn’t want things to get too cluttered.

As well as being as good as but very different from ‘Mercian Hymns’ this is obviously a sequence built around a number themes but which presents an oddly optimistic and/or redemptive take on the atrocity-laden twentieth century. It is true that occasional reference is made to stand up comedy and Gracie Fields the singer is deliberately confused with Gracie Fields the boat but I’ve just re-read the sequence again and am now more convinced of its brilliance and its audacity.

The poem / section slip of the tongue when introducing ‘The Orchards of Syon’ is perhaps indicative of Hill’s uncertainty with these terms but the use of ‘bits’ for ‘Scenes from Comus’ is odd because there may be degree of disdain or self deprecation going on – it is the least represented book in the Selected and Hill does quote A N Wilson’s abusive reaction to one of the poems but he does read 4 ‘Comus’ which is as many as ‘The Triumph of Love’ and two more than ‘Mercian Hymns’.

The significant difference with ‘Comus is that it is divided into three sections and each section contains poems in the same format, section one has all ten line poems consisting of three three-line verses followed by one line on its own, each poem in the second section is a single nine-line stanza and each poem in the third consists of four three-line verses. Each section has a title and each of these relates to the masque, a type of performance popular in the 17th century.

‘Scenes from Comus’ has received large amounts of critical flak on both sides of the Atlantic but I think it’s wonderful and written by a poet who is confident of his skill and legacy and (this is important) is beginning to be comfortable in his skin. So, why ‘bits’? It’s not as if Hill is unfamiliar with all the other terms that he could have and the term does suggest something trivial and expendable but this is at odds with putting so many of the poems into the reading.

I will continue thinking of poems that happen to be components of a sequence as poems, I’ll also carry on using sections as the term for groups of poems within a sequence and I don’t think I’ll ever use the term ‘bit’ because it doesn’t seem either useful or appropriate.

Writing this has made me realise that the sequence word contains a degree of complexities and blurrings that I’ll try and write about in the next few weeks.

The attentive among you will have noticed that I’ve missed out ‘Speech! Speech!’ but that’s because they’re poems- all of them.

Geoffrey Hill and comedy

In the essential ‘Complicities’ collection Thomas Day has an essay on comedy and contexture in ‘Comus’. As a long standing reader/fan of this poem, I read the piece with interest and it has given me some cause to re-consider my reading. For those who aren’t familiar with Hill’s work, the response falls into three broad camps. The first camp levels the charge of wilful obscurity thereby denying Hill any poetic/creative status at all. The second camp acknowledges the brilliance of the early work but denigrates the later stuff which was written after Hill sought help for his mental health condition, these later poems are sneeringly referred to as the ‘Prozac stuff’. The third camp is of the view that Hill remains one of the most important poets writing in English. I am firmly in the third camp and came to that view by reading Comus before I read anything else.

One of Hill’s more endearing traits is that most of his jokes aren’t very funny but they have a level of self-deprecation that makes me smile. When I first read Comus I was struck by its confidence and exuberance and by the fact that Hill felt able to throw various aspects of himself into the poem without becoming mawkish or confessional. The first section is a brilliant collection of  maxims which lead us gently into the performance of Milton’s Comus at Ludlow. These stanzas are not without humour, there’s a wonderful play on accountancy and righteousness which is funny but not in the music hall way that Day seems to be looking for.

Given his reputation for difficulty, it may surprise some to know that ‘The Triumph of Love’ also strives for laughs but in a much more self-conscious knowing way with Hill parodying the best efforts of stand-up comics. I don’t feel that this earlier attempt works as well as the bad jokes in Comus, probably because it reads as if Hill is being a little too clever for his own good.

The other thing to realise is that nobody should come to anything by Hill looking for laughs. Hill’s work challenges the attentive reader to think again about the world and to consider anew the power of the poetic voice. The jokes are very much a by-product. Whilst Day covers important aspects of the poem, he fails to situate the comedy in the context of the work and this is disappointing. The one comedic aspect that is ignored is the figure of Geoffrey Hill as randy old goat primarily lusting after the Sabrina character in the original Comus. I find this kind of self-deprecation amusing and can’t understand why Day should overlook it.

Day quotes extensively from the critical plaudits on the back of the paperback edition of Comus as if to demonstrate that Hill has won the recognition that he deserves and also that Hill finds this validation a bit difficult. Day also makes the claim that Comus is a gauntlet thrown down at the critic’s feet in defiance of the view that his later stuff isn’t very good. Whilst it is obvious that Hill does care about critical reception, I don’t think Comus is particularly defiant- I think it’s much more an homage to a particular poem and a meditation on the possibility of poetry in this weighted world. Being very open about your past (marriage, earlier poems, childhood) is surely not the best tactic when confronting your enemies.

I may be biased (I often am), but Comus stands alongside The Triumph of Love and Mercian Hymns as Hill’s finest work. A very strong case can be made for each but it is a credit to Hill that he has produced three very different but equally enduring pieces of work. He’ll never be a great comedian but he will always make me smile.

Ten questions for Geoffrey Hill

  1. How did you destroy your marriage?
  2. As we’ll never know what haemony means, why do you go on about it?
  3. How do you feel about those people who refer to your later work  as ‘the Prozac stuff’?
  4. Where did you get the idea from to do the Mercian Hymns in that way?
  5. Did it feel like you were being raped by God?
  6. What’s so great about Hopkins?
  7. Does it bother you that no-one else shares your political views?
  8. How well did you know Gillian Rose?
  9. Does the atemwende that you use in the Orchards of Sion refer to the address or the book?
  10. Are you the abused child in the Triumph of  Love?

Any others?