Tag Archives: odi barbare

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.

Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare poem VI pt3.

So far I’ve been proceeding slowly through this poem in order to arrive at a judgement with regard to quality. Thus far things aren’t looking too promising but least I have a clear idea as to what he’s talking about. The subject here is the British defeat at Isandlwana (1879) during the Anglo-Zulu war. Here’s the first three verses:

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.

Before I proceed, I need to stress that all of my knowledge concerning the war and this battle is derived from Wikipedia which I know is occasionally quirky but contains more than enough information to deal with this material. ‘Jelk’ doesn’t occur in the OED although the Urban Dictionary has “an exercise to increase penis size naturally” as its definition for ‘jelq’ and a quick look around the web indicates that ‘jelk’ is an alternative spelling. I really don’t want to go into what’s involved in this particular exercise – suffice it to say that it’s unlikely that Hill is referring to it here. He does have a track record of making up words- ‘clavics’ being the most recent case in point.

My arduous research has led to the fact that the Zulu in 1879 were using two types of assegai. The traditional version was throwing spear and was thrown from some distance at the enemy as you would throw a javelin. The iklwa (so called for the sound it made when being pulled out of the body) had a shorter shaft (about two foot) with a one foot blade and this was used for stabbing at close quarters.

I have no idea whether or not either of these weapons pulled large amounts of flesh out of their victims, as is suggested here and I’m even less clear that the action of any kind of spear can be likened to that of a dumdum bullet. Even in the nineteenth century the use of such bullets was controversial because of the mess that they created in the body and they were banned by the Hague Convention of 1899. The British and the Americans were the only countries to object and I now have this wonderful piece of justification from Sir John Ardagh who pointed out that men could still run on even when wounded by ‘ordinary’ bullets-

“The civilized soldier when shot recognizes that he is wounded and knows that the sooner he is attended to the sooner he will recover. He lies down on his stretcher and is taken off the field to his ambulance, where he is dressed or bandaged. Your fanatical barbarian, similarly wounded, continues to rush on, spear or sword in hand; and before you have the time to represent to him that his conduct is in flagrant violation of the understanding relative to the proper course for the wounded man to follow – he may have cut off your head.”

This has to be one of the best examples of the imperial mind at work as in -it’s the fault of the savages who don’t understand (because they are savages and therefore incapable of understanding) the rules of the game that we are forced to use these barbaric weapons.

Of course, ever since there have been suspicions that troops have modified their own bullets to produce the same messy effect- a suspicion that was examined at the Saville Inquiry.

The other thing to note is that this particular war demonstrated that the use of the .577/450 bullet in the Martini-Henry rifle was a bit of a disaster in that it would jam as the barrel heated up. So ‘redhot on target’ seems a bit odd given that if the rifle was ‘redhot’ then it wouldn’t actually work. This particular rifle was a single-shot weapon which could (at best) fire 12 rounds per minute so it is unlikely that ‘redhot’ refers to the speed of fire.

In response to a previous post on this, one commentator suggested that Hill has more than a degree of guilt about the fact that he didn’t serve in combat and that his frequent references to the two world wars are a means of compensation for him. I have to confess that I was a bit sceptical about this at the time but this particular verse does have more than a smattering of Boys’ Own derring-do about it. We are taken from the whishery-washery of the spears in the body of the corpulent Brits through to the ‘death by numbers’ fiasco in the face of Ardagh’s ‘savage’.

The next verse alludes to the failures of the officer class in this particular debacle and ‘death by numbers’ does seem to encapsulate the way in which the troops were killed although it doesn’t really hold up if you think about it. The battle was more of a rout than a fair fight and if the British had done things ‘by numbers’, i.e. in their normally organised and ruthless way then they wouldn’t have been slaughtered so this particular phrase might refer to the intention rather than to what actually occurred.

It’s the word use that leads me to infer that Hill is excited about this stuff and wants us to be to. There’s an adolescent’s idea of machismo in ‘redhot’, ‘jelk you inside out’ and the whishery washery of the spears which is more than a little odd in one of our finest poets. Of course any combat soldier will tell you that there is lots of fear and very little excitement in the midst of battle but that doesn’t seem to bother Hill…

On the next occasion I’ll attempt to move from ballistics to the officer class….

Odi Barbare poem VI (pt 2)

On the last occasion I had an extended struggle with the first verse of this poem. I’m now going to try to make further progress with the rest. Here are the first two verses together:

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.

When dealing with the first verse I speculated that Hill might be using ‘laureate’ in the sense that John Skelton used it to describe himself. I now feel a little vindicated as I’ve just come across this from Poem 95 of ‘Speech! Speech!- “…………..Skelton Laureate / was a right rapper: outdance you with your shades / any day…..” I’ll skim gracefully over the image that this conveys and just note that Hill has used the word in its older sense before and it might be useful to bear in mind that Skelton and Hill received recognition from Oxford University.

There now needs to be a slight digression with regard to beating spears. The British cultural landscape is littered with many things, in particular with many attempts to cling to our noble and imperial past. Within that landscape there is a film called ‘Zulu’ which makes great use of the spear beating on shields covered in hide motif. To those of a certain age (me) this is a Significant Childhood Memory because it was very very scary and underlined how strange and difficult some of our imperial subjects could be. And I know that ‘Zulu’ is about Rourke’s Drift and that the later ‘Zulu Dawn’ was about the Battle of Isandlwana which is the subject of this poem.

It will be appreciated that the second verse is much more accessible than the first but probably more troubling because of what it appears to say. Incidentally I can’t tie Disraeli into the italicised quote and the DNB informs me that he was prime minister at the time (1879) but had oaid little attention to African affairs until this defeat and that his primary concern about the defeat was the detrimental effect it had on the nation’s credibility.

I was going to confidently assert that Hill makes no other mention of the Anglo-Zulu War but then I noticed this in Poem 6 of ‘Speech! Speech!’:

.................But surely that's
not all? Rourke's Drift, the great-furnaced
ships off Jutland? They have their own
grandeur, those formal impromptus played
on instruments of the period (speech! speech!)

Incidentally, obtaining a copy of Ann Hassan’s recent and very detailed commentary on ‘Speech!’ has led me to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding re-reading of the poem. What I think I need to do here is note a similar use of musical terms.

Hill’s feelings about Empire are more complex than simple nostalgia, it’s fair to suggest that he views the ‘loss’ of Empire after 1945 as a Bad Thing but also harbours few illusions as to its many and varied barbarities. Whilst this Little Englander aspect of Hill’s politics is now hopelessly out of touch, it should be remembered that the British Empire was a very real entity during his childhood and there are many of his generation (my father included) who find it difficult to reconcile fighting and winning the Second World War only to ‘lose’ our imperial possessions.

We now come to the bee-analogy, that the (iconic) beating of the shields makes a murmuring noise and then builds to be like the buzzing of swarming and angry bees. From memory, the filmic shield beating was more percussive than murmuring although one of the other lasting themes is the sheer number of warriors and how these did seem to ‘swarm’ into battle. For this reason I’m not entirely clear whether this is Hill’s imagination or a synopsis of the movie.

The end of the verse is odd and probably sounds better than it should. It’s not clear whether it is the troops or their adversaries who are overcome by torpor although it is much more likely to refer to the troops. The battle was a fiasco, Wikipedia tells me that “while all the officers and NCOs carried rifles, only one in 10 in the ranks was armed with a muzzle-loading musket with limited ammunition[51][52] and many of them started to leave the battlefield at this point” which would seem to indicate paralysis as a result of incompetence rather than an the beating of shields. I rarely argue with Hill with regard to word choice but isn’t torpid better than the noun? Doesn’t torpor signal some degree of poetic affectation?

Neither is it abundantly clear what ‘almost’ refers to – should we read ‘almost become torpor’ or ‘almost blood self-enthralling? Or are we meant to read it both ways? This problem would be helped enormously if I fully understood the last line. ‘Self’ is a very big word for Hill who has borrowed the idea/principle of ‘selving’ from Hopkins and it is never used lightly- it usually signals that there’s something deep or profound going on. Turning to ‘entrhalling’, the OED has these definitions for ‘enthrall’;

  • to reduce to the condition of a thrall; to hold in thrall; to enslave, bring into bondage;
  • to ‘enslave’ mentally or morally. Now chiefly, to captivate, hold spellbound, by pleasing qualities.

So, the troops could be said to be held spellbound and torpid by the noise of the shields or it is their blood that is enslaved. This doesn’t work because of ‘self’ which might suggest the soldiers and their officers being lulled into a false sense of superiority. The historical record doesn’t suggest that there was a lot of torpor on either side, the British were both outnumbered and out-manoeuvred prior to being slaughtered- which is the subject of the next three verses.

So does ‘self-enthrall’ make sense? It could be argued that we might need to consider all of the poem before a judgement can be made but this verse is a sentence and even poetic sentences should carry some meaning. I have tried to explore the possibilities and to take into account the importance of ‘self’ but it does seem that this particular line sounds much better than it is.

One final question- is it really okay (even if you are a knight of the realm) to equate black African warriors with insects?

Odi Barbare Poem VI- a question (pt 1)

I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.

In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.

Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.

The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.

This is the first verse of Poem VI:

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

The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.

The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.

Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.

With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:

  • reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
  • put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
  • give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
  • give instructions or information to;
  • shorten, abbreviate, abridge.

None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.

The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.

Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.

Struggling with Geoffrey Hill

I’ve been paying some attention to ‘Odi Barbare’ and I’m having problems and this isn’t due to the obscurity of the references but more to do with working out what is being said. This doesn’t normally occur with Hill’s work because I can usually find a point of entry that leads to the rest of the poem. I readily accept that I may be having an ‘off’ week but I don’t think this is the case because I’m reading other ‘difficult’ stuff without too many problems.

This is odd because I do want to like this collection and the few poems that I can grasp are very good. I’m also minded of Hill’s interview with The Economist where he responded to the charge of difficulty by saying that he often doesn’t understand the poems either as well as his view that poems should be both technically efficient and beautiful.

In order to show where I’m having problems, I’m going to use individual stanzas from a range of poems rather than one whole poem because this obduracy does seem to run through the sequence. The first is the third stanza from Poem III:


Something scarce-caught: instance we have abiding,
As with first love there are other windows;
Infinite starlight yet a key to purpose
Stark beyond hazard.

Of course it can be argued that I’ve ripped this out of context but the rest of the poem doesn’t help much. My point here is that this is a single sentence and that we ought to be able to grasp what it might be saying. The first line refers to something that is not often caught and the one that has been caught is waiting for something or lingering over something. The second line is deeply unhelpful – what are these windows and how do the relate to first love? The third line seems to jump into things celestial although starlight isn’t ‘infinite’ and I don’t know how this can be said to unlock or open a purpose which is hard or severe and therefore beyond either being a danger or being threatened by danger.

Context in this instance is even more confusing, the preceding stanza refers to Munchausen Syndrome and the next starts with Tacitus. It’s not a problem of tortured syntax either, the clauses in themselves, as I think I’ve shown, do follow the rules of language but don’t appear to make sense. The windows might be windows to the soul which might be thought of as being exposed during the experience of first love. This love might be romantic love but it might also be love of Christ but this can only be speculation and I still can’t get it to tally with the rest of the sentence.

The next shows Hill in self-referential mode with a degree of arrogance that isn’t particularly attractive. This is the second stanza from Poem XXXVIII:

Mating an absence to a warring presence.
Should have been far otherwise cuts a ragged
Tranche from the zeitgeist - you can quote me on this
Mute attribution.

I’ve come to accept over the years Hill’s penchant for obscurity, mainly because most references in the past have been attributed. In ‘Odi Barbare’ some quotes and references are explained but others are just left, as above, in italics. The only exact match for the above is referring to poor church attendance and as an admiring reader I do find the closing comment unnecessary and not very witty. I like the ‘ragged tranche’ image but I have no idea how it might relate to the quote. The first line is a run on from the previous stanza which contains a brief quote attributed to ‘Clarendon’ which I assume refers to one of Edward Hyde’s histories. I may be overly-sensitive in this regard but there’s something unpleasant about the ‘you can quote me quip. This again is odd because I’m not usually offended when Hill seems intent on being offensive.

I’ll finish with the third stanza from Poem LI:

Finally said, mine is the entertainment.
Charge you maintain justice not meretricious.
If we meet each other in Hell it's not hell.
You here means him though.

I think I need to point out that I’m of the view that bafflement is a good thing, that we can appreciate poetry without having a complete grasp on meaning and/or authorial intent. I also think that arguments about obscurity and readability aren’t useful when thinking about this kind of material that requires several attentive readings. I am however very wary of stuff that appears to be cleverer or more profound than it is. The third sentence with the upper and lower case ‘h’ might fall into this category whilst the last is simply beyond me.

All of this I’d be happy to overlook if I could get some purchase on more than three or four (there are 52) but then again it may be that I’m not giving this sequence the right kind of attention. I do hope so.

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.

Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare

Some of us have been worried about Geoffrey Hill, his ‘Oraclau’ was really very bad for all kinds of reasons whilst his pattern poems in ‘Clavics’ caused different kinds of concerns which were more about form than content. His new found productivity (seven poems per week) has also led me to be worried about a consequent drop in quality. This new collection (available from Clutag for £15) is a sequence that uses the ‘Sapphic’ verse form throughout which isn’t as constraining as the George Herbert imitations in ‘Clavics’ or whatever was going on in ‘Oraclau’.

What follows is a set of initial impressions which are not properly thought through and I reserve the right to change my mind at a later stage. The first thing to say is that this is dense material, this is not the stuff of one-off, drive-by readings. Even if you are a polymath and familiar with the full range of references then you will nevertheless be pulled up by some of the phrasing and trains of thought.

There are a number of new developments and one or two themes/issues are given another airing but in more complex ways- the reader is given less help with what is being alluded to, Hill’s critics make a reappearance but in a different way, there is concern about the fate of the soul which Hill informed the Economist recently has been an ongoing theme throughout his long career. Obscure characters are used without further elaboration and quotes are signalled (mostly) by italics but not referenced.

Time to get to some specifics- set out below is what I see as the salient features and one that is simply odd:

Plato

He makes many appearances by name and by adjective, the Symposium and the cave are also featured. I can’t recall Hill using a philosopher so frequently in any previous collection. The references aren’t what I would describe as crystal-clear this is the last verse from the second poem-

Virgil loves bees by the way as Plato
In the (em)Symposium on immortal being
What price this verdict to regrouping nature's
Plenary sessions?

And this is the second verse from Poem VII:

Far-fetched, high-priced, ever-dissembling Plato
Daring unloved truth by design Socratic;
Thing about caves, powers, inebriations:
Man, who ya tellin?

I’ll leave the use of the demotic until later but would wish to point out that access isn’t helped by ‘this verdict to regrouping’ and is ‘design Socratic’ anything more than poetic pretension?

Format

There are fifty two poems in the sequence (if it is a sequence) and each poem consists of six verses in the Sapphic form which has three longer lines followed by one of just 5 syllables. The majority of these verses are single sentences, there are very few that run on to the next. The effect of this is at times that of reading stand-alone maxims in the manner of the later Wittgenstein but without the intellectual strength/depth. I’m sure that this isn’t the intention but this is how I’m beginning to read. Clutag provides a paragraph on the format, the first part of which is- “In the present sequence Hill uses the ‘Sapphic’ verse-form – ‘re-cadencing’ the example of Sir Philip Sydney”- one of the collection’s two epigraphs is taken from Cleophila’s song in ‘The Old Arcadia’. The other is from ‘The Aenid’.

Word choice

Every poet has unusual or obscure words that are frequently deployed across a number of poems and Hill is no exception, here we have a number of old favourites-

  • limbeck;
  • flamen;
  • ejaculations (in the spiritual/mystical sense);
  • rhetor;
  • self as a prefix (self-gathered, self-hounding, unself-stabilising etc).
  • maugre;

There are on this occasion a number of unusual words that I don’t think have been used before:

  • anacolutha;
  • aggro;
  • untasered;
  • occultation;
  • prank, prankdom;
  • shade-wrangled;
  • clarimote;
  • sunfleck;
  • apatheia;
  • threnos;
  • spavined;
  • comb-rhombing;

These are taken from the first twenty nine poems and probably aren’t entirely correct being simply a list of words that I haven’t consciously come across in Hill’s work before. I’ve omitted some words from the first list that I’d need to check- ‘grimpen’ for example which feels like it should be a Hill word but may not be. The point is that the sequence contains a high number of unusual words that he hasn’t used before. I accept that ‘shade-wrangled’ may be the sort of conceit that poets do but the rest seem to indicate that any concessions to his readership have diminished.

A shortish note on meaning.

I’ve noticed that a couple of blogs have taken the plunge and started to identify themes and meanings, this is useful for the rest of us but I’m going to refrain from that kind of analysis or quest for meaning for the moment because I want to become more familiar with what’s being said and I also mindful of the statement in the Economist that he has difficulty understanding what it is that he’s trying to say. My initial reaction is that there might not be too much sequence going on in that there doesn’t seem to be a connecting thread but this could be down to insufficient attention thus far on my part but it does seem to jump about a lot.

A longer note on difficulty.

As with the latest Prynne, I can see that this is going to take up a lot of time and that this will be immensely enjoyable. In fact, I’ll venture to suggest at this early stage that this may be one of Hill’s finest collections because of the way that language is put to use and the absence of concessions or compromise. Perhaps this is an entirely personal foible but I’m beginning to make a case for less compromise leading to higher quality with the greater degree of difficulty being the price to pay. The proviso that I’d need to insert is that the skill of the poet really does need to be up to the task.

People and events

Apart from Plato, Ezra Pound gets several mentions in different guises as do Virgil, Horace and a range of ‘lesser’ characters from antiquity. God isn’t such an obvious presence but the Old Testament and OT stories are. There’s a poem about the Zulu War and a lot of nods towards all things Tudor with less emphasis on the English Civil War (or whatever the latest phrase for it is). There’s also moments of tenderness addressed to a lover and fitting reflections on his career. Hannah Arendt gets four lines and the horrors of the 20th century are never far away. The usual suspects, Goldengrove, Yeats, Ruskin, Bradley all get glances but not much more as far as I can tell. McTaggart also makes a comeback- see below.

Oddness

Poem XXXI has this as the second verse:

Google my old blind of Platonics with Mc-
Taggart's mystic corpulence deemed endearing.
Sentiment grown wholly at one with logic,
Durance feints passes.

I first read this a few days ago and immediately blushed because I have been known to deem Hill’s bad-tempered grumpiness as ‘endearing’. I’ve now googled every single possible permutation on Hill, his response to McTaggart et al in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and the ‘e’ word and have come to the reluctant and quite disturbing notion that this endearing is a bebrowed endearing. Given the above I have to say that the last line is beyond me but I think that the grumpiness and the bad temper referred to was also in the context of Hill’s politics and his scathing anger at what passes for contemporary political discourse. As I’m not comfortable with this, I’d be very grateful if readers could point me to other web use of the e word in this context….

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).

Mainstream Poetry and the ecumenical view – Tom Paulin and Anne Stevenson

For a variety of reasons I’ve just spent some time with the mainstream and this odd experience has given rise to some thoughts about what Chris Goode recently described as my ecumenical position with regard to poetry in the UK.

This position, which was more about being ‘against’ factions rather than for everybody suddenly liking and respecting the work of everybody else has now boiled down to a disdain for bad-tempered and ill-judged attacks from one side of the fence to the other. This is compounded by the nature of the fence which is both ill-defined and mobile.

So, the best place to start is with a definition. This is unlikely to strike a chord with anyone else but makes sense to me. Mainstream poetry is characterised by a less convoluted use of syntax, a ‘sense’ that is reasonably clear after two or three (at most) attentive readings and is profoundly cagey about the obscure and/or the intellectual. In terms of subject matter, most of it seems to be taken up with what Michael Drayton once referred to as the “ah, me” type of versifying which seems to have been the most consistent theme of British poetry since the start of time.

The other disturbing and quite recent trend in the mainstream is to be quite arch in tone which may be pleasing to some but which I find to be an affected way of not saying very much.

I stopped reading any kind of contemporary poetry about fifteen years ago because the mainstream bored me, I viewed the Cambridge faction as hopelessly elitist and Geoffrey Hill scared me to death. I immersed myself in all things Spenser, Milton and Marvell which has been immensely rewarding. My recentish acquaintance with Hill and the Cambridge / Brighton / Adorno / vaguely leftist, dialectical faction has re-affirmed my faith in what’s going on now but that doesn’t mean that I like all of what the latter group produce, there are some poets that I find as dire and dismal as those in the mainstream even though their ideological and intellectual credentials may be impeccable.

I can however see the ‘point’ of what Hill, Prynne, Sutherland et al are trying to do whereas I tend to struggle with what appears to be the wilful smugness of the mainstream.

Just before Xmas I gave some money to Clutag because their latest edition of ‘Archipelago’ contains four poems from Hill’s forthcoming ‘Odi Babare’. I’ll write about these in the New Year but the other poets in this edition are fully paid up members of Establishment poetry (Motion, Oswald, Jenkins etc) and I read these with interest. There are two significant findings-

1. Whatever Geoffrey Hill is, he isn’t in any way connected to the mainstream. His poems stand out like sore thumbs in comparison to the rest. There are also much much more entertaining, powerful and technically efficient.

2. The mainstream still fails to hold my attention, I tried really hard to like the Alice Oswald poem but after three readings decided that it was cleverly empty but not clever enough to be impressively empty.

I also bought pamphlets by Tom Paulin and Anne Stevenson which went some way to redressing the above. I read Paulin up to the mid-nineties and then lost interest because he seemed to be free-wheeling and not giving his talent the prod that it needed. This pamphlet is called ‘The Camouflage School’ and it contains one poem that is very good indeed. ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ is about the desperate voyages made by merchant ships across the North Atlantic in the Second World War. It holds my attention because of its tone, the things it has to say and (most importantly) its use of ordinary language to say complex things-

your ship a heavy warehouse
its bridge a watchtower
- in it you feel exposed
like leading always with your chin
while the sea is a great lens
watching us till the storms
we crave burl and wrap us
from the U-boat's single eyes
or the sea is flat like a desert
a desert that watches us
as we wait to be wounded

It’s a long poem (14 pages) and it holds my attention because of lines like ‘like leading always with your chin’ and the use of images like wanting to be burled and wrapped in a storm (whilst still leading with the chin). It’s an accomplished ans striking piece of work yet it meets the above ‘criteria’ for the mainstream in every aspect.

The other poems are less successful and it might be argued that I have a soft spot for memorialisation poems but I think it shows that the mainstream can’t be entirely written off.

Stevenson and Paulin have Elizabeth Bishop in common, both have written eloquently about her and Stevenson’s ‘Lament for the Makers’ contains a reference to the first letter that she wrote to Bishop in the mid sixties. The poem is a sequence, the first part being ‘about’ Peter Redgrove and the second relates to other poets that Stevenson has known or admired.

I’m not usually terribly keen on poems about poetry but this one is sustained and accomplished with very few naff notes. The three line stanza is used throughout. This is the end of the first poem-

A last, late finger of grace
still brightens far reaches
of a barbarous empire

lyrically and lovingly.
Most of what we write
time will erase.

It’s also a dream sequence in the finest medieval tradition- this is Stevenson waking at the end of the first sequence-

Then the crowd suddenly rose-
a blizzard of insects,
so many I could not believe

fame had undone so many,
blinding me,
battering my hair and mouth.

I lay in an agony
of just-woken tears
accepting those stings like kisses.

Anybody who doesn’t recognise the value in this has no soul, is unable to recognise the honesty and intelligence of the above lines, is blind to the inherent worth of self-consciously writing within the broad river of English verse. To dismiss work such as these two poems because of a factional or ideological ‘position’ is just as facile as those who level the charge of obscurity and elitism.

I’m not advocating a neutrality towards poetic value, not suggesting that we accept the dire and the dismal on either side of the fence but am tentatively suggesting that direct, straightforward poems don’t have to be bad poems.

Both pamphlets are available from Clutag at a very reasonable £10 each.