Geoffrey Hill and language

This again is an interim report on Hill’s critical writings. It must be said that there are aspects of Hill’s thinking that are attractive to me. He dislikes Sylvia Plath’s “cruel psychopathologising”  of her dead father and Robert Lowell’s use of personal letters about the break up of his marriage. He makes the arch observation that there is no automatic parity between the depth of the suffering and the quality of a poem.

My issue with Plath and  Lowell is somewhat different, Plath can write about her dead father if she wants to but she should not have infllicted  her mental illness on the rest of us because mental illness isn’t interesting. She may be guilty of cruel psychpathologising but the greater sin is in thinking that the state of her mental health is worth expressing in a poem. It isn ‘t, so I’m arguing on the grounds of taste whereas Hill is using morality to make a similar point.

The situation with Lowell is a  little more complex. Hill clearly feels that Lowell’s earlier poetry is much better than the later works. I would find it hard to dissent from this and would point to “The  Mills of the Kavanaghs” as his finest poem. The use of the letters is a well-worn battleground and I am surprised that Hill chooses this rather than Lowell’s use of the confessional mode  in general to condemn.  The persistent throwaway references to being unwell belie a man who excuses his sins and then expects te rest of us to forgive him. “Skunk Hour”  is an example of a vastly overrated poem with a malevolent vein running right through it. In short, I’d be happier if Hill had criticised Lowell for being a weak poet and for giving bipolar a worse name than it already has.

The essay ‘Language, Suffering and Silence’ also contains this:

“I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming a) that the shock of a semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor but far from trivial types, b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth centur require a memorialising, a memorising of the dead as much as, or even more than, ‘expressions of solidarity with the poor and the oppressed’.

Hill goes on to suggest that the best way solidarity can be expressed is by the giving of alms and quotes Hopkins extolling the virtues of alms-giving to Robert Bridges.

This paragraph took my breath away when I first read it and I was instantly ready to sign up to the G Hill Church of poetic endeavour.  I then read it again and the doubts began to creep in. Semantic shock is very much what poetry should be about because poetry frees us up to inflict these shocks upon the reader and thus to encourage a different was of looking at the world. Semantic shock being also ethical shock is much more problematic, I can only think of Paul Celan who achieves this, and places an immense burden on the shoulders of verse.  As for this being the action of grace, I’m afraid that Hill is ascribing too much importance to the creative  act.

With regard memorialising the dead over expressing solidarity with the oppressed, Hill has written many in memoriam poems in his career and that’s all well and good but I don’t think it should stop the rest of us expressing solidarity if we want to. I’m against the self-pitying misery school of poetry but I have no problem with poems that are politically engaged and engaging.

One more point, in ‘Translating Value’ Hill quotes himself:

“A poet who possesses   such near-perfect pitch is able to sound out his own conceptual discursive intelligence……[He]  is hearing words in depth and is therefore hearing, or sounding, history and morality in depth.”

Hearing words in depth encapsulates what we should all be trying to do but very, very few actually achieve. I think Hill here has hit the poetic nail on the head.

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7 responses to “Geoffrey Hill and language

  1. Mental illness isn’t interesting? If you take it from the point of view of Cousin Eddy, who is yet again telling you about the phobia he’s developed to Swiss cheese, maybe it’s not interesting, but the relation between the ‘mind’ (forgive the quotes) and the world it’s in is interesting, for of course the mind isn’t an autonomous structure reflecting the world—isolated from the world—it is something closer to a ‘situated self’ and the situation it’s in—the social issues, the existential issues—I think is interesting, and insofar as the poet can be expected to be especially articulate about them, their poems should be interesting as well. Are Plath and Lowell especially articulate? Well, I think I would go back and look at Christopher Smart if I were getting into this seriously. (Didn’t he have a cat named Geoffrey?) I can’t say I’ve read much Geoffrey Hill. I know he has a new book of essays—read them instead of the poems? I’ll read some more of your stuff when I get the chance.

    • It’s not that the self in relation to the world isn’t interesting nor that altered perceptions with regard to being situated in the world don’t have merit but I do get weary of the way that some poets flaunt their condition as being something special and exotic. Being mentally ill is experienced as either fundamentally mundane or terrifying but there’s nothing creative or poetic about it. Have a look at Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour’ as an example of a good poet using mental illness to bad ends.
      As for Hill, his criticism is extremely dense but it has led me to change my practice as a writer and awakened an interest in writers that I’ve overlooked (Henry Vaughan, Isaac Rosenberg, T H Green etc) which can’t be bad.
      I’d recommend starting with the poetry, either ‘Comus’ or ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’.

  2. While I’ve not read a lot of Lowell, and can’t honestly say I find him interesting, I am familiar with Skunk Hour, and I disagree: emerging from the poem’s surrounding banalities of skunks and love boats (okay, cars) is this line: ‘My mind’s not right’. It has lived in my mind for many years and is a modest miracle, I think—surely the poem circulates around it, as something that has floated to the surface amid the seemingly significant, and seemingly symbolic, detail of the poem, which is also the detail and distraction of the poet’s consciousness, an emerging insight that no one wants to have. In short, I don’t think Lowell is being Cousin Eddy here, though he skirts close to being so.
    I go to the library tomorrow for some Geoffrey Hill. Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. I think you’ve got to take into account both ‘my mind’s not right’ and the stanza that comes after the confession of voyeurism in relation to the cars-
    A car radio bleats,
    “Love, O careless love…” I hear
    my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell
    as if my hand were at its throat….
    I myself am hell;
    Nobody’s here-

    I started reading Lowell when I was thirteen, more than forty years ago and, like him I’m bipolar. His early stuff still resonates with me but this constant bleating about being ill really gets in the way. In the passage quoted above he seems to be trying to justify dubious behaviour by letting us know that he isn’t very well and he tries to make this not being well sound exotic and grandiose (my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell). The whole stanza is superfluous to the poem and why does he qualify I with myself? The point about embodying hell was a cliche in the seventeenth century and has been ever since. So, while the poem has its merits, I think that the above spoils it and that he should have left it at “My minds not right”

  4. I took some time today to re-read Skunk Hour, think about it a little. The poem neither seems as bad as you make it out, nor as good as I remembered. ‘Nautilus Island’s hermit/ heiress’ is as good as remembered. On a word level, it stretches the tongue and the mind and it sounds a genuine music. The rest of the poem does not live up to this opening chord.
    The most interesting question you raise is the use of the reflexive pronoun in ‘I myself am hell’. Perhaps he means to suggest ‘I made it myself’, or perhaps it is just a self-important inflation of a very juvenile thought, but perhaps it is being used to open our eyes to some scrutiny of the self that is being made. I would have agreed with you prior to reading the poem again today that the narrator is involved in some sort of voyeuristic activity when he climbs the ‘hill’s skull’, and would have said it’s point is to dramatize to the poet that his mind’s not right, out in the dark peering into parked cars with steamed windows, but seeing the cars ‘hull to hull’ suggests he is looking down on them, merely alienated from the youthful sheep, identifying with a mother skunk who ‘will not scare’, a homunculus looking out on the world. The poem takes positions on the self and on that self’s essential nature: being scared. It makes a distinction between ‘scared’ and ‘scare’. Everybody’s scared, and for good reason: one’s dotage looms, mental illness threatens. But not to scare…that’s the thing. Skunk Hour takes us there, via what is, I admit, only modestly accomplished poetry, but it does take us there. The defense rests.
    I was able to get a copy of A Treatise of Civil Power. Quote: Call writing nothing/ but self-indemnity for what is denied it?
    Okay, now the defense rests

    • The prosecution also rests. Thank you for making me think again about a long-held view. Hope you enjoy Treatise.

  5. ‘I would seriously propose a theology of language’ – simply a comment on the critical program Hill is suggesting: introducing a religious examination of language (theology) presupposes the existence of the ‘g/God’ being. This brings useful theoretical tools to oppose the ‘human origin of language’ hypothesis by suggesting that language (not ‘a language’ but language ‘per se’) is of the divine. The next step will be to give meaning back to the religious professionals to decide and litigate over. Sad that someone so attuned to literature should want to hand it all back to some kind of 11th Century Christian orthodoxy.

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