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.