Prynne and Hill have many things in common, both have taught at Cambridge, Hill is only four years older than Prynne, both admire Paul Celan and both write poetry that is said to be difficult. They are also the two most important poets in the English language.
If ‘difficult’ means that they write poems that require more than 30 seconds’ attention, then they are clearly difficult. I would argue that ‘difficult’ isn’t a particularly useful term and that we should use ‘complex’ and ‘absorbing’ instead. Both Prynne and Hill are important because they challenge the safe mediocrity that passes for English poetry these days and because they remind us of the possibilities of language.
I’m much more familiar with Hill than I am with Prynne but it has taken four years to achieve an understanding of what Hill may be about. This has been an immensely rewarding experience helped along by frequent reference to the OED, DNB and Wikipedia. I like to know the politics of the poets that I like and Hill has described himself as a hierarchical Tory and a 19th Century Red Tory. I take him to mean members of the Ultra Tory faction that aligned themselves with Cobbett at various points during the 1830s. In 2009 this is obviously a minority position to take but it does give a flavour of Hill’s eccentricity.
Both Prynne and Hill are critical of the money markets. Such vilification has a long and noble history in English politics – we all like to castigate those who appear to do very little for their wealth but Prynne especially goes for knee jerk easy options rather than presenting a more nuanced analysis. In ‘News of the Warring Clans’ he has a go at option trading in this manner and in ‘The Oval Windows’ he has a more obscure go at the manipulation and control of economic data which he describes as ‘work makes free logic’. Work makes free was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz and is a phrase that shouldn’t really be used lightly. There is a huge gap between the workings of capitalism and the eliminationist impulse that motivated the Nazis. This aside, Prynne does redeem himself with ‘Refuse Collection’ which is his response to the atrocities committed at Abu Grhaib, a searing indictment of western imperialism and one of the best political poems that I’ve ever read.
Starting to read Prynne can be a daunting experience wherea Hill is intimidating. Prynne is daunting because of the use of words- ‘shut inch’, ‘tree glide’ are examples of the kinds of phrases that I’ve been engaging with in recent weeks which I find oddly involving. Hill is intimidating because of the breadth of his references. ‘Triumph of Love’ is the only poem that I know of to contain reference to both Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault. These aren’t particularly obscure but the are others that are (the Lawes brothers, Hallgrimur Petursson, Immelmann to name but three) which is why Wikipedia and the DNB are so helpful.
One difference between the two is in the use of foreign phrases, Hill tends to translate these as he goes along within the poem whereas Prynne doesn’t. My poor French can make sense of the phrases in that language but I can’t do this with the German. I’m also a bit concerned at the almost random way that Prynne uses French phrases when there are perfectly adequate English ones available.
In terms of the work, I would nominate ‘Mercian Hymns’, ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘ Scenes from Comus’ as the finest of Hill’s output, I would nominate ‘Brass’, ‘News of the Warring Clans’, ‘Word Order’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ for Prynne.
What I’m also grateful for is that both have broadened my horizons. Reading Prynne has led to Charles Olson (a revelation), Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley which has caused e to be more sympathetic to American poetry. Reading Hill has led to Hopkins, Southwell and Henry Vaughan. I still don’t like Hopkins but Hill has made me work out why.
Both poets have written poems dedicated to Celan and Celan looms large in their work. Prynnes technique of using words that have multiple meanings and of putting words together in odd ways is redolent of Celan at his best. Hill makes the most direct reference to Celan in ‘The Orchards of Sion” where he has several goes at translating ‘atemwende’ and then speculates about Celan’s taste in women. All of this feels a bit gratuitous.
Who is the best? This depends on what you want poetry to do, if we wish to be reminded of the complexity of reality then Prynne is your man. If we want poems to remind us of our moral obligations and the importance of the natural world then Hill is way out in front. There can be no denying that these two are writing poetry that puts the rest in the shade.