Geoffrey Hill does Wales (oddly).

And Pete Townsend.

Last year Clutag Press published ‘Oraclau | Oracles’ by Geoffrey Hill. The flyleaf tells me that this is one of five collections completed since the publication of the ‘Treatise’ collection was published in 2007. In a longish review in the TLS, Damian Walford Davies tells me that Hill has ‘responded delightedly to the discovery of his Welsh ancestry, recently uncovered by a professional genealogist’. He describes the collection as ‘Hill’s testing of Welsh cultural waters, an invocation of a cloud of Welsh witnesses that both enable and frustrate his coming to terms with a more-than-elective new identity.’ Unusually, I don’t want to argue too much with this description, nor do I wish to address the rhyme issue as I’ve commented on this in a previous post. I do however want to share some provisional view of the collection and where it might ‘fit’ with the rest of Hill’s output.

The first adjective that comes to mind is ‘uneven’ in that some things are done very well and some others probably shouldn’t have been done at all. The second adjective is ‘odd’ in that there’s a strange choice of subject matter that isn’t much helped by the form that the collection takes. ‘Oraclau’ consists of 144 nine-line stanzas some of which are grouped together as longer poems. Thus we have thirteen consecutive stanzas entitled “Welsh Apocalypse” and a group of untitled consecutive stanzas on the Welsh coal industry. There’s also the frequent use of Welsh words even though Hill acknowledges that he doesn’t speak the language.

Some of the oddness is startling, there’s three stanzas in memory of B S Johnson (who wasn’t Welsh), the last of which contains the lines “Cheering splash ghastly spumante / to mark your self trashed span”. ‘Spumante’ is used to rhyme with ‘the ante’ in the first line. As someone who has thought a lot about suicide in the fairly recent past, I’m not sure how to respond to this but would query whether ‘self trashing’ is more than a little unpleasant in a gratuitous and sneering kind of way.

Then there’s the question of form and whether this kind of self-limiting is actually good for Hill. There’s more than a few of these stanzas where the last line feels as if it’s been put together in a bit of a rush because it’s line number 9 and that’s where the stanza has to end.

To give an example of what I’m trying to say, here’s the last four lines of stanza 26:

Intensely focused crowing atop spires
To what light is; a glaze between great flares;
The sun arraying in the brittle llyn
A limbeck of itself or of the moon

I’m prepared to overlook ‘brittle llyn’ because of the Welsh focus but I can’t get over the weakness of ‘or of the moon’ which is limp and inadequate to what precedes it and feels as if it’s been stuck in because it’s the end of the last line and something had to ‘fit’.

To be fair, some stanzas a remarkable and manage to end in a way that does justice do the rest but there’s enough that don’t to be of concern. The TLS review describes the various personalities that are honoured in this sequence so I’ll make a few observations that pertain to more general themes.

There’s an underlying anxiety about mortality and still having a lot of work to do before death arrives. The love poem ‘Hiraeth’ is a very personal statement and not at all the kind of thing that we’ve come to expect from Hill. he also pokes fun from time to time at his own seriousness. ‘I’d say that metaphysical acrostics, / Rightly taken, are as good as joss sticks’.

There’s also a more overt (to my mind anyway) emphasis on the more mystical frontiers of Christianity. This has always been present but it seems to run more noticeably through ‘Oraclau’.

Having been made painfully aware of my ignorance of all things Welsh by David Jones, I have made some attempt to make myself more familiar with the history and culture. I therefore have to wonder how the Welsh will feel about this ‘celebration’. There are a number of well-worn subjects put in to play, we have Nye Bevan, LLoyd George, Tredegar, the mines, slate at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The selection of some of this ‘Welshness’ is inevitably personal and subjective but I think I’d have welcomed something that tried to move away from the cartoon that most of us have in our heads. I’d also like to lament the absence of R S Thomas’ Iago Prytherch who has remained in my head as the epitome of what it was to be Welsh and poor in the twentieth century.

So is this a disappointment? For those of us who were expecting something to match the quality of ‘Treatise’ then it probably is. The last run of shortish stanzas in ‘Speech! Speech!’ is more successful and perhaps shows that 12 lines rather than 9 are better suited to Hill’s style. The collection isn’t as consistently weak as ‘Without Title’ although I must confess to becoming more forgiving of the ‘Pindarics’ which take up so much of that book.

Pete Townsend gets one mention in connection with Hopkins and Purcell (and his ‘tone-haunted ear’) and thus becomes the second sixties guitar hero to appear in Hill’s work. I’m taking bets on who will be next – the obvious front runners being Clapton and Beck but I’m open to other suggestions.

The other thing of note is the number of neologisms that occur and the other near-liberties that Hiull takes with the language- ‘disprody’ and ‘disrecreating’ being two that spring to mind. This is sometimes effective but can become annoying especially when other words would suffice.

There are also stanzas that are utterly remarkable and make me smile a lot – I’ll finish with the last two and a half lines of the 53rd stanza which is entitled ‘*******’;

………………….The humble unmeek
Swept up by some post-facto land-reclaiming
The Day of Judgement will do its flame-thing.

I would suggest that anyone who fails to see the brilliance and wonder in this simply has no soul.

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11 responses to “Geoffrey Hill does Wales (oddly).

  1. Hmm, not sure you’ve inspired me to follow up and read this book. In your example “Cheering splash ghastly spumante / to mark your self trashed span”, there’s even a further offense against taste — “ghastly” is pretty clearly a joke on “Asti”. (At least he’s not talking about a red fizzy wine, which would be worse still.)

  2. And the motivation for that ‘joke’ is more than a little suspect. I’d only read it if you’ve got a real interest in what he does, otherwise it’s annoyingly odd. I’ll probably feel the need to expand on this when I’ve worked out why it annoys me so much.

  3. Without Title is better than the ’07 Treatise.

  4. what’s your email?

  5. nathaniel drake carlson

    FWIW, and as a Hill fan as well, I’d like to hear the argument behind this one myself. If you’d rather keep the details out of the comments here my email is noveltyvalue@hotmail.com. Hope to hear from you.

    • Briefly, the argument goes was that Hill was very good until he got treatment for his mental health condition (at or about ‘The Triumph of Love) and things went rapidly downhill after that. This isn’t a view that I share and there are a number of posts setting out why but I’ll e-mail a more detailed view in the near future.

  6. If there are, I think they need to have ‘better’ defined for them.

  7. Think I’ll do a list of my rankings of all the work to date and my reasons for (for example) ranking “Without Title” close to the bottom which would currently be occupied by “Oraclau” for hopefully obvious reasons. Thinking this through in a slightly more coherent vein- with Hill ‘better’ may equate to ‘less self-indulgent / regarding’ but I’ll throw this thought around before putting forward a serious case.

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