J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and their readers

Many months ago I did a reasonably light-hearted piece attempting to compare Prynne and Hill. I now probably regret doing this because it now seems to be more about me than it is about them but I’m trying to think of it as a record of what I once thought.

This is a kind of pared down version focusing on both poets’ attitude towards their readers. I’ve chosen these two because they are the best poets currently writing in English and because this particular aspect might cast a slightly more accented light on their work.

I’ve also been thinking about readerly activity and what (if anything) this may bring to the poem. This was prompted by thinking about what Celan has to say about the ‘encounter’ in his notes to the Meridian but also by Prynne’s observations on one aspect of ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I’ll begin with the assumption that people who publish poetry want their poems to be read and to be responded to, and that Keston Sutherland is correct in observing that poets prefer readers who pay attention to the poems rather than indulge in ‘drive-by’ readings.

The charge of elitist obscurity has been levelled at both Prynne and Hill over the years and this usually implies a degree of contempt/disdain for the ‘ordinary’ reader. I’m going to skip over the dubious notion of ‘ordinary’ and focus first on what Hill has to say in response:

Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.

This is from the Paris Review interview which was published in 2000, I’m taking it that Hill hasn’t changed his mind since then. I’m particularly fond of the robust nature of this response and the entirely accurate observation that everyday life is far more complex and difficult than anything that a poem can be. I’m not entirely clear that the contrast between difficult and accessible has a direct correlation to that between democracy and tyrrany, I’m much more persuaded by the view that simplification tends to lose more than a degree of accuracy.

Of course, as readers and supporters of Hill we are meant to feel more than a little smug because the implication of this is that we are adept/clever enough to grasp the full complexities of what’s being said. I’ll give a personal example, I reckon that I really understand and appreciate Hill’s ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ poem because I’d read her work before reading the poem, this fills me with a warm glow because Hill and I have read the same stuff and have both felt moved and inspired by it regardless of the fact that Gillian Rose is a reasonably obscure figure outside the narrow world of British academia.

There is an argument that goes that everyone should be familiar with Gillian Rose and have read ‘Loves Work’ but this is just as elitist as feeling smug. The ‘life’s difficult’ argument is difficult to refute and we do need poetry and other forms of expression to capture and reflect the full complexity of what goes on. With regard to Hill, I have to question whether the work is actually attempting to capture the full spectrum of his subject matter or whether he is instead using a range of obscure references to back up a rather ‘thin’ argument. It is questionable, for example, whether the inclusion of Thomas Bradwardine in ‘The Triumph of Love’ or Gabriel Marcel in ‘A Precis or Memorandum Of Civil Power’ are sufficiently relevant of whether both are being used for Hill to display his erudition. There is also the possibility that he is trying to educate us in that most references are ‘signposted’ in one way or another.

This isn’t however intended to be a lengthy discussion about elitism but more about how both men present themselves to their readers. The obvious difference is that Hill throws all of himself into his poetry and Prynne doesn’t. At all, ever, in fact Prynne has recently expressed the view that ‘self-removal’ is an essential step in poetry making.

When I worked in the real world, my staff had to do fairly intensive work with people with a range of personality disorders and most of my time was spent ensuring that these workers did not give too much of themselves away because some clients had an uncanny knack of exploiting this information in a number of nefarious ways. Some workers were very good at this and maintained appropriate boundaries whereas others were a complete disaster and had to be rescued from quite bizarre and challenging situations. With this in mind it’s fair to say that Prynne manages his boundaries very well whereas Hill leaps over them with great enthusiasm.

Prynne’s own view of what he does has a self-deprecating tone, anticipating and agreeing with the charge of ‘difficulty’. There is however this telling remark from ‘Poetic Thought’:

So, the poet working with poetic thought requires to activate every part of the process, into strong question where the answer is obscure, or into what looks like strong answer where the question evades precise location. Language will have to keep up with this as best it can, must not be damaged unreasonably but equally must not be sheltered like a
sick child: it can fight its own battles. There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time.

This came as a bit of a shock when I first read it as it seems to carry a degree of personal arrogance and disdain towards those of us who pay attention to his work and then I thought about it in the context of ‘self-removal’ and Prynne’s brief question to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ in ‘To Pollen’ and realised that Prynne isn’t primarily interested in his current reception/reputation but he is writing for posterity, banking on the hope that ‘in due time’ his work will be recognised as work of ‘durable value’.

This isn’t to say that Hill isn’t interested in his ongoing reputation but that he does seem to want a close relationship with his current readership as well, he wants to entertain us with bad jokes, educate us with obscure references (Bradwardine’s writings on the New Pelagians and the fact that one of the boats at Dunkirk was called the ‘Gracie Fields’ are both reasonably obscure, aren’t they?), and he wants us to know about his childhood and the way he feels about his rural poor background. Olson and Matthias do this as well but Hill on occasion gives us more information than we actually want or need.

Some time ago in one of these comment threads Tom Day expressed the view that Hill wants us to like him so that he can then despise us for doing so. I think this is making too many assumptions and takes us into quite murky depths, it may well be correct but I prefer to think that, like may of us with a reputation for being personally ‘difficult’, Hill simply finds it easier to communicate a sense of himself by the written rather than the spoken word.

I also have to say that, as an occasional maker of poetry, I’m more of the Prynne school of self-removal and disregard for readers because I write for myself according to my own idiosyncratic standards and I do know when I’ve written something that accords with those standards and that is the only thing that matters. Unlike Prynne, I’m not writing for posterity but I am writing for me within the scope of poetry. I also recognise that I have this blog where I can choose how much self-disclosure I need to do – there’s also something to be written about the making of verse and the blogging about it and how that feeds into each. I am concerned about how this is received- I’m beginning to get used to having a readership- and I do post the occasional poem but this is more about display than reception.

In terms of posterity, I am more than willing to wager that in fifty years’ time Prynne and Hill (for completely different reasons) will be seen as the major poets of our time. I now see Prynne’s attitude as completely consistent with his refusal to compromise (this is a Good Thing) and I continue to enjoy the relationship that I feel I have with Geoffrey Hill the man as well as the poet.

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3 responses to “J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and their readers

  1. Clearly, Hill’s not endorsing the rhetorical move from “accessibility vs. difficulty” to “democracy vs. elitism” — on the contrary. What’s murkier is the further move from there to “democracy vs. tyranny”, which he makes unprompted rather than attributing it to “people generally”. I think one can make sense of it: the political orders in which art is required to be accessible are either authoritarian (“socialist realism” the model), or extreme and exhaustively market-oriented capitalism. In the American tradition, though lowbrow and crassly capitalist, there has been room for difficult eccentrics — Conlon Nancarrow and Captain Beefheart. (Though Nancarrow went into exile and Beefheart ran his band like a dictator.) Hill’s not making a full argument here, but I agree with him that difficulty doesn’t require authority.

    • I think there’s another problem in that some dictators have argued in complex ways in order to establish a ‘position’ because the disguise of sophistication is needed to mask its genocidal or murderous intent. I’m thinking of Stslin’s meanderings on the ‘middle peasant problem’ in the late twenties and Mao’s infamous speech at Lushan in 1958.
      There’s also an argument that goes – we really should make an effort to be as clear as possible about ‘difficult’ things.

      • Vance Maverick

        Hadn’t considered the question of political speech “proper”. In this domain, of course, there is bad simplicity too — to pick an example currently popular in your country and mine, the argument that when times are bad, the government should economize, just like a household. But yes, there is complexity or indirection as an expression of evil, and an ideal of simplicity in treating of difficult things. But poetry isn’t judged first and only by its persuasive effect, so I don’t think it must be held to that standard.

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