Geoffrey Hill, Clavics and dissonance

I’ve been re-reading Clavics and there’s a couple of conceits that I don’t quite ‘get’. I’m more understanding of the pattern that’s adhered to because Helen Wilcox tells me that this was reasonably common in the 17th century which looms large in the sequence. I’m also more on board with the rhymes and the half-rhymes although I still think that this kind of constraint doesn’t do Hill any favours and I remain relieved that the sequence isn’t anywhere near as naff as ‘Oraclau’.
The stumbling blocks that I have relate to what Hill says about dissonance and the nature of that dissonance together with the varying shades of his persona that Hill portrays. With regard to ‘dissonance’, I’m not at all sure why Hill should justify the inclusion of dissonant lines or phrases by his intention to make his readers ‘wince’. The OED has three definitions of this term:
1. an inharmonious or harsh sound or combination of sounds;
2. (specifically with regard to music) A combination of tones causing beats (cf. beat n.1 8), and thus producing a harsh effect; also, a note which in combination with others produces this effect;
3. Want of concord or harmony (between things); disagreement, incongruity.
These are the first two lines from Poem 11:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.

As I’ve said before, there are a few wince-inducing lines in this sequence, although nowhere near as many as in ‘Oraclau’, and some of these may be deliberately plugged in. I’ll get to these in a moment but the question does have to be asked as to why you would want to be so inept in the first place. I think I’ve recognised and forgiven many of Hill’s foibles in the past but this does seem as if he wants the best of both worlds- the self indulgence to include lazy lines and the arrogance to claim that this is deliberate as if this makes everything okay.

Perhaps I’m missing some really sophisticated and esoteric point but I don’t understand why you would want to do this. I’ve given some consideration to what Keston Sutherland has written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry but I don’t think that this is what Hill has in mind because, unlike Wordsworth, his dissonances don’t even function enough to make sense. I’ll give two examples, the first is from Poem 10:

Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes.
Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.

This is the end of Poem 7;

            You say
Well then
Haul Irony
Upon its rack; refrain
Clavics archaic iron key:
Splash blessings on dead in Afghanistan.

(This is the closest that WordPress lets me get to the pattern as it appears on the page).

Even if the first of these is saying anything (who are these admirers and why do they have to ‘cope’ these requests? etc) then ‘rides’ isn’t a very good word to end on because the softness of the vowel sound tends to drift off. The other odd thing is that I think of ‘ride’ in this sense as being used on the other side of the Atlantic whereas we would usually use ‘lifts’ but perhaps that isn’t naff/inept/dissonant for Hill who would not doubt argue that there is a half-rhyme with ‘odes’.

Moving on to ‘Afghanistan’, this comes at the end of a moving piece on the theme of memorialisation which Hill sees as being a central function of the poetry making business. He does these things very well without becoming either jingoistic or cringingly sentimental and up until the last line things move along quite properly but, to my mind, the dissonance created by the last word fundamentally undermines what has gone before. He might find this amusing (he does know how to end poems properly, he’s spent the last 50+ years ending poems properly)- it isn’t the constraint of the format that is getting in the way because most of the time this is managed reasonably. Perhaps there’s something deep and profound going on that has passed me by but after several attentive readings I get the impression that this is lazy self-indulgence on a grand scale (again).

The Hill persona that’s thrown into Clavics lacks some of the ‘bite’ of previous works. He is unusually gentle on Robert Lowell’s ‘The Dolphin’ which he has previously held up as the antithesis of what poetry should be about. This is an enormous disappointment to those of us who share this view and would expect some scathing polemic. The same can be said for the slightish dig at Dawkins and the gentle refutation of E O Wlison and the notion of consilience which he prefaces by acknowledging that he doesn’t ‘have the science’. He doesn’t have the economics either but that hasn’t stopped him ranting (appropriately) about the more dismal aspects of high finance. I confess that I come to Hill to some extent in expectation of bad-tempered and ill-judged polemic and am disappointed with this mellowing. It is however reassuring to note that the jokes are as bad as ever and that he is still trying to educate us.

Hill has spent the last fifteen years telling us how difficult he finds this poetry making business and this is underlined here although there’s more frequent reference to his age and a sense of his career drawing to a close which doesn’t come across as either self=pitying or unduly sentimental.

I may be wrong but the more pronounced emphasis on mysticism (“By which I mean only mystical / and eccentric though with centrist leanings.”) which is in a similar vein to Sean Bonney’s line about hanging around with Trots. I also get the impression that he wants to tell us about the 17th century for itself but also as a way of telling us about God. Geoffrey Hill continues to do God and the workings of grace very well indeed and again there seems to be a less pointed attitude when God is being done.

All of which is saying that Hill might be mellowing and also taking a bit more pleasure in his poetry making, I just wish he’d edit himself a bit more.

One final thought- I seem to be reading more of the books that Hill reads, this is not intentional but should I be worried?

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4 responses to “Geoffrey Hill, Clavics and dissonance

  1. In Western music, dissonance is essential, and stands traditionally in a highly rule-bound relation to consonance. As Campion puts it in Rose-cheeked Laura,

    These dull notes we singDiscords need for helps to grace them

    But what counts as a dissonance, as opposed to an ineptitude? Campion had clear rules for this in his music — if not in his text — and Hill is even further from such canons.

    • It’s certainly wince inducing and musical dissonance isn’t. The motivation for this, together with the statement of intent continues to mystify me – even though it isn’t as naff as some of the weaker parts of ‘Oraclau’.

  2. This seems relevant.

    FOR SOME TIME NOW

    For several years
    the process by which poetry dies
    has been accelerating.

    I have noticed
    that new verses
    published in the weeklies
    undergo decomposition
    in a matter of two or three hours

    dead poets
    depart more quickly
    living ones
    toss off
    new books
    in a hurry as though
    they wished to stuff a hole with
    paper

    (Tadeusz Różewicz, translated from Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, as appears in The Survivor and Other Poems)

    • I love the conceit around poetry death and the final image which does encapsulate my feelings about all of ‘Oraclau’ and the tossing off involved in the ‘Clavics’ Dissonances. Thank you.

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