Four new poems from Geoffrey Hill and a CD.

These are published in the latest edition of Archipelago which is the Clutag house journal, the cd is produced by them as well and contains readings from ‘For the Unfallen’ through to ‘Without Title’.

I’ll start with the poems because these are taken from ‘ODI BARBARE’ which will be published this year and they mark a further departure from what I’ve thought of as ‘late’ Hill. This level of oddness started with ‘Oraclau’ in 2010 which was a remarkably unsuccessful celebration of Hill’s newly discovered Welsh ancestry and all things Welsh. The sequence stuck to a form that seemed to ‘strangle’ rather than enhance the poetry. This was followed by ‘Clavics’ a series of pattern poems with more than a nod towards George Herbert, the subjects ranged from the 17th century Lawes and Vaughan brothers to an affinity with Yeats and a defence of mysticism. I felt that this was much more successful but continue to fret about the pattern. If the four poems in Archipelago are representative then the next collection will be equally disconcerting but in a quite different way. It would appear that Hill wants to make us think and wants to entertain us at the same time. This trait has been apparent since ‘Mercian Hymns’ and comes to the fore in ‘The Triumph of Love’ but here it’s given a kind of uncompromising twist. I’m not articulating this very well but that’s because these poems something quite radical going on and I’m intrigued by it because I don’t know what to make of it.

The poems are sequential and numbered XL-XLIII so I’m assuming that this is from a sequence although no other indication is given as to its length. Each consists of six unrhymed quatrains and each of these has three longer lines and ends with a shorter line which is centred. This form/pattern is reasonably generic so it isn’t obvious where this particular ‘nod’ is aimed.

The first poem has a lot of the Welsh in it, some opera and Hopkins and contains this:

Goldengrove notebooks ripped for late bequeathing
Dyscrasy Publike its own gifts to plunder
Hazardings unscathed by the large alignments
Made for survival:

Make believe Merz | might be collage of rip-offs
Bless the mute parlous for our safe bestowings
Meteor showers sign expropriation
Cypress's roof-tree:

It may be that I’m having a dim few days but I am struggling to get the ‘sense’ of the above, I’m aware of Hill’s prior use of the Goldengrove trope and I’ve worked out that ‘Merz’ refers to the work of Karl Schwitters but I do come unstuck with ‘its own gifts to plunder’, ‘the large alignments’ and all of the last three lines quoted above.

I appreciate that each stanza may be a ‘ripped off’ element in the poem which is a collage but there’s a degree of difficulty going on that seems more unyielding than Hill at his most obdurate. I originally thought that I was being confused by what appeared to be ambiguity but this isn’t actually the case although there is the question of whether ‘make believe’ is intended as adjective or verb or both. This isn’t helped by the truism that follows, collage being essentially ‘about’ re-using images ripped off (in both senses) from elsewhere.

I am usually attracted to the difficult and would normally relish this kind of stuff but this isn’t the kind of difficulty that I’m accustomed to from Hill, it seems to be somehow insubstantial, almost as if it’s over-compensating for the not having very much to say. I hope I’m wrong and that the rest of the sequence will make things clearer for me.

I’ve also run through the various defences of difficulty that Hill has put forward over the years (not wishing to insult the intelligence of his readers, life is much more difficult than the most difficult poetry and, most recently, he often fails to reach a definable ‘point’ in his poetry because there are many things that he doesn’t have an answer to).

None of this explains or justifies what seems to be going on here as we have what seems to be refusal to be clear and an insistence on the portentous for its own sake- the poem’s last two lines are “Deep penillion woven to snow’s curled measures / Heard past unhearing.” There’s also the return of | to denote a pause and the deliberately arcane spelling, here we have ‘Swoln’ as well as ‘Publike’- I find all of this mannered and more than a little pretentious. Hill has also started to use a new device, the full stop that occurs half way up the line instead of at the bottom- or it may of course be a colon with only one dot instead of two. This is just as annoying as Neil Pattison’s use of a space between the colon and the end of the word, like : this. I’m thinking of starting a national campaign against this sort of affectation before things get out of hand…

These concerns aside, Geoffrey Hill is one of the two finest poets currently writing in English and these four poems are still miles in front of the vast majority of what passes for poetry on either side of the innovative / mainstream divide. This is the opening of poem XLIII:

Lucrative failing no poor oxymoron
Gravely highlight solo polyphony this
Shagged ur-pragmatism of standup comics
working rejection

The third line could not be written by anyone else and is sufficiently. startlingly brilliant to give me hope for the rest of the sequence.

The CD is a joy and should be played (along with Prynne’s partial Paris reading of ‘To Pollen’) instead of the muzak that currently infects our shops. It is clearly spoken, at an appropriate pace and enhances the poems on the page which in my experience is unusual. Of particular interest is the broadening of range and tone, there are still echoes of poems in ‘For the Unfallen’ and ‘King Log’ in much of the later work. The reading of the first and last parts of ‘Mercian Hymns’ is a particular delight.

This issue of Archipelago contains poems by (amongst others) Andrew Motion, Allan Jenkins and Alice Oswald all of which seem entirely happy in their lack of ambition and bland flabbiness which probably indicates the very low expectations of their readers (discuss).

(In accordance with new central command directive 1-7/dk-3, this has been read and corrected prior to the send button being pushed).

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8 responses to “Four new poems from Geoffrey Hill and a CD.

  1. I didn’t know “penillion”, but it’s a form of Welsh singing — so the pretentiousness in that line, I think, is just the cliche of music being “woven”.

    The stanza is a sapphic, which has been awkward in English with a few notable exceptions. (Even Campion couldn’t make it flow.) The effect here is as though he’s working toward the full-on opacity of Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers.

    • I didn’t know penillion either but if your extensive knowledge of things musical doesn’t cover it then I think my point is made. I think I was probably trying to say ‘full-on opacity’ and I’m grateful for this- which I’ll now steal and put to frequent use.
      A further thought, although I am of the ‘it’s good to be baffled’ faction, this doesn’t begin to make me feel good…

  2. What do you make of the metrical allusion to sappho?

  3. I’ll probably need to see the sequence in full, in the last collection (‘Clavics’) Hill acknowledged using George Herbert as a model for at least part of his patterning. This particular stanzaic form has been used by many since Sappho so it’s difficult without more context. If the rest of the sequence is as opaque as this then I’ll need all the extra help that I can get.

  4. Wikipedia quotes a curious poem of Watts in sapphics — full text here. Something Hill-ish in the rhetoric and impacted figures (plus I don’t think Hill would disavow the religiosity).

    Unrelatedly — what do you make of H.D.? I’ve been reading Trilogy lately, with interest, thinking it might interest a reader of Olson.

    • Hill-ish in theme as well, I’d like to put forward Pound’s ‘Apparuit’ because I’m trying quite hard to fit Hill into a Poundian box. Haven’t read any H D for years, I’ll have another look?
      Unrelatedly- did F0 arrive? any views?

      • F0 did arrive, and the first half, at least, holds up well to repeated reading. I would like to write something longer than a blog comment about my views. (Something’s defective about my writing ability, though, if I let the repetition of such a boring word as “interest” slip by.)

        I had totally forgotten “Apparuit”. The artifice is awkward, I think, compared to his better ventures in fustian (the Envoi in particular).

  5. I haven’t started on the second half either, intend to this week. I’m also thinking about some Jarvis pages for arduity so anything you’d like to contribute to there or here would be very much welcomed.

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