Tag Archives: broken hierarchies

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.

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Geoffrey Hill and the Collected Problem(s)

I was given Broken Hierarchies for Xmas and this is an initial report having spent some time with knotted brow and the occasional moment of delight.

First of all, I must confess to having a chequered history with Collecteds, Lowell’s made me realise that I didn’t like any of his work after The Mills of the Kavanghs which was a shock, R S Thomas’ seemed much slighter and less majestic whole as did that of George Herbert, John Matthias’ otherwise fascinating three volumes commit the sin of omitting Trigons which he and I are currently annotating for the web. So it is with some unease that I’m approaching Hill’s Collected especially since I haven’t been overly impressed with the three (out of six) Daybooks sequences that I’ve read. The other anxiety is about how much has been changed/revised since the original publication and what this may mean for the poems that are already in my head.

First, there’s the new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff and some of it is intriguing and a lot of it does the half-rhyme thing which isn’t. There is one sequence of poems that are all set out (as with Clavics in the shape of what appears to be a key. Then there’s the revisions and expansions which have been applied to Hymns to our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics. This is okay because I’ve never been keen on the last two and I’ve never read any of the first. The other change that I’ve noticed thus far is that we now have headings in the index for the Offa sequence.

We’ll start with Hymns to our Lady of Chartres which is new to me although I understand from the interweb that it started life in 1984 or thereabouts as a sequence of three poems and then expanded to seven. The new version has twenty one poems each consisting of five quatrains which use half-rhymes. I’ve been giving some further thought to rhyme in general following the discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon Jarvis at the launch of Night Office when they both agreed that the ‘sense’ becomes subordinate to the form in that the poet is never sure where the rhyme is going to lead. Now, puzzling with furrowed brow over the rhymes that Hill deploys, which depend largely on word endings rather than vowel sounds, it occurred to me yesterday that this is a way of retaining more control over sense and direction rather than the full rhymes that Jarvis deploys.

Before we proceed with an example, I’d like to differentiate between two technical terms. The first of these is ‘clunky’ whereby the poem is well-intentioned but some lines are unduly awkward whereas ‘naff’ denotes poems that are so bad/inept that they shouldn’t have been started let alone published. This latter term is similar in many ways to John Matthias’ ‘gawdawful’.

This is poem 9:

A match crack-scuffs, a flame spurts in the fosse,
faces bow to cupped hands, a thing archaic,
a gesture proletarian and stoic;
Homeric, even, look at Odysseus,

who was of course a prince in his own country
champing on Gauloises; Hector of the taut
monocle, dragged helplessly by a foot.
Other manners, another century.

Herod was dire but he was not the Shoah.
What do you say, Vierge, to this Jewish child
fixed at your breast, in the great glass annealed,
Himself the threefold shattering of Chaos!

Another language, such as your Dai Greatcoat
unerringly presented: misadventure
for the machine gun's cunningly-loosed ceinture
binding in blood who late set out-

Jehova's time not ours. We might have given
the temple scroll for Peguy to repair,
indomitable, as an unsold Cahier,
mystique and politique there intershriven.

For those who still haven’t read him, Dai Greatcoat is David Jones and he is (probably) ‘your Dai Greatcoat’ because of the closing scene in In Parenthesis when the Lady of the Woods gathers the dead and dying to her at the end of a day’s fighting in Mametz WSood on the Somme. Now, I may be slow on the uptake but I am not aware of any other reference to Jones in Hill’s poetry. I know that some find the deliberate choice of the obscure word in preference to something more familiar (fosse instead of trench, ceinture instead of scope or range etc) but I’m fond of this particular quirk because there are words and meanings of words that should be kept breathing in the face of the current blandification that appears to becoming dominant. Having written that sentence I realise that I’m sounding as elitist as Hill but it’s something I can live with.

Of course, there is no connection that can be simply made between the biblical Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holocaust but it is certainly a startling line although I am concerned that it may be present just to startle- a tendency that seems to be on the increase lately.

These twenty lines do cover a lot of ground, as well as Jones, we get the Iliad, Christ, the Virgin Mary, French and German stereotypes, Charles Peguy, Herod and the Holocaust. Whilst the whole seems reasonably coherent and has
some threads that run through Hill’s work, I’m not entirely clear that there’s a convincing coherence here. There isn’t, for example, a link between soldiers lighting cigarettes in the trenches of the Somme to the figure of Hector been dragged around behind Achilles’ horse. Peguy was a poet and essayist who edited the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine and in 1909 made the observation that “everything that begins in mysticism ends in politics” which makes much more sense of the last two lines, as does the fact that he was killed in battle in 1914.

We now come to the headings problem, each of the Mercian Hymn poems has been given a title or sub-heading in the index but not on the printed page. Many of the titles occur more than once and seem a bit superfluous, we now have three poems each on ‘Offa’s Laws’ and ‘The Crowning of Offa’ for example which we don’t really need, it’s always seemed self-evident to me what the poems are about. The other quibble is that if these are in the index as part of the title then shouldn’t they be at the top of the poem as well? The opposite problem occurs with Pindarics, there are twenty one of these in Without Title and each begins with a quote from Cesare Pavese and is a response to that quote. We now have 34 Pindarics and all the quotes have been removed. The order of the first twenty one has changed too so that Pindaric 21 has become Pindaric 5 and there have been two changes to the text. This is very puzzling for my small brain, does this now mean that we should forget about the quotes and read the poems as a response to the three sentences from Pavese that now serve as an epigraph? None of this matters much to me because I didn’t like these poems the first time around but I do wonder how less indifferent others may feel.

I do intend to address the new material once I’ve got my brain around it- Ludo and The Daybooks take up 330 page or one third of the collection. This may take some time.