Tag Archives: Gabriel Marcel

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel

I’m currently paying attention to Expostulations on the Volcano, a new sequence which makes its first appearance in Hill’s Collected and it appears to contain a more direct exploration of the spiritual and mystical Hill.

Mysticism covers a great multitude of beliefs and activites, previously Hill has wondered out loud about the nature of Spirit and less about the workings of Grace. Expostulations sees him becoming increasingly involved in a particular aspect of the Kabbalah tradition, the Qiphloth. This is Poem 13:

What am I hymning that is not absurd?
I have reworked the least of me twelve times
For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,
Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes;

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel 
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol;
Tempted by instinct's sinew to be wise.

There would be scandal. Let me off my hook
Of retrospection; say I was not caught
By what I feared: one mere untimely look;
It is not nature's way to be distraught.

The Secrets of Creative Elements
Are not creation; nor do they vault forth
Loved-clown-like, but, to exorbitant wants,
Protract and retract themselves, mould Qliphoth.

As to these pots, frost-broken, white, exposed
Roots, tendrils, pebbles. In a mouldered cake,
Some would still argue: have the mass composted
For as long as deconstruction may take.

I’ve chosen the above because it seems to be at least a partial summary of the current state / condition of Hillian thinking and belief. Before I proceed, I need to point out that my only knowledge of things mystical is due to reading Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism some years ago and forgetting most of it, apart from Plotinus, shortly thereafter. My woes are further compounded by there being a whole range of spellings and definitions for Qliphoth on the interweb so I’m only able to offer my very wobbly grasp on things. In this particular tradition there is a Tree of Life which is a good thing made up of other good things. Qliphtoth is figured by some to be the bark of the tree and by others to be the shell of the nut produced by the tree and is a Very Bad Thing Indeed (evil). Some people apparently think that the Qlippoth is evil because it has been given an over-abundance of good/holiness.

Rather than undertake the usual bebrowed dissection, I think I want to consider the poem in total. What seems to be going on is the fretting over this retrospective hook and the drawing of a couple of conclusions, which may or may not be provisional.

The open. The next aspect is the numbers ‘game’ once we’ve got over the for/four pun, the four being: blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile which are in turn associated with hotness, dryness, coldness and moistness all of which were. for about two thousand years, thought to be the most reliable / unly indicators of health. Twelve is more of a problem, according to my brief skim through Major Trends the Tree has only ten components. I like the idea that, prior to the publication of the Day books there were twelve published books of verse. Of course, I want it to refer to the work because that kind of ties in with the end of the poem which is probably trying to say too many thing at once. The ‘reworking the least of me is nearly as good as ‘a sad and angry consolation’, Hill’s definition proffered at the end of The Triumph of Love and will now be used my me to describe my own meanderings. Or it could refer to the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, the amount of pennies in a shilling and many other things besides.

Being me, I like the ‘exorbitant wants’ partly because it’s the kind of conjuring that his detractors hate but also because it shows the strength in depth that Hill still retains in re-working the language that we hold in common. I talked about clowns and clowning last time and was going to skim over it here but he might be saying something (in retrospect) about the light-comedy entertainer that Hill has, on occasion, aspired to be. A whole range of clown-related cliches come to mind but I do want to get on to the role of evil here and these broken pots and detritus.

Time for another confession, I first cam across Gabriel Marcel in A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power in the A Treatise of Civil Power which was published in 2007. I found out from the interweb that he was a Christian existentialist and I left it at that. This was a mistake because, with the assistance of the increasingly impressive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I’ve found a few things that slip almost neatly into what appears to be Hill’s current world view:

  • the world is broken and it may always have been broken but it is made more broken by historical events;
  • this brokenness is best characterised in the contemporary world in the refusal, or inability, to reflect or to imagine and the denial of the transcendent;
  • this is largely because we have prioritised and technology and this leads us to despair because it has no answer to the ‘bigger’ questions about the philosophical truths:
  • we still have a need for transcendence because we feel a degree of dissatisfaction which stems from this functional way of living;
  • with regard to transendence itself, Marcel has: “There is an order where the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp. I would add that if the word “transcendent” has any meaning it is here—it designates the absolute, unbridgeable chasm yawning between the subject and being, insofar as being evades every attempt to pin it down”;
  • Marcel makes a distinction between problem and mystery in that problems can be resolved by technique whereas a mystery is a “problem that encroaches on its own data” such as the relationship between body and soul, the nature of evil, freedom and love.

I’ll readily confess to tearing all of this out of context to suit my own purposes but, as a means of justification, I’d like to use the first few lines from part I of A Precis:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.

Now, might this be a precis of the above lines of thought? Might this reveal a late acceptance of said line? Are the Day Books in part a working through of this acceptance? I, of course want to answer all of these in the affirmative because Hill’s disdain for the functional in this broken world does seem in the later work to march in step with an exploration of the transcendent.

Of cause this is tentative, subjective and provisional. I know I read something recently about Hill’s view of the relationship between the political and the mystical, once I’ve dug it out I may well change my mind. I am however particularly fond of these spare strophes that are said to be raw with late wisdom. Wonderful.

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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.