Tag Archives: oraclau

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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Odi Barbare Poem VI- a question (pt 1)

I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.

In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.

Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.

The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.

This is the first verse of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage
Make a pranged voice nasal through a ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.

The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.

Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.

With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:

  • reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
  • put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
  • give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
  • give instructions or information to;
  • shorten, abbreviate, abridge.

None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.

The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.

Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.

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).

Geoffrey Hill in the Economist (briefly)

I visit the Economist site about twice a day and enjoy the cool distance it maintains between itself and the surrounding chicanery. It also gives me a reasonable overview that I don’t always get with the FT. This year it seems to be have turned its affections away from John Ashbery and turned instead to Geoffrey Hill, publishing a enthusiastic if brief review of ‘Clavics’ in April but imagine my shock to find a short film of him talking about his work as part of a promo for some Economist cultural event that he’s going to attend.

The film is just over four minutes long and we get captions instead of a person asking questions, although it would seem somebody did ask the questions because Hill is clearly responding to something rather than giving an impromptu talk.

The headlines are:

  • The beard is getting bigger;
  • He chooses to read the dig at E O Wilson from Clavics;
  • One of the captions tells us that his first collection took him six years to write but now he can rattle seven poems off in a week;
  • He makes a new defence against the charge of difficulty;
  • He denies that his ‘poems are a part of Christian discourse’ but does admit to an anxiety as to the fate of his soul;
  • He thinks poems should be ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful;
  • He makes some derogatory things about the Lawes boys and their gang at the court of Charles I;
  • He remains endearingly bad tempered about the current state of British politics and quotes William Morris to underline his view that we are living in a ‘state of anarchical plutocracy’ and that this informs everything that he writes.

Let’s start with the beard, both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ have the same photograph of Hill with a walking stick and looking fierce. Since then the beard has grown even more and is beginning to take on a life of its own. This is probably part of Hill’s re-casting as Welsh bard or it could be a new requirement of the Oxford job. Whatever the reason it is a remarkable achievement and Keith Flett would be proud.

Choosing to read the dig at ‘Consilience’ may indicate that this poem embodies the main theme of the sequence or that Hill considers it ‘technically efficient’ and beautiful. I’d like to think that it’s a mixture of both. I wonder how many Economist types will grasp the reference to Wilson and the positivist/atheist faction?

The newly prolific Hill perhaps needs to be advised that rattling off seven poems in a week is no guarantee that they will all be good poems. The person providing this advice should use ‘Oraclau’ as an example.

With regard to difficulty, defences in the past have related to not wanting to insult the intelligence of his readers and the ‘life is more difficult than anything I write’ riposte. The charge that he chooses to answer this time is that it is often difficult to discern a unified point of view from a poem. Hill agrees and says that his poems are often ‘about’ the difficulty of arriving at this kind of view. This is probably a more helpful answer than the other two.

Anybody who makes reference to Bradwardine and worries out loud about the nature and workings of Grace is (whether he likes it or not) making a contribution to Christian discourse although the confession of an abiding anxiety about his soul will take me back to the work to see if that kind of worry is addressed/expressed.

It can be argued that poems are only beautiful if they are technically efficient. I remain of the view that the recent work (especially ‘Oraclau’) has shown more than a little slippage in the technical department and I also think that he’s aware of it too. This view of technique doesn’t really square with the ‘make them wince’ quip in ‘Clavics’.

I probably need to check but this critical view of the Caroline court isn’t that obvious from the poems.

I’m not aware of the Morris quote and it doesn’t appear (from memory) nin Hill’s essays but I will try and check the context in which it was made. It is typical of Hill to take an observation from the late 19th century and apply to our dark and difficult times. He’s made much more abusive observations on the plutocracy in his work and it is correct to observe the distorting effect that the anarchy of the free markets has on everything. I don’t think that this view is discernible in everything that he has published

So, lots to think about, the Hill/Economist alliance is also something to consider – it’s certainly odder than the relationship between Ashbery and the New York Times. He does need to know that seven poems a week is not a badge of pride and that he should worry a bit more about his technical efficiency but he doesn’t have to because he’s Geoffrey Hill and (in my book) he can do anything he wants to because he has produced some of the most accomplished work since 1945.

A final thought, isn’t it amazing how much ground you can cover in 4 minutes and 29 seconds?

Geoffrey Hill does Wales (oddly).

And Pete Townsend.

Last year Clutag Press published ‘Oraclau | Oracles’ by Geoffrey Hill. The flyleaf tells me that this is one of five collections completed since the publication of the ‘Treatise’ collection was published in 2007. In a longish review in the TLS, Damian Walford Davies tells me that Hill has ‘responded delightedly to the discovery of his Welsh ancestry, recently uncovered by a professional genealogist’. He describes the collection as ‘Hill’s testing of Welsh cultural waters, an invocation of a cloud of Welsh witnesses that both enable and frustrate his coming to terms with a more-than-elective new identity.’ Unusually, I don’t want to argue too much with this description, nor do I wish to address the rhyme issue as I’ve commented on this in a previous post. I do however want to share some provisional view of the collection and where it might ‘fit’ with the rest of Hill’s output.

The first adjective that comes to mind is ‘uneven’ in that some things are done very well and some others probably shouldn’t have been done at all. The second adjective is ‘odd’ in that there’s a strange choice of subject matter that isn’t much helped by the form that the collection takes. ‘Oraclau’ consists of 144 nine-line stanzas some of which are grouped together as longer poems. Thus we have thirteen consecutive stanzas entitled “Welsh Apocalypse” and a group of untitled consecutive stanzas on the Welsh coal industry. There’s also the frequent use of Welsh words even though Hill acknowledges that he doesn’t speak the language.

Some of the oddness is startling, there’s three stanzas in memory of B S Johnson (who wasn’t Welsh), the last of which contains the lines “Cheering splash ghastly spumante / to mark your self trashed span”. ‘Spumante’ is used to rhyme with ‘the ante’ in the first line. As someone who has thought a lot about suicide in the fairly recent past, I’m not sure how to respond to this but would query whether ‘self trashing’ is more than a little unpleasant in a gratuitous and sneering kind of way.

Then there’s the question of form and whether this kind of self-limiting is actually good for Hill. There’s more than a few of these stanzas where the last line feels as if it’s been put together in a bit of a rush because it’s line number 9 and that’s where the stanza has to end.

To give an example of what I’m trying to say, here’s the last four lines of stanza 26:

Intensely focused crowing atop spires
To what light is; a glaze between great flares;
The sun arraying in the brittle llyn
A limbeck of itself or of the moon

I’m prepared to overlook ‘brittle llyn’ because of the Welsh focus but I can’t get over the weakness of ‘or of the moon’ which is limp and inadequate to what precedes it and feels as if it’s been stuck in because it’s the end of the last line and something had to ‘fit’.

To be fair, some stanzas a remarkable and manage to end in a way that does justice do the rest but there’s enough that don’t to be of concern. The TLS review describes the various personalities that are honoured in this sequence so I’ll make a few observations that pertain to more general themes.

There’s an underlying anxiety about mortality and still having a lot of work to do before death arrives. The love poem ‘Hiraeth’ is a very personal statement and not at all the kind of thing that we’ve come to expect from Hill. he also pokes fun from time to time at his own seriousness. ‘I’d say that metaphysical acrostics, / Rightly taken, are as good as joss sticks’.

There’s also a more overt (to my mind anyway) emphasis on the more mystical frontiers of Christianity. This has always been present but it seems to run more noticeably through ‘Oraclau’.

Having been made painfully aware of my ignorance of all things Welsh by David Jones, I have made some attempt to make myself more familiar with the history and culture. I therefore have to wonder how the Welsh will feel about this ‘celebration’. There are a number of well-worn subjects put in to play, we have Nye Bevan, LLoyd George, Tredegar, the mines, slate at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The selection of some of this ‘Welshness’ is inevitably personal and subjective but I think I’d have welcomed something that tried to move away from the cartoon that most of us have in our heads. I’d also like to lament the absence of R S Thomas’ Iago Prytherch who has remained in my head as the epitome of what it was to be Welsh and poor in the twentieth century.

So is this a disappointment? For those of us who were expecting something to match the quality of ‘Treatise’ then it probably is. The last run of shortish stanzas in ‘Speech! Speech!’ is more successful and perhaps shows that 12 lines rather than 9 are better suited to Hill’s style. The collection isn’t as consistently weak as ‘Without Title’ although I must confess to becoming more forgiving of the ‘Pindarics’ which take up so much of that book.

Pete Townsend gets one mention in connection with Hopkins and Purcell (and his ‘tone-haunted ear’) and thus becomes the second sixties guitar hero to appear in Hill’s work. I’m taking bets on who will be next – the obvious front runners being Clapton and Beck but I’m open to other suggestions.

The other thing of note is the number of neologisms that occur and the other near-liberties that Hiull takes with the language- ‘disprody’ and ‘disrecreating’ being two that spring to mind. This is sometimes effective but can become annoying especially when other words would suffice.

There are also stanzas that are utterly remarkable and make me smile a lot – I’ll finish with the last two and a half lines of the 53rd stanza which is entitled ‘*******’;

………………….The humble unmeek
Swept up by some post-facto land-reclaiming
The Day of Judgement will do its flame-thing.

I would suggest that anyone who fails to see the brilliance and wonder in this simply has no soul.