by Geoffrey Hill
Yale University Press 2009
Reviewed by John Deming
There are, by my count, 106 stray hairs down the centerpath of Geoffrey Hill’s horseshoe pattern. Britain’s best poet is in extreme hi-def on the cover his new Selected, and you can count his hairs, you can match paint samples to the pink of his nose, you can even return the stare of a pair of eyes set two ticks left of murder (or, if you prefer, set to Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II). Hill looks in charge here, and I wonder if he is the only living poet who can pull off such a book cover with what might be the total absence of irony. Geoffrey Hill is serious as hell.
Serious as hell, and he’s looking right at you. Well, not at you, if you are most readers. As Hill-champion William Logan states in a review of Hill’s 2008 book, A Treatise of Civil Power, “Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him.” And Hill’s frequent inscrutability, his ostensibly exclusionary intellect, are often accused of bullying readers out of his work; his committed, if nebulous relationship with Christianity is blamed for alienating them. Over the course of Hill’s Selected Poems, a reader finds countless obscure historical, literary, artistic and religious references rendered almost casually in the midst of thick, lapidary verse. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you don’t.
But more important than any of this is the fact that Hill is, above all else, a first rate musician. In the same review, Logan threads Hill’s reliance on allusion and reference with those of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound:
Modernism asked just how far the poet could expect the reader to mole about in old books to make sense of a poem. Eliot provided notes to “The Waste Land” as a casual afterthought, to fill out a slim volume; and Pound buried so many moldy allusions through “The Cantos” that scholars have been hunting the truffles ever since. Both poets felt that poems could survive obscurity without help from the slush of footnotes we expect in the Norton Anthology; yet, without explication, a poem like Hill’s is hardly a poem, just language at war with itself.
Fair enough. Did Eliot and Pound expect future audiences to get the allusions even without footnotes? Or were the poems to survive on mystery, music and metaphor alone? If we are to avoid ad hominem silliness, their intentions shouldn’t mattter at all. The issue is how much knowledge one must have to access a poet or poem.
The statement about Eliot and Pound calls to mind a statement made by another purportedly “difficult” poet, John Ashbery. If Eliot and Pound are right, and a good allusionary poem can survive without footnotes, what are the allusions there for? They are a platform for further discovery, or for the making of music. Ashbery has stated that he likes music for its “ability to be convincing, to carry an argument successfully to the finish, though the terms of the argument remain unknown quantities.” He went a step further: “I would like to do this in poetry.” If unknown quantities are okay, then it seems that he is philosophically in tune with Eliot and Pound, who believed that their poems could “survive obscurity without help from…footnotes.” (If you have a hard time buying any link between Ashbery and Eliot, put Four Quartets and “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” side by side.) In a recent essay on Ashbery, Stephen Burt assesses the ways that Ashbery, too, makes use of obscure references:
Critics make heavy weather of the flow of information through Ashbery’s poems—almost any piece of news or slang, as well as any shard of old high culture, may turn up, as if brought in by those tides. But Ashbery’s sustained interest lies more with the tides than with anything they bring in…to seek allusions, or to seek a continuous tradition, is to miss the point. Where other poets ask us to look everything up, or berate us for not being as learned as they, Ashbery implies that life is too short for him to expect us to learn what he knows.
Ashbery and Hill are very different poets, and Hill might even be among those who would “berate us for not knowing what he knows.” But again, the notion of assigning value based on the author’s intentions needs to be squashed. The poets are different because Ashbery’s references map the unpredictable associations of a mind in motion, while Hill’s references are often the subject or inspiration of the poem. But Hill’s best poems are not good because they are allusionary. Where Eliot was often liberated by allusions and used them as a platform for creative invention, Pound was regularly stifled by them, using his education in many cases as an end rather than a means. Hill’s allusions provide significant depth and value to his poems; but they can also convince as Ashbery’s “unknown quantities,” perhaps even inspire the research it takes to learn of them.
The point is that one can listen to and enjoy a symphony without being able to name every harmony. If the music is “convincing” enough to warrant deeper examination, the listener’s understanding of the music becomes much more sophisticated. But the listener will never be able to play a C# on his violin and then say clearly what the note “means.” This is the important thing that poetry and music have in common: they present us with the opportunity for interpretation, while the original article (the C#, the poem) stands as the only real—and the most convincing—explanation of itself.
This is why we should herald the publication of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems in the United States (it was first published by Penguin in Britain in 2006). By assembling this fertile, ever-changing body of poetry, editors have created tremendous potential for readers to find a way into his music. The history of humanity is important because human beings are responsible for countless atrocities performed in the name of God, of ideology, of country. Hill mines history; he doesn’t let things sleep, yet he tends to avoid any specific moral code. He mines it for truths that, if they exist, exist beyond specific events that pointed towards them. Imbibe these four lines, which begin the fourth section of “Funeral Music,” an eight-part elegy from his second book, King Log:
Let mind be more precious than soul; it will not
Endure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,
Settles with tears and sweat, is possibly
Indestructible. That I can believe.
“Soul,” or the idea of soul, is less precious than mind, because mind is temporary. The undeniably religious Hill reverses religious and intellectual bromides like no one else in the game, and has here arrived at an important, inventive, lyric. But let’s back up; before the poem even began, the poet informed us he is in fact elegizing three people:
William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: beheaded 1450
John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester: beheaded 1470
Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers: beheaded 1483
Does this knowledge change your reading of the previous four lines? It might, but only in a way that enriches the lines, gives them a ground to stand on. These specific deaths served as a platform for poetry; the poetry is what is left. To read these names and be turned off—to say I’ve never heard of these folks, so this poem is not going to be for me—is to miss out on Hill’s devastating enjambments (“it will not / Endure.”), on the precision of his bewildering, melancholy establishment of the constitution of the mind:
…I believe in my
Abandonment, since it is what I have…
the voice in this poem tells us, and speaks in the end to anyone who is
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.
Maybe next you land on Wikipedia, getting some background on de la Pole. Maybe then you’re back to part one. Maybe not. The other important thing about Hill, or any good poet, really, is the way his poetry unpacks itself with repeated reads. Nobody knows that their favorite song is their favorite song the first time they hear it. Investigation is a symptom, not a prerequisite.
To feel excluded by Hill is to misread him; surely the internet is no guarantee to provide adequate or even accurate context for every poem (and surely Hill buries some allusions so deep, you can not even know to look for them), but the point is that a reader can be “convinced” before doing a stitch of research. The voices in these poems are deeply haunted; they are plagued by memory and by the history of human vileness; they are philosophical; they are both ecstatic and petrified and the beauty of the natural world. Speech! Speech!, a book-length poem published in 2000, is regularly maligned (even by Logan) as over-written, inscrutable and verbose, and is about as close as Hill comes to drunken confession. Yet there are passages that blend his sharp eye and sharp mind as well as any he’s written:
First day of the week: rain
on perennial ground cover, a sheen
like oil of verdure where the rock shows through;
dark ochre patched more dark, with stubborn glaze;
rough soggy drystone clinging to the fell,
broken by hawthorns. What survives
of memory | you can call indigenous
if you recall anything. Finally
untranscribable, that which is | wrests back
more than can be revived; inuring us
through deprivation | below and beyond life,
hard-come-by loss of self | self’s restitution.
The poet is poised, serious, purposeful. Loss of self is self’s restitution; people are deprived and deprive each other, all the while held by memory, even as it vanishes. The notion of restitution also closes a shorter poem from 2006’s Without; here is “Offertorium: December 2002” in its entirety:
For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.
That’s a pretty big if. The title implies an essentially Christian ode, but the offertory reads as a toast to whatever happens, to whatever we have the power to make happen, if we can summon any will. Is it in God’s hands? Ours? Hill seems unable to put faith in either fate or free will. Lyric seems about the only certainty; the poem is carved in stone. By addressing himself to “late distortions lodged by first mistakes,” he identifies human folly: our unavoidable propensity towards mistake and incompletion. As with the previous passage, there is a sense of dense unknowing which sinks further under the weight of constant separation and destruction: destruction of epochs and of individual minds. Hill is never crystal clear, and importantly, never states for sure whether all human efforts are futile—they may very well be—but he’s equally willing, if only subtlely, to hint at redemption.
This Selected Poems is flawed, because it contains no index, and because the Table of Contents only lists the pages on which the selections from each book begins; to find specific poems, one must do considerable hunting. Also, it entirely excludes his latest and possibly best book, 2008’s A Treatise of Civil Power, only because this is a regurgitation of the 2006 English Selected. Generally, a more thorough Collected would do the poet more justice. But I think of other ostensible weaknesses in this volume – the lack of any footnotes or of any editor’s introduction – as a plus, because they don’t force feed a particular reading of the work. Better that the verses convince on their own, because to the steady-eyed reader, convince they do. He identifies social patterns and patterns among the powerful; he debates morality; he holds everyone, and himself, accountable; and he does so with lyric thunder. Call it music. This is one of the most important books published this year.
Serious as hell in an age of irony: it’s not a curse. And to call elements of knowledge a prerequisite is to spraypaint a door on a brick wall. It’s to tell little Janey “no” when she says she wants to learn the violin: she’d be better off already knowing how. Hill’s allusions can become hilarious in their obscurity, but simultaneously provide richness and depth to his poems; these poems ultimately are splendid because they outstrip their references and find metaphor.
Stephen Burt uses the “wave” metaphor in talking about Ashbery. It is a metaphor that has been used by Ashbery himself (“A Wave”), and also by Wallace Stevens (“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”) and perhaps most ablely by Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.” It is important for Hill to troll old horrors. In the process, he finds a universal music. So, he’s not looking at you, exactly. But that’s okay. He’s looking at everything else.