Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Who's Afraid of Geoffrey Hill?

There was a danger, once TS Eliot made explicit the idea of a self-conscious Great Tradition in literature, that some would attempt to annexe that tradition seeing themselves as the monolithic bestriders of that august thoroughfare. This seems to be the case with the poet of choice of the modern literary cognoscenti, Geoffrey Hill. This is troubling for those of us who take a longer and less prescriptive view of literature. For, since it was Eliot who made this idea explicit, this annexing may seem to force us into the road of Modernism with its ‘difficulty,’ its despair and anguish and its endless disordering of reality. If we are simple optimistic people who want to write poetry do we have to don such a jagged and tattered vestment before were are deemed fit and ready to write because it fits within recent tradition?

If Hill has decided that he is the one who bestrides the roadway on what does he base his authority to do so? There is no question that he is enormously well-read and erudite – indeed, he almost defines himself by his erudition. The opening line of his 120 stanza work from 2000, “Speech! Speech!” opens with the line:

“Erudition. Pain. Light. “

Of course, as you might expect with an academic who is also a poet, his erudition extends particularly to a terrifying knowledge of etymology and philology. In his essays he will sometimes take a page or two (or a whole essay) to berate dictionary compilers, in a way that might be assumed to put the fear of God into them, for having unsatisfactorily defined the meaning that usually appears in sub section 9b of the word “pitch,” for example. In addition to these underpinnings of his authority there is also how he sites himself in the religious tradition. Towards the end of the fiendishly difficult “Speech! Speech!” we encounter this stanza in which Hill has  a conversation with himself, the poet, about bringing the long poem to a conclusion:

How could you have lived through him so long?
Don’t take it for an accusation, you
write as if sleep-walking. I never
walk in my sleep. I fall off chairs. But,
yes, it’s a lengthy haul to the diploma.
Self-correction without tears: see me reverse
tango this juggernaut onto the road.
Ezekial’s the better mechanic but less –
you know – beautiful! All eighteen
wheels engaging the hardtop and no
body-damage to speak of. RIDE IT PREACHER!

Here Hill (and a devoted annotator) seems to align himself and his poem with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, their works and, in addition, the Chariots of God which they rode. With such an array of claims to authority poetic, scholarly and even mystical, who would dare contest that he is a towering presence in the literary landscape? Critics as weighty as Howard Bloom and AN Wilson seem to concur. This being the case and my being a lover of poetry, I set myself the task of investigating Hill’s work, hoping, of course, to enjoy it. I was slightly put off  at the outset by watching a Youtube video of a Hill reading at the Serpentine Gallery in which he breaks off to warn his audience that if they think poetry is to be “enjoyed” (he sneers this word) in the way in which a man used to be said to “enjoy” a woman the ‘Angel of Poetry’ would tell them to “Sod off!” He barks these words out twice glaring like one of Michelangelo’s prophets. Poetry he delphically tells us is about joy not enjoyment. At the time I assumed I was too gross to understand the distinction being made here. Nothing daunted, I read the following of his works in order to qualify myself, as I saw it, to make a judgment: most of his first collection – ‘For the Unfallen,’ all of ‘Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy,’ some of ‘The Triumph of Love’ and some of ‘Scenes from Comus.’ I have also read all of ‘Speech! Speech!’ with the aid of the scholar Ann Hassan’s comprehensive annotations.  In addition I read a scattered number of individual poems from many other collections, especially the more well known ones and his collection of Essays – ‘Style and Faith’. Although there is still much to encounter in his 1000 page collected works, ‘Broken Hierarchies’ (much thickened as a result of a huge access of prolixity occasioned by his being put on Lithium and Prozac around the turn of the century after lifelong depression), I feel, thus, I have served a kind of apprenticeship, which qualifies me to comment on the Hill oeuvre.

Finishing my apprenticeship left me, unexpectedly and primarily, with a feeling of huge relief at being able, finally, to expel Hill from my consciousness where he had dominated like a kind of raging incubus or a headache for a long while. I had felt as though I had been inhabited by a form of searing insanity which got under my skin and made me feel horribly uncomfortable. To use another image, I felt I had been invaded, oyster-like, by a particularly pugnacious irritant, a grain of the blackest sand. It had not given me hopes of a marvelous pearl nor was this was disturbance leading to new and greater order (the Holy Spirit unsettling complacency perhaps?); this was just insanity. To ‘enjoy’ this poetry I would have had to remake myself into something, in Hill’s image and under his direction, which I was not; this I was not prepared to do as I value my serenity and equanimity.

In my investigations I also came across an interesting and revealing tendency in Hill. It seemed to me that he was unable to tolerate competition for the poetic laurels in the late twentieth century. To this end he would attack his closest rival, Philip Larkin, for that honour on grounds that effectively rubbished, or at least diminished the poetry that made him such a rival. Hill’s essay ‘Dividing Legacies’ which deals with TS Eliot’s failure, in Hill’s view, to successfully define the Metaphysical poets ends, in the final paragraph or two with a series of stringent criticisms of three major literary figures. He speaks of Eliot’s regrettable lapse into cliché in “Little Gidding” and blames this for the “torpor” which afflicted both Anglican spirituality thereafter and the poet, Philip Larkin. He castigates the critic Christopher Ricks for not noticing Eliot’s use of cliché and then declares himself unable to understand how a critic, whose judgments were usually so reliable, could allow himself to be an advocate for Larkin’s poetry. Hill was made Oxford Professor of Poetry and, when his term came to an end, he chose to devote most of his valedictory lecture to diminishing the achievement of three of Larkin’s best-known and best-loved poems – “An Arundel Tomb,” “The Whitsun Weddings” and “Church Going.” The latter poem is given a particularly uncompromising going over. All three are found to be windy and overlong “ruminations” lacking in the poetic virtue of condensation. This gave me a sense that he might have seen literary fame as a zero sum game in which one is obliged to compete for a limited number of places in the pantheon and to seek to displace others. I also had a sense that he could not tolerate other takes on reality than that of the Modernist one.

What I found, returning to such as Larkin post-apprenticeship, was a return to light, serenity, measuredness, metre, sanity and humour. I felt I was back in a different tradition – that of Dryden, Pope, Byron and late Auden far distant from the anguish of Modernism. Reading Hill had felt just too close to listening to the raving of a bipolar patient experiencing an episode of mania.  I realise that these are strong reactions on my part and, I’m afraid, they get stronger.

For me Hill has appropriated English poetry and English itself forgetting that, however great his erudition and precise his knowledge of the meanings and evolutions of words the rest of us have also swum in the element of English since our births and have direct access to it and, to the same realities as him and, indeed, to the same God as his, without his priestly intercession. What he offers us if we are to become his acolyte readers – and reading him is curiously like acceding to being taught at the feet of the master who knows better than you in all respects (Clive James referred to him as 'the Word Lord....who knows everything") - is the relationship an undergraduate might have with a cruelly pedantic and peevish don. Poems send you to reference books (or Wikipedia) and dictionaries to hunt down the exact finesse being put on a word or the precise and vital reference to a 17th century German divine being evoked. The screaming intensity of such erudition being, perhaps, seen as a route back to lost sanity. It was a journey I felt increasingly unwilling to embark upon as I read more of his poems. Life was simply too short to follow his excruciating and discombobulating via dolorosa, one with which I felt no sympathy. 

Of course, at this point, many would say “It’s a free country; no one compels you to read Hill. The simple solution is simply to jettison his work from your personal reading.” As described above this is precisely what I have done as a matter of taste and out of concern for my personal equilibrium. However, I feel there is a justification for making these strictures and that is that Hill is now a phenomenon in the English literary landscape that many are directed towards as an arbiter and model of good literature, a landscape that I share in. I feel free and empowered, therefore, to make and deliver my critical judgment on the matter as an object of interest to fellow lovers of English literature. They, of course, need not agree with me.

The Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, talking on the subject of lucidity in poetry, said “ I don't mind a poem being difficult, if the poem is about a thing that is difficult to say. But if a poem seems to me wilfully obscure, or obscure because the man has not got his mind clear about what he is writing about, then, to use a phrase I have used before, I consider it to be not only bad art, but bad manners, because poetry is surely a communication.”

I have a sense that Hill has a very particular relationship with his audience and it is not a good-mannered one. He seems to ignore the usual etiquette of the writer-reader dynamic saying, as it were– “Here is my art and here are my peculiarly idiosyncratic concerns and my peculiarly oblique way of communicating. In no way will I compromise them and if you don’t like them you know what you can do. You should conform to my parameters because they are just ones. I have the authority to reset English literature.” For me there is a boorish egocentricity in this. Hill presents art which is made of reality mediated through a particularly inimical sensibility. That sensibility seems to me somewhat egotistical, and perhaps that of a malcontent or even a misanthrope who judges that modern readers are so far gone that this is the only way to deal with them. My overwhelming sense is also that, in reading him, I am consenting to having his presence eclipse the sun that usually shines unhindered on me. In a strange sense he seems to want to displace me, the reader.

It is well known that, taxed with the perceived difficulty of his poetry, he propounded a theory whereby that very difficulty is evidence of his democratic credentials. This was because Goebbels and others used simplicity to deceive populaces. This may seem a strangely extreme opposition to set up and to leave few other alternatives on the territory in between those extremes. My own feeling is that, having plumped for the Modernist ethos he is almost obliged by it to be difficult and, in being difficult, is simply conforming to that ethos. I’m not sure there is any other justification for it. The very fact that he chooses Modernism, in his particular case, may even be a part of or a proof of his pathology.

There is no question that, like possibly all ages in human history, our age can be denounced for its egregious failings in many ways. In the case of Geoffrey Hill I quibble, then, with to what degree his disposition towards that age is a medical or moral problem or a true denunciation by a modern Ezekiel. To what extent is he an enraged malcontent unwittingly passing a certain social maladjustment off for the rebarbativeness of Modernism? Are we witnessing the revulsions of a refined sensibility or the malaise of a misanthrope? Is he doing any more than railing at the 21st century for not being the 17th? These are questions I find myself unable not to ask.

It is dangerous to ask such questions in the rarified atmosphere of the literary world that sees Hill as a champion of an uncompromisingly conservative and literary excellence. He seems to fit the bill and, in addition, to be very exclusive as a taste. Many, I’m sure, will use him as a touchstone for and proof of their own refinement. In that sense proclaiming a love of his work can be self-serving. It feels good to be an “understander.” I can’t help asking myself, though, whether championing this particular cause is really a, perhaps unwitting, collaboration with a deception which Geoffrey Hill may have believed in himself. Was he, finally, an Emperor naked of the clothes of sanity or worse, a literary hog and bully who tried to intimidate the literary world into seeing him as the definition of ‘right’ taste?

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