Monday, May 30, 2011

Blurb wars; Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics'.(part one)

For reasons unknown I own a copy of every book of poems Geoffrey Hill has published since the Penguin collected of 1985. Which I also have.

(Reasons unknown is not a cliché but a good catholic confession of guilt. I own a copy of every studio album and solo live album Bert Jansch has made (over twenty hours worth if my computer is to be believed) and if you have a bottle of Bushmills handy and a few spare hours I will bore you silly by explaining exactly why I admire the man and his music. I’m not sure I could do that with Hill’s poetry and no, for the record, I don’t like 'Mercian Hymns'.)

Still, this is about blurbs.

Clavics, his new book, has six quotes by way of Blurb.

There are quotes from A.N.Wilson, Peter McDonald, Eric Orsmby and Michael Dirda on the inside of the dust jacket and quotes from Peter Levi and William Logan given pride of place on the back. All six tell the reader how great Geoffrey Hill is. Peter McDonald is quoted as saying: ”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats”. Michael Dirda simply states: ”Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living English poet”.

Not one quote or comment is about the poems in Clavics itself. This has been a characteristic of Hill’s books (at least of the editions I own) since The Orchards of Syon in 2002. Apparently his publishers think it is enough to state that Geoffrey Hill is great and His work important. I’m not denying either.

But of the six quotes on the back of Clavics only one, by Michael Dirda, doesn’t turn up on another book of Hill’s in my possession. The Wilson, McDonald and Ormsby can each be found on three of the last four books. The Logan quote was first used way back in 1998 on The Triumph of Love. The Peter Levi in Canaan in 1996.

Without Title (2006) raised the recycling to a new level. A different quote is attributed to Peter McDonald. Ormsby’s quote appears again. The other quotes are referenced not to individual writers but to publications. One of them had been used before on Hill's previous book and another;”The most important and original body of poetry since Yeats” is actually by Mr. P McDonald who is thus quoted twice on the same book cover.

Now, I would hazard the opinion that those last four books; Clavics, A Treatise of Civil Power, Without Title and Scenes from Comus) reflect a falling off in the power of the poetry found in the magical sequence of four books that began with Canaan and ran through to The Orchards of Syon. It may be indicative that Orchards of Syon is the last book of Hill’s that I have which has a comment from a critic about the poems in the book. (It’s from George Steiner who offers a useful way of thinking about what is not an easy poem to come to terms with.) And I think it’s reflected in the fact that none of the blurbs of these recent books have anything to say about the content of them. They simply keep telling the potential reader these same people think he’s really good and his work is really important.


After The Orchards of Syon did the actual content of the books become irrelevant? Was there nothing new to say about the poems? No one new to say it? Were the pomes somehow beyond scrutiny? Are lines like ”meritocrats are crap meteorites” and “No intercept from zero frisky dawn” clues from a cryptic cross word or lines from “The Greatest Living English Poet” writing in Clavics? Could you even imagine Yeats writing something like that?

Does it matter that Clavics is said to be an “Elegy for the musician William Lawes”? when I deny that anyone given the book without that information could ever work it out? (And I do know who William Lawes was and I even have some of his music…). Does it matter that Clavics is metrically very clever in an obvious way which may well nod towards George Herbert, if it produces lines like the above?

Or can a poet reach a point of eminence where what they write is no longer important because there are enough people ready to find value in whatever they write?



Peter said...


I absolutely agree, but I have a slightly different explanation for the information blackout on Hill books. I think the publishers have been uncertain - about putting Hill's (pretty conceptual) recent work in a box of their own devising, for he is a formidable poet to publish as you (and they, at length) mention, and about how such work will be received by the public. As you will be able to see on the Enitharmon website, I've tried my best to write a proper blurb for Clavics, but it wasn't done in time to go on the back of the book. And I can say it's pretty scary to try and nail his recent work. Only by nailing my colours to the mast have I been able to say something which avoids being completely bland, and I've no doubt that many people will take pretty major issue with it.

I hope this has thrown a bit of light on the matter. Great blog by the way.

All the best,
Enitharmon Press

Liam Guilar said...

Thank you. I think what you've written on your web site is exactly what the book needs. If people take major issue with it, is that a bad thing? As long as they read the poems before having their tuppence worth?
(See "Geoffrey Hill Clavics, part four".)