The review was titled Clavics by Geoffrey Hill: discords and distractions. Written by Lachlan Mackinnon (June 3rd 2011).
I hadn’t read it when I wrote the last post.
This book, all as easy on ear and mind as its opening, is really the sheerest twaddle. Hill has the courtesy to tell us at the outset that if "Distressed attire", his uneven style, "Be mere affect of clef", showing off in a strange key (I paraphrase), we should "Dump my clavic books in the mire/ And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff." The archly modified cliché feels stilted and invites our accord. Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.
It sounds more like a bad tempered report card from the days when teachers were allowed to vent their spleen about an annoying pupil than a considered review.
Joyce said that all he required from a reader was a lifetime’s attention. Hill’s poetry demands the same. It’s not easy, not comforting, you can’t sit there and smugly tick off all the familiar tricks of the published poet knowing you’re supposed to applaud and feel good about your ability to identify.
There is the feeling of a glowering moral and ultimately religious intelligence at work, helped along by a succession of almost comically dour author photographs, which I suspect some readers and critics find off putting because moral and religious seriousness is supposed to have vanished with post-modernism into the world of mindless religious fanaticism of whatever kind you don’t like.
So Hill is awkward.
But why shouldn’t a man have a conscience and a religious faith and why shouldn’t he use poetry to explore it. Especially when it’s a man who doesn’t trust the surface of words and explores what it means to speak that faith using them? I don’t share his faith, I'm fairly certain I'm immoral by his standards, I'm absolutely certain he'd find what I write pitiful, but that doesn’t mean I can’t give him space to speak his faith, or engage with the questions he raises. Or enjoy the way he does it.
His refusal to engage in what he once called “the frustrated mating dance” of autobiographical confession also means there’s none of that comfortable consoling, ah yes, he’s silly, just like us, nonsense.
I would put him in the same bracket as Joyce because comparing either to another writer is pointless. They do what they do. Comparing Hill to Yeats or Eliot or Milton or Pound or anyone else diminishes him and them. Like them, there’s a substantial body of work that is worth returning to. There is, like any body of work, parts that feel lesser than the rest. Trying to discuss what works and what doesn’t is probably the highest attention a reader can pay a writer.
But unthinking reverence is just as bad as automatic denigration. Once the conversation gets polarized the work gets lost.
I am not reverent, but speaking as a reader, I’d rather read a poet like Hill being ambitious and perhaps failing once in a while, than someone trotting out the usual safe “poems’ which blur into one another and are easily forgotten. An artist without ambition, or making a big thing of not trying too hard, makes me nervous. Why “pretentious’ came to be regarded as such a damning slur is an interesting question.
As a reader, I’d also argue that some poets are worthy of constant renewed attention because the work they have done feels, for all its familiarity, always slightly beyond of my reach.
There are those who don’t like this feeling.
Says more about their egos than the poems.