Saturday, July 2, 2016

Sir Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016

An Order of Service
(By Geoffrey Hill)

He was the surveyor of his own ice-world,
meticulous at the chosen extreme,
Though what he surveyed may have been nothing.

Let a man sacrifice himself, concede
His mortality and have done with it;
There is no end to that sublime appeal.

In such a light dismiss the unappealing
Blank of his gaze, hopelessly vigilant,
Dazzled by renunciation’s glare.

Sad news. Sir Geoffrey Hill is dead. 

When I was an undergraduate, in the late 1970s, I read an article that jokingly suggested that only people whose surname began with an H had a chance as a poet in the British Isles. It listed, as evidence, Hughes, Heaney, Harrison and Hill.

I dutifully tracked them down. Harrison was immediately impressive, Heaney’s twinkly eyed rural Irishman was ethnically familiar. Hughes I didn’t like. I'd suffered him at High School and at the time he was often twinned with Thom Gunn. I preferred Gunn, besides his name started with a G, and then there was Geoffrey Hill. The Library had a copy of Mercian Hymns, and I could make nothing of it. I knew the history, I knew the landscape, but the ‘poems’ turned their back on me.

Years later, having escaped the assumptions of A level English, and thinking to have another go at it, I bought the small Penguin Collected (1985).  I was distracted by Funeral Music. The content at least was familiar: I knew the three names at the head of the sequence, so I started there, and by the time I had got to that 5th and last sonnet which begins….

Not as we are but as we must appear
Contractual ghosts of pity…

I realized I was holding my breath.

After that I bought every book he wrote as they appeared, something I haven't done with any other living poet, until Clavics, at which point I waited for the promised Collected which would contain the Daybooks. I suspect I will be nagging away at those last poems for many years.

He wasn’t always brilliant. There’s that jaw dropping run from Canaan to the Orchards of Zion and then after that I suspect he was uneven, belatedly learning how to turn out Geoffrey Hill Poems with great facility.

But the body of poems will invite critical attention and when the funeral commonplaces are over, the journalists and their simplifications have gone home and the reaction sets in, the poems will take on the critics and, as Yeats’ did, will emerge better known and better understood. Perhaps never as loved as Yeats' poetry, but obdurate and resilient.  

More than the poems, which after all are one version of poetry and not to everyone’s taste, or perhaps because of the poems, he was able to stand for an attitude to poetry that is unfashionable. It is a serious art. It is hard work.  It requires ‘sharp study and long toil’ in Bunting’s phrase.  A good poem or a great poet deserved, required and demanded intense scrutiny.  In short, he took it seriously at a time when it’s more common to find people arguing that everyone can and should write poems without any kind of knowledge or understanding.   The argument, for want of a better word, with Carol Anne-Duffy’s comments about the similarities between texting and poetry was the easily graspable version. 

For me he stood for the idea that a desire for excellence is not elitism: emphatically not elitism. It is the most democratic of impulses because it makes everything available to anyone who wants to make the effort. The desire to understand excellence and celebrate it is a recognition that in the long history of English poetry very few poets have achieved any lasting excellence and for me Hill epitomized the belief that there is a value in studying the why and how of that. Because something is not immediately accessible, or requires effort, because not everyone can understand why or how it works, does not mean it isn’t worthy of attention.

His criticism was not ‘easy to read’ but an education lurks in his Collected Prose. The Hill Essay tends to start somewhere and head off in a direction you didn’t expect. The best way to enjoy the journey is to stop worrying about what you thought was the destination. That carried over into the  structure of the Oxford lectures. His style does not work towards the sound grab or the easy one sentence summary, and at times you can be forgiven for thinking that he’s turned the words inside out.  But if ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, then we’d better be bloody sure we know what the words we’re using mean. I learnt so much from his essays, even when what I learnt was not what I had started reading the essay to learn about.

His recent stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford was a brilliant performance, in which G Hill played 'Sir Geoffrey Hill Rancorous Old Sod' to the hilt with an arresting gusto, revealing as he did so a sense of humor that might have taken some of his readers and detractors by surprise.  As one early commentator said, undergraduates were given the chance to hear someone taking poetry seriously.  It wasn't just Undergraduates either.  We should be thankful for the mess that led to his election and if OUP would please get their act together and publish the lectures, it would be a very great service to us all.

Like Graves, who seemed to become increasingly important to him as those lectures progressed, Hill’s relationship to the field of cultural production that is poetry was awkward. Hailed as the Greatest Living Poet by some,  by others he was denigrated as an old fashioned conservative who was meaninglessly complicated and obscure.  Perhaps he was the last of the Modernists? But if ‘He was the surveyor of his own ice-world’, he was always ‘meticulous at the chosen extreme’.

Like Graves, that awkwardness is never anything but salutary. You don't have to agree with someone, or like their poetry to find value in either their stance or their poems.  There is often far more to be gained by intelligent, informed disagreement. The practice of internet commentary, where "I like this" or "I agree" passes as intelligent comment, is embarrassingly inadequate as a model of intelligent discourse. Reject what he believed in by all means, but confront your own assumptions when you do. There's a lot to learn in that confrontation. 

Whatever he was like as a person, as a poet and critic there was something marvelous, obdurate and valuable in his unwillingness to short change his own vision. 

Safe travelling.

From Funeral Music #5

Not as we are but as we must appear
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequences when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us-or anyone,
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished..

Friday, July 1, 2016

Tom Pickard's 'Winter Migrants'.

Stopped, completely, at or by:

I do not want to die 
without writing the unwritten

pleasure of water.

The last three lines of Lark & Merlin from 'Winter Migrants' carcanet 2016.
More on this book later.