A Difficult Poet
Enitharmon Press, 2011
Given Geoffrey Hill’s current reputation as a “difficult” poet, it’s easy to forget how reader-friendly, lucid, and accommodating he could once be. Here are two stanzas from the opening of Hill’s book-length poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), written in memory of the French poet killed in World War I:
Crack of a starting-pistol. Jean Jaurés
Dies in a wine-puddle. Who or what stares
Through the café window crêped in powder smoke?
The bill for the new farce reads Sleepers Awake.
Did Péguy kill Juarés? Did he incite
The assassin? Must men stand by what they write
As by their camp-beds or their weaponry
Or shell-shocked comrades while they saga and cry?
And here is the first stanza of Hill’s most recent book-length poem, Clavics (2011), written, a helpful dust-jacket blurb informs us, in memory of “William Lawes the Royalist musician, killed at the battle of Chester”:
Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise
Numerology also makes much sense,
Watch us conform
To the immense
Attaching to the swarm-
Ing mass the dense fluctuations of the material
Out from which I shall be lucky to twitch
See where who goes?
Suffices what she does
To the low threshold of contemplation
Her servile master subsisting on scraps
As one pursuing ethics perhaps.
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. I really can’t say, and I bet you can’t either. The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy began (literally) with a bang, but it also did an admirable job of filling readers in on relevant historical and biographical details without making them feel that they were being lectured, and without resorting to footnotes. Faced with an opening stanza like the one above, readers of Clavics can only hold on for dear life and hope things get clearer as they go along.
And at first it seems there’s reason to hope things might: “Clavics”, according to the mock definition that Hill provides from the “Oxford English Dictionary, 2012,” is “[t]he science or alchemy of keys”, and the poet and critic Ernest Hilbert has suggested that, taken together, the two stanzas of each section (the form of the second stanza in each case is modelled on George Herbert’s “Easter Wings”) are meant to resemble a key, or perhaps a key and keyhole. Perhaps, as door after door is opened, it will become increasingly clear what Hill is talking about. Certainly the second part of Section One is a model of clarity, if only compared to what came before:
Intensive prayer ís intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff
One recognises the characteristics of Hill’s late style—the defensive attempt to disarm the reader and critic by defying them, the allusions that are so prevalent as to resemble a nervous tic, and an honest attempt to rehabilitate or redeem the sloganeering of contemporary language. George Herbert’s marvellous sonnet “Prayer” compares its subject to everything under the sun—and beyond the stars—so why not “intensive care”? There’s a formidable intelligence and powerful personality on display in this stanza, and had the poem continued on like this, it might have been worth the effort.
But the bulk of Clavics turns out to be extraordinarily difficult, almost impossible, to parse, and all too many passages that do yield up paraphrasable sense read like implausible headlines or mnemonic devices, as though they had been composed according to an Old-Norse verse form after one too many quaffs of mead: “Erasmus, in Praise of Folly: / Grand antidote no substitute for bling”; “Richard Dadd dab hand at Prize Depiction”; “Straw men in flagrante folk-upbraided”. It’s not that one can’t identify some of the themes to which Hill has dealt with so often throughout his career, particularly the relation between political power (violence) and art. The problem, rather, is that what he says about these topics here so often verges on gibberish.
For the many critics who have regarded Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love (1998) as a descent into grouchy obscurantism, Clavics will read like one more stage in a great poet’s decline. My own baffled incomprehension when faced with the work at hand is a slightly different case. While I’ve found none of Hill’s later works easy, I do think that a reasonably open-minded reader (particularly one sympathetic to high modernist literature) can find much value in them. The critical consensus has rightly regarded Speech! Speech! (2000) as Hill’s most rebarbative and difficult work up until this point, but even in that book, there are passages of great descriptive beauty as well as a spiky rhetorical power:
Reformation woodcuts enscrolled such things
between the lips of magistrates, prophets,
and visionary infants. To me it sounds
like communications breakdown, somebody
promoting his (say her) fanatical
expressionless self-creation on a stuck track.
Our show-host has died many times; the words
of welcome dismiss us.
Anomie is as good a word as any;
so pick any; who on earth will protest?
Whatever is said now I shall believe it
of the unnamed god.
The idea of playing this kind of clenched, fragmentary utterance across an intricate metrical and visual pattern, as Hill has done in Clavics, is an intriguing one. But as much as it pains me to say it, this new work does not contain one successful passage of the same length as the above. Now and then pieces bob up, like flotsam from a wreck, that recall Hill at his best:
Listen to and make music while you can
Pray Mater ora Filium
Cry Spem in Alium
God is made man
Impartially these tributes
Creation call it that believes
Even to blasphemy in our ranged throats
On every page there are lines that crackle with intelligence : “Untenable still the timeless values”; “Virtues by will / Without them let us call plunder plenty”; “But one / Candle lit on / The well-iced birthday slab, so be my guest.” However, Clavics is a mistake that few poets now living would have the talent to make, but it is no less a mistake for that.
I can’t help thinking that this new poem is intended to express its own impossibility. Hill seems to be saying: Look, I have taken as my poem’s ostensible subject a musician; I have written said poem in a tightly rhymed form that is also a visual emblem; I have alluded to George Herbert, who was both a gifted musician and the English poet who married form to content more perfectly than any other. Further, I have cast my poem in 32 sections, 32 being the number of paths of wisdom in the Cabbala, as well as being one shy of the Christologically significant 33. None of that will help, though, since I, the poet, am writing in an age of “anarchical plutocracy” (to use William Morris’s term), when language has become so cheapened by politicians and the media that one can scarcely use it honestly without endless qualifications and self-recriminations. If parody and self-parody become indistinguishable, and I end up writing lines that are at once bad poetry and bad ad copy, so be it. Ich kann nicht anders.
The haunting dust-jacket photo for Clavics depicts a barn owl returning to its nest with wings spread wide, a living mouse dangling from its beak. The owl seems to wear a pleased expression on its face. The image would have been an apt emblem for nearly any of Hill’s previous works, obsessed as they have been with power, bloodshed, and sacrifice. Given the owl’s association with learning and scholarship, though, I wonder if the image doesn’t also serve as a warning to the hapless reader. As the book proceeded and my bafflement increased, I increasingly identified with the mouse’s predicament borne up to its dark end.
Bill Coyle is the author of the poetry collection The God of This World to His Prophet (2006) and recipient of a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (2010).