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Words, Words, Words

Theophilus Kwek

Words, words, words

I know thee not, old man; fall to thy prayers

Professor Sir Geoffrey Hill

Examination Schools, 5th May 2014, 5.30pm

 

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, Words, Words.

Polonius: What is the matter? /…/

Hamlet: Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams…

Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Hamlet, II.2

It is tempting to seek something existential in Sir Geoffrey Hill’s last lecture as Professor of Poetry, a post he has held for five years. He begins, after all, in the St Cross church-yard, a “stone’s throw” (he reminds us, relishing the term) from the English Faculty, a nod to the end of what he later calls his “temporary local celebrity.” But despite the valedictory references, and though his lecture is more autobiographical than usual, Hill does not dwell on his poetry or position. The subject of this entrée, whom Hill pursues with now-familiar erudition, is Charles Williams – “honorary” academic, wartime lecturer, and associate of the Inklings – who was nearly as long dead, and buried at St Cross, before Hill came to Oxford in 1950 as the length of Hill’s tenure.

Careful to situate the text in its 1930 milieu, Hill draws on a fragment of Williams’ criticism in Poetry at Present as the backbone of his lecture. The “lesser poets,” Williams writes, “remark what we do and turn it into rhythm”:

 

But the faculty of compressing meaning into a phrase is denied to them. We have to cover as much ground in their verse as in our own thoughts, and consequently we tire as soon.

 

Williams’ standard resonates with Hill, for whom, he gamely confesses, “the concept of a linguistic force-field has the twisted vitality of Satan’s sceptre in the mind of a religious maniac.” He arrives at this through an intricate consideration of the term ‘force-field’ and its histories, found in several generations of the Oxford English Dictionary, before settling on a quote from Anscombe’s translation of Wittgenstein: “the first judgement is not the end of the matter – it is the field of force of a word which is decisive.” By this, Hill explains, Anscombe implies that meaning is given by the “conceptual inertia” each word possesses, on account of past and present senses, not merely its familiar uses.

Good poetry, for Hill, draws on such force-fields of language to “compress meaning into a phrase.” In doing so it becomes, in Ezra Pound’s words, a “vortex through which and into which ideas are constantly rushing.” Hill envisions a “first great poem” in which each word is naturally, beautifully invested with the “simultaneous valency” of its meanings. It reads, he imagines, the same way a note struck in the bass clef “alters the articulation” of successive notes in the treble. And indispensable to his vision is a “first great reader” who possesses a natural sense for such music, and can sound it in an instant.

There is timelessness in this. Hill borrows the categorical terms of Lascelle Abercrombie’s letter to Isaac Rosenberg: some poets, regardless of period, possess the “ability to make the concealed poetic power in words come flashing out,” and some do not. Mirroring good poetry, the “finest criticism,” Hill maintains, does not merely explain, but “tells you by inference and conference what poetry is – in 1930, 1970, or 2015.” And with modest reference to his own powers as a critic, Hill moves into the meat of his lecture: “not more succinctly, more accurately, or more justly, but I will do what I can”

 

The bulk of Hill’s lecture is occupied (“the writing of poetry,” he cautions, “is a high-risk occupation”) with criticism of one of Philip Larkin’s poems, ‘Church Going.’ He intones the poem – lingering on the question “what remains when disbelief has gone?” (line 35) – before referring to it, without apology, as “an act of blundering self-therapy”. With swift precision he sums it up: Larkin enters the church with some measure of “awkwardness, sympathy, and condescension,” speculates on some elements of the place, and leaves “somewhat more sympathetic, and a trifle more condescending.”

Hill’s precis has taken 91 words, Larkin’s poem comes to 470. Its meaning has not been compressed: it is guilty of excess. In his clumsy handling of linguistic force-fields Larkin has behaved, in Hill’s view, like a “university wit”, not naturally balancing choice words and their meanings, but “poetically employing colloquial ambiguity. ‘Hill descends on some chosen lines. Larkin’s “cathedrals chronically on show” (line 27), for example, toys with meanings of “chronically” to support empty “rumination”. And Hill believes “who / will be the last, the very last” (lines 38-39) makes no “profound existential distinction” between the ‘last’ and ‘very last, ‘but merely provides “the right number of syllables.”

What becomes increasingly clear as Hill delivers his critique, however, is that the lecture is not about Larkin and his “lobbyists.” Hill’s argument is against Larkin’s approach, typified in this poem where he sees little effort to craft a vortex of meaning from the words. Consequently, “as much ground” must be covered in verse as in the reader’s thoughts. Despite being among Larkin’s “best-known” (Hill weighs, and rejects, the handle “best-loved”), it is “lesser” by Hill’s measure. “I challenge you,” he roars, “read ‘Church Going’ in the light of Charles Williams’ words and tell me that I am wrong.”

Hill takes greater issue with the attitude behind Larkin’s approach. Larkin, he believes, is not only “secular rather than devout” with respect to the old church, but also to the cathedral of language in which he stands. Because Larkin has “no belief in the traditional,” because he thinks that “the poet’s only guide is his own judgement,” he cannot draw on the force-fields of words that Hill sees as vital to any poem’s construction. Further, Larkin’s disdain of what he called the poet’s “myth-kitty” – the reserve of words and their many-cultured histories, like Heaney’s “word-hoard” – renders the lines impotent, and poems like ‘Church Going’ “stylistically inane.” (Hill, aside: “I’m going to regret this.”)

This devaluation is not blamed squarely on Larkin, whose oeuvre contains “fine poems” (Hill cites ‘Days,’ ‘Water,’ and ‘The Explosion’ as his favourites), “average poems, and poems below average.” Hill also targets those who elevate the latter to the rightful place of the former, and thus detract from the recognition of good poetry as he has described it. In turn, he points to “cultural stupidity in high places,” and the promotion of poetry which aspires not to perfection, but lucrative “self-expression.” ‘Church Going,’ he notes, enjoying every syllable, was published by The Spectator.

These are not the complaints of yet another hostile critic, aimed to “render the owner of a mind bankrupt.” Hill is an “old jealous lover of the art.” Someone whose “concern is not Poetry”, he contends, citing Owen, “has no business pressing it on others.” The words must be worked, won. And yet such circuits on the “etymological treadmill” as he prescribes are a labour of love. He fondly refers to the “massif” that his twenty-volume OED represents, and despairs at the “personal psycho-sensual potency” to which less chiselled poems pretend. If he has already called himself a “religious maniac,” Hill comes out as a true believer for whom no prosperity gospel will suffice. One hears – almost! – an echo of Larkin: “When churches fall completely out of use / what shall we turn them into?”

 

You know, you write down things that you think are absolutely peculiar to yourself and nobody but you would be such a fool to invoke them or suffer them. Then suddenly you find people writing in from all over the place, saying – that’s just what I felt, you know, man, that’s it. And so on. I find this very, very gratifying indeed.

– Philip Larkin, Further Requirements, quoted by Hill verbatim

 

There will be some for whom Hill’s last lecture was his “least satisfactory” – his own, unsentimental assessment of Williams’ Poetry at Present – if only for its wide-ranging matter, his seemingly bitter criticism, or even his hectoring aggression. But Hill anticipates this. Responding to Larkin above, he takes his vision of poetry to its conclusion: “I cannot see that poetry has any obligation to cheer people up.” Hill’s poetry, and criticism, does not plan to please; one finds greater “job satisfaction,” anyway, “at an antiques roadshow.” Yet he is unrepentant and immensely convicting.

Perhaps it helps that through it all, Hill is also good-humoured and self-deprecating. Amid hunting down scholarly definitions in the OED he comments with a rare laugh on “practitioners of art [who] persuade themselves” that their pursuits involve “not disreputable art but dignified science.” He relates how he, “a timid conformist lower-second if ever there was one,” was granted a dismissive first by Tolkien, back in the day. And after a tortured reference to Hilary Mantel he deadpans, with perfect timing: “you can’t say over the five years that I haven’t sweated blood to be topical.”

Hill’s ire, at its sharpest, is directed ultimately not at Larkin’s books or beliefs but the “superior tone” with which, for instance, he dismisses the “dubious women” in ‘Church Going’ (“Dubious, OED: of questionable character”). Equally, he condemns established lobbies that are “no less virulent in poetry than those in banking or aeronautical engineering.” In a calculated blow he points out that universities, like this one, have “never been averse to the benefits of oligarchical plutocracy.” And finally he closes, as the lecture proves, with a ringing denouncement of “vested interests, not opinions”: a fitting coup from the working-class Worcestershire boy who was, once, “odd enough to be caught reading poetry during half-time in the stands.”

 

Theophilus Kwek is reading for a BA in History and Politics at Merton College, Oxford. He is the winner of this year’s Jane Martin Prize for Poetry.