Monthly Archives: July 2016

Later tonight, I’ll be reading and discussing poems from Geoffrey Hill’s Without Title with some fellow local poetry enthusiasts. Since I chose the book, the onus is on me to introduce it. I wrote up the following by way of introduction. It expands upon the thoughts developed in my earlier post on ‘Ars’.

I chose Geoffrey Hill’s Without Title knowing nothing much about him or his work besides that he is, or was, sometimes called the greatest living poet in the English language. I figured that sounded like a poet worth reading. As many of you know, he died about a month ago, so the choice is now especially appropriate, albeit for an unhappy reason.

I want to start, not with a general introduction to Hill, but by reading one of his poems, ‘Ars’. It isn’t my favorite of the poems in Without Title, but I think it provides a window into Hill’s method. So I’ll read the poem first, then use that as a springboard into an introduction to the book.

[Read ‘Ars’]

Those final lines strike me as a succinct summation of Hill’s poetic method.

………………………………I grasp the possible

rightness of certain things
that possess the imagination, however briefly;

the verdict of their patterned randomness.

The idea of “patterned randomness” captures well the feeling—at least the initial feeling—of reading one of Hill’s poems. Hill layers image upon image, but frequently without any clear narrative arc, nor even helpful grammatical connectors. They feel, on first approach, like a random assortment of things that, for whatever reason, gave Hill the impression of “possible / rightness,” that possessed his imagination just long enough for him to press them together. Yet this randomness is not mere anarchy, is “patterned.” Finding this pattern takes effort, several re-readings at least, and for many of the poems in the book I confess I failed to find it, or if I did find something, all I found was a nearly ineffable unity of mood. I certainly do not deny that he is difficult.

‘Ars’ brings out a second feature of Hill’s poetry: his wry humor. As Hill himself explains:

Not everything’s a joke but we’ve been had.

In this line, I half-suspect that Hill is responding secretly to criticism of his poetry’s difficulty. Such poetry (and not just poetry), justly or unjustly, nearly always attracts the criticism that the obscurity is a façade disguising a lack of real substance. We, as readers, worry that “we’ve been had,” that the poem is a joke at our expense. If this suspicion is right, this line itself is a joke, a gentle ribbing we’ve earned with our anxieties..

One more example of his humor. The lines—

What is incomparable and are we
making a list?

—strike me as amusing in a quiet kind of way. I don’t know, in the end, what is incomparable, nor do I know the significance of making a list of incomparable things, but the juxtaposition of those two questions is still funny. In this case the humor is aided by the rhythm of the lines: the absence of punctuation within the sentence asks you to read it somewhat quickly, until the questions blend together. It gives the sentence an air of naïve eagerness that is funny to imagine.

Having started by discussing the end of Hill’s poem, it is only fitting I end by discussing its beginning. Hill opens with what might be taken as words of encouragement to the beleaguered reader:

Hazardous but press on.

Poem: Autobiography of Red
Poet: Anne Carson

Let me begin, not with Carson, not even with poetry, but with the visual arts. When I walk through the contemporary section of the local art museum, I come away dissatisfied, and I think I am coming to know why. For too many of the works, their meaning (as indicated by the the short blurb hanging on the wall beside them) rests on certain symbols or techniques of creation that are said to have a certain resonance, that are to be read in a particular way. The trouble I run into comes when, as so often, these preferred interpretations get their privilege by stipulation, and not by earning it. But if the meaning must be stipulated to be grasped, it is not present at all within the work. It is merely externally, arbitrarily imposed.

The great work of art—in any medium—creates a network of significances that primes its perceiver to react in appropriate ways. It makes its meanings manifest. If some symbol is to be associated with a particular mood, that association must be established diligently before it can be drawn upon. It is possible, of course, that this significance could be established generally in a manner external to the poem (I think of the “talent” in Milton’s sonnet on his blindness), but if significances that do not predate the work are needed, they must be brought out from within the work.

Now we have arrived at Carson’s book, for it excels at precisely this. Beginning with the Stesichoros fragments (translated loosely—to put it mildly—by Carson herself) and their associated “critical apparatus,” which together a partial, gappy network, a string of images connected by fine gossamer, almost invisible, Carson goes on to flesh these out in a novel context, building new connections as she goes. This shapes the subsequent reading, so that when crucial images arise I know how to respond without being told.

Many examples might be given; I will give just one. The color red plays a central role in the book, being closely associated with Geryon’s perception of the world, and perhaps his world itself (the world itself?). This is worked out for some time before other colors enter (as indeed they must, for Geryon, despite carefully separating internal from external beginning at an early age, still loves in a world with more colors than just red). So, too, is the theme of wrongness, as when the babysitter reads Geryon a book with her “wrong voice”—that is, her voice that is not that of Geryon’s mother.

These two themes—the primacy of red, and the issue of wrongness—come together when Herakles (Geryon’s lover-killer) dreams of Geryon:

…the reason I called is to tell you
about my dream I had a dream of you last night. Did you. Yes you were this
old Indian guy standing on the back porch
and there was a pail of water there on the step with a drowned bird in it—
big yellow bird really huge you know
floating with its wings out and you leaned over and said,
Come on now
get out of there—and you took it
by one wing and just flung it right up into the air whoosh it came alive
and then it was gone.

Geryon’s response to being told of this dream:

Yellow? said Geryon and he was thinking Yellow! Yellow! Even in dreams
he doesn’t know me at all! Yellow!

Had Herakles known Geryon, the bird would, of course, have been red. So the color yellow has now been associated with wrongness. It has also, somewhat more implicitly, been associated with the impasse that exists between human minds, the difficulty (impossibility) of truly communicating oneself to another and thus of truly knowing and being known by another.

So when, a few chapters later, Geryon meets a philosopher (who studies the skeptics), and this philosopher is first identified as “yellowbeard,” we should be alert. In all likelihood, there is something “wrong” about him. In some way or another he and Geryon will fail to connect, as is indeed the case. To give just one instance of his wrongness, consider his treatment of Pascal in a lecture that he gives and which Geryon attends:

Un poco misterioso, the yellowbeard
was saying. From the ceiling glared seventeen neon tubes. I see the terrifying
spaces of the universe hemming me in. . . .

the yellowbeard quoted Pascal and then began to pile words up all around the terror
of Pascal until it could scarcely be seen—
Geryon paused in his listening and saw the slopes of time spin backwards and stop.

Carson, having carefully established the resonances of the color yellow earlier in the book, can freely draw upon them here, and does so to tremendous effect. It is also worth noting that the issue of sight and blindness, though I have not discussed them, been of major issue in the book, starting, again, with Stesichoros, who reputedly was struck blind by Helen upon slandering her in a poem, then had his sight restored upon taking it back. It is these layers of meaning that give the poem its unity and its life.

Poem: [Who stands, the crux left of the watershed]
Poet: W.H. Auden

There is much to admire about this poem. I want to hone in on one particular feature of it that I find especially effective, an series of ambiguities that Auden deftly exploits. Let us start at the broadest scale, with the overall motion of the poem. The poem has two stanzas. The first begins impersonally—

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing floors,

—while the second opens with a direct address—

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed…

Immediately we must ask who the stranger is. Three options present themselves: the stranger is the reader, the stranger is the poet himself, and the stranger is some unnamed, private reference, not meant for us to know. The poem, as I read it, sustains each interpretation, indeed the poem, as it seems to me, rather asks to be read in each of these ways. I want to explore especially the possibilities of the first two readings: stranger as poet and stranger as reader.

The poem opens with an image of the decay of an industry (lead mining): “An industry already comatose, / Yet sparsely living.” But, just as the poem as a whole transitions from impersonal to personal, so the decay transitions from inhuman to human:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters…

This brings us to the death of a worker in a storm. What is curious here is the choice. Though many are dead, only some are chosen—only the one death makes its way into the poem. This creates a second ambiguity in the poem: who makes the selection? Is it the poet who selects this particular death for description, or is it the one who, standing by the watershed, recollects the death?

It is easy to see that this ambiguity intertwines with the first ambiguity. Perhaps the poet himself is the stranger standing by the watershed. The image that results from this reading is of the poet addressing himself. So now we have the poet observing the lead mines (call this the first order poet) and the poet observing (and describing) himself observing (call this the second order poet). Either may make the selection. Perhaps the first order poet is recalling one who died here whom he knew. Or perhaps the second order poet is bringing up one of the many who died, doesn’t matter which, to justify the warning command with which the second stanza begins. Once again, the poem sustains either reading.

In one regard the stranger-as-poet reading is the most natural. But because of the use of a direct second-personal address, the reader is invited on reading to take up the position of the stranger, to observe through the poet’s description. (Doubly so since the poet’s readers are primarily strangers in a literal sense.) Then it is the reader who is warned away, perhaps because it is too private, cannot be shared. (This is the fundamental tension and paradox of poetry, which tries to communicate what cannot be communicated: oneself.)

However it is read, the selection of the one dead man from among many must be understood in the light of lines that occur later in the poem. I juxtapose lines from both the first and second stanzas to make the basis for comparison clearer:

And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters; […]

This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.

That these lines should be considered together is signaled by the inverted repetition of “here and there.” The description of the stranger as “aimless for faces” suggests an arbitrariness in the selection, that any face would do. If we understand the stranger as the poet, then this is a bit of self-reproach. Perhaps the story of his death in the storm is itself a poetic fiction, something the poet imagined, stimulated by the decay he was viewing. Such a death, he imagines, would be appropriate, regardless of its reality or lack thereof. On the other hand, if we understand the stranger as the reader, then this heightens the sense of private significance to which we readers are not privy.

As I said above, I think the poem invites each of these readings. The ambiguity, the shuffling between these different significances, is part of the delight of reading it. This is the first Auden poem I have read (I will be reading all of Vintage’s edition of his Selected Poems, and will post about some of them), and it is a fine introduction.

Poem: Pindaric 4
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books

A great deal occurs in the opening lines of Hill’s fourth Pindaric (a series of poems in conversation with Cesare Pavese). Here are the lines:

Rattled emplacements, wind-garbled rookeries
of mistletoe; no traceable shiver
at the world’s heart: untouchably not
as we are, not everlasting.
Darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill;
the nesh yellows of Spring acclimatize
against black soil in lee of the Fleam Dyke.

In unpacking these lines, it is easiest to start in the middle: “untouchably not / as we are, not everlasting.” As I have remarked in other commentaries on Hill’s poems, he is frequently apophatic, employing a method of negative definition. This emerges here as well: we are “untouchably not.” Here “we” could be all humanity, or simply Hill and Pavese. This negative aspect, this inability to describe directly, leads to the inability to touch, a sort of direct contact that is here ruled out of the question. And why should we be this way? Precisely because we are “not everlasting.” Corruptible and corrupted becoming is too much in flux to submit to description. It lacks Being.

Sparked by this kernel the rest of the lines unfold their meaning. Because we are subject to generation and hence degeneration, we require defense: thus the “rattled emplacements” with which the poem begins. This though returns later in the form of the Fleam Dyke, a 6th or 7th century construction used for defense by some ancient Saxon tribe. The very location of the poem thus speaks to our finitude. Further, because we become, we have a history. Fleam Dyke is itself a relic of history, no longer used—and the Saxon tribe that used it of course no longer exists.

Fleam Dyke implicates the ineluctability of time on the grand scale. The “nesh yellows of Spring” do so on the smaller scale, that of the change of seasons. “Nesh” here is a rich word with a variety of pertinent meanings. It can indicate a soft texture, timidity, a lack of energy, dampness, and—perhaps most pertinent here—susceptibility to cold. In a climate where “darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill,” we can imagine that a nesh yellow is not long for this world, no matter how much they “acclimatize.” Meanwhile, the sun puts in mind Plato’s cave, where it exposes the shadows on the wall for the grand chill they are (think how we take to the shade to escape the sun’s heat).

In this setting, already imbued with so much thought, Hill demands of Pavese that he:

Bridge me your question from that other country
of speculation which you may enter

without leaving my side. And did I dream you?

Speculation, thought, is here another world—I suspect the eternal world of Being. At least, so it would be for Plato. But immediately we are back at Fleam Dyke:

Glazed wedges of furrow, tilting shield-angles,
prism a flash hail-squall; light cries now!

I get a sense of weary resignation as the poem continues, with Hill questioning the merits of our earthly say: “We did not need this / episodic fabric, this longevity.” But it is inescapable, and the poem ends grotesquely, as Hill himself admits:

…………………………….Grotesque as yours
my hid sex thrust like the mounted
head of a fox.

The genitals are emblematic of desire, and it is desire that characterizes becoming. Desire is a lack, implies incompletion, and that is only possible in fluxible becoming. It is incomprehensible that self-sufficient Being should desire. So we end with Hill’s “hid sex,” with the inescapability of desire. Yet Hill, as he is writing this, is old, becoming ever more decrepit, and so his “hid sex” takes on the aspect of a mounted hunting trophy.