Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix

Poem: Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


While I have struggled with many of the poems in Hill’s Without Title, they have all offered me at least reason to want to delve into them further, to unpack their gnarled thickets of words. “Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix” is the first poem I do not care to pursue further. Even without a clear grasp of its sense, some of the lines I find inherently uninviting, irredeemable. For one:

Enlarge the lionized
apparatus of fucking.

Here one may suspect I am a prude when it comes to poetry, and I can’t exactly deny the charge. It is not that I have any general objection to fucking in poetry, but I do find that I have specific objections to nearly every instance, and this is not the rare exception. It does not help that the next line is “Wacko falsetto of stuck pig.”

I do not much like being negative, so I’ll run through only one further line before concluding:

There is no good ending admits fade-out.

I find this line frustrating on two counts. First, semantically, it is so condensed that it will not resolve to any meaning. It is ambiguous between meaning something either “no fade-out can be a good ending” and “when there is no good ending, a fade-out is admitted.” (The poem opens with a quotation of lyrics from “The Wind Cries Mary,” which I presume ends with a fadeout. I could not find a studio version of the song online to check.) I do not see how the poem gains from being undecidable between these opposites.

Perhaps it is unfair to call the sense undecidable. The poem is generally appreciative, so it is likely that the latter is meant. But this still leaves the second issue, which is that the line is hideously unmusical. It starts well enough, but “admits fade-out” allows for three possible readings (bold indicates stress placement):

admits fade-out
admits fade-out
admits fade-out

The first is how it would be read in normal English, but the clog of stresses just sounds… bad. The second reading perverts the normal stressing of ‘admits’ in a way that preserves a perfect trochaic meter for the line, but it is too unnatural to be be believed, and forces the line to be read in a sing-song way that overemphasizes the meter—only that will force the stress into line. The last reading is perhaps best: in other contexts both ‘fade’ and ‘out’ might take a stress, so it less of a deformation to switch the stress around. Moreover, because on this reading the line switches to iambs for the final two feet (after three trochaic feet to begin), it is not so unnatural as the second reading. So it is almost tolerable, but still awkward.

Perhaps with time I will come to appreciate this poem, but for now I can only see it as a misstep.

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