Poem: Broken Hierarchies
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books
I am almost at a loss for anything to say about this poem, it is so—relative to its companions—straightforward. Much of Without Title is beautiful, to be sure, but this is the first poem where beauty, by itself and pure, has been the guiding principle. A sampling:
the roadway sprouts ten thousand flowerets,
storm-paddies instantly reaped, replenished,
and again cut down:
the holding burden of a wistaria
drape amid drape, the sodden
copia of all things flashing and drying:
like Appalachian music, those
aureate stark sounds
plucked or bowed, a wild patience
replete with loss,
the twankled dulcimer,
scrawny rich fiddle gnawing;
My sample is, it turns out, nearly half the poem. No matter. It is a poem that invites being read more than being discussed.
The most puzzling feature is the title: why “Broken Hierarchies”? For in fact the poem does not present any obvious hierarchies. All is presented on a level: first rain, then the storm-paddies, then butterflies, then the “flint church,” then Appalachian musicians, then birds, then the ocean. There is no Scala Natura here, that I can see. Nothing is privileged.
Of course it is possible to read hierarchy into it. The slight “humming bird” is immediately followed by weightier “wanderers like the albatross,” which even earns the epithet “great.” Are we to take that as a hierarchy? Or, on a broader scale, the poem begins with rain and ends with the ocean that, in the end, subsumes it. Is that our hierarchy? In both cases it seems as if preexisting judgments drive the interpretation, with little support from the poem itself. The glue of this poem is “and” and “also,” not “then” and “next.”
Perhaps it is just this: the very disruption of hierarchical expectations is what gives us the broken hierarchies of the title. If that is correct—and I am not willing to state confidently that it is—then the poem is a rare beast indeed: a Geoffrey Hill poem where brokenness is vigorous and not a symptom of decay.