Broken Hierarchies

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.

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3 comments
  1. But isn’t brokenness often a response to decay? I thought this was an excellent post–to think about and re-read. Thank you.

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    • Perhaps, and in the broader context of Without Title, which so often concerns itself with decay in one form or another, that would make a great deal of sense: there is much decay that warrants his response here. But I would insist that a response to decay is a wholly different thing to a symptom of decay.

      On another topic, where would one start with Blackmur? (And, tangential to this: look, if you haven’t, at the “criticism” section of his Wikipedia entry. It is inadequate in a rather amusing way!)

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      • Blackmur’s criticism is out of print, mostly, I think. I’m not sold on it entirely–it seems to be at times more excited about criticism than criticism itself. But that can be oddly inspiring and some sentences leap out as being really useful. Anyway, the best collection is probably “Form and Value in Modern Poetry.” Though I was on a Blackmur high when I started the blog, Donald Davie, Geoffrey Hill, William Empson, and Christopher Ricks are the principal animators.

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