Improvisation on ‘Warum ist uns das Licht gegeben?’

Poem: Improvisation on ‘Warum ist uns das Licht gegeben?’
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: I can’t find the poem online, but here is Brahms’ motet

Twice previously, I have discussed Hill’s comparison of language to stone, his questioning of their relation. This is at issue once again in the final poem in Without Title, “Improvisation on ‘Warum ist uns das Licht gegeben?’” It begins:

Scored by folk-genius set to its lathe.
I also am a worker in iron.

Iron is not stone, quite, and the difference is important: we have learned to make iron malleable. Words are never stone: they are iron, hard, recalcitrant, stubborn, but fluid beneath the hands of the sensitive poet, he who knows how to work them and make them work.

Just as much as the first lines, the final lines of this poem can be taken as a reflection back on the collection as a whole, poetry as a whole:

Against survival something that endures:
win, lose, the paid-up quiet death.

Poetry endures, but is not survival. I am reminded of Emerson’s occasional comments on the immortality of the soul, how that immortality, whatever it might be, was not a personal survival. And indeed, the survival of one’s poetry is not the survival of oneself, but at best the survival of what I have called, in a poem I wrote commemorating Hill, one’s “casings.”

This reading has the implication that Hill regards poetry as a kind of “paid-up quiet death.” This seems apt enough, in my experience.



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