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Geoffrey Hill

I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.

Poetry

Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)

Other

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.

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: 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.

Poem: Pindaric 3
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” frequently mimicked in meter what he described in words. His dazzling technical proficiency in doing so is one of the poem’s greatest attractions. Here is my favorite instance:

A needless alexandrine ends the song
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.

An alexandrine is a line of iambic hexameter. Pope is here satirizing poets who used forms that involved concluding a stanza otherwise entirely in iambic pentameter with a single alexandrine. The trouble was that the alexandrine threatened to slow down the flow of the poem too much, which Pope illustrates with a brilliant alexandrine of his own. The cluster of stresses in the middle—wounded snake, drags its slow length—brings the line nearly to a halt, as if it itself were the wounded snake described. (Note for fellow pedants: in scanning the line, “drags its slow length” would most likely be read as a trochaic substitution—drags its—followed by a normal iamb—slow length—but this just illustrates how impoverished scansion is when it comes to capturing the full rhythm of a line.)

Geoffrey Hill, in the third poem in his sequence of “Pindarics,” draws from this Papish well. Here are the poem’s final four lines:

Power’s not every place that virtue is,
and anarchy by files deploys to order
as if through modes of conduct or of weight:
dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

It is the last line I want to focus on. Here is how it scans:

Dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

The rest of the poem is in blank verse (though with Hill’s usual interspersing of the occasional clipped line), so most lines have five beats and are in the vicinity of ten syllables. This line, however, opens in dactylic meter. Because dactyls (stress, unstress, unstress) have three syllables, while iambs (unstress, stress) have only two, this creates a tension between the two measures of line length: is this line going to be a five-beat line (thus stretching out to an unwieldy fifteen syllables), or will it stick to ten syllables or thereabouts (at the cost of falling short of the full five beats)?

Neither is an ideal solution. Hill solves the problem with, as the line tells us, a “contrived rest.” After three perfect dactyls, the “-trived” in “contrived” should be the start of the fourth. But instead of continuing on, Hill grinds to a halt on the stressed “rest,” thus bringing the line up to five beats (in only eleven syllables). This rest is doubly contrived precisely because it follows the word ‘contrived,’ a disyllabic word with the stress on the second syllable. While the “rules” of meter in some circumstances permit two stressed syllables to appear back-to-back (as in the mid-line trochaic substitution in Pope’s alexandrine), they generally forbid it when the first stress falls on the second syllable of a disyllabic word. Read Hill’s line aloud and you will hear why: the line gets caught up there. “Contrived” really wants to be followed by an unstressed syllable. Hill denies it this satisfaction.

Hill’s line thus consists in a line of dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.

At this point, having described the metrical perfection of the line, I would like to go on to say something insightful about how it enhances the meaning of the poem as a whole. Unfortunately, I find the poem as a whole basically incomprehensible right now. So I shall have to stop here.