Hill, Geoffrey

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.

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.