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.
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.