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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.

Poem: Luxe, Calme et Volupté
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books

The poem’s title traces back to a line from Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage.” That poem and many English translations thereof can be found here. Henri Matisse also used that line for the title of one of his paintings.


There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

These lines of Baudelaire present an ideal placidness that Hill will inevitably disrupt. He does so from the very first word of his poem: “Lost.” If Baudelaire’s ideal is going to enter this poem, it is only as something lost. Hill’s interest is to clarify the metaphysics of loss:

Lost is not vanished; nor is it finished;
more like a haunting from the ghost future
that was not ours and cannot now be called
through into being by too late consent.

The loss is not something possessed once but no longer, nor something begun but now finished (a cessation of activity). Rather, the loss is of an unattainable future, one we disdained to own until too late. Whether this is a general statement of a fact of life, how the materiality of the world always disrupts the perfect realization of ideas, or whether it is something more private, known only to Hill and to “PMH” (to whom the poem is dedicated), I cannot say.

The poem ends with “both of us here” (I presume Hill and PMH) “conjoined in epitaph / awaiting stone.” In the context of this poem alone, these lines do not take on their full resonance. But read in the light of “On the Sophoclean Moment in English Poetry” (see my discussion here), the likening of the words of the poem to stone takes on extra meaning. Hill in the earlier poem claimed that “words are never stone / except in their appearance.” Here, the shorter line “awaiting stone” gives this poem something of the appearance of an inverted tombstone. This suggests a send-up of the fixation implied in these lines: we are “awaiting stone,” perhaps, but not quite stone yet. Words, after all, are never stone…

Poem: The Storm
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

Links

This poem is a “translation” of Eugenio Montale’s ‘La Bufera’. The English can be found side-by-side with the original at the very bottom of the document here (PDF link). Hill recites the poem himself here (though the recording cuts off the first few words).


I confess to not getting much from this poem. Right from the start I dislike the choice of ‘batters’. Hill, usually so judicious in his choice of words, here chooses a somewhat brusque and brutal word. The storm “batters” the leaves—why would someone so good at describing rain choose this? Likewise, ‘dure’, which apparently means ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ (I know no Italian), becomes “impermeable,” a strengthening of the word for which I don’t see the necessity. One more: an Italian phrase that (per Google translate) means something like, “the castanets, the thrill of tambourines,” becomes “bashing of castanets and tambourines.” Like “batters” earlier, “bashing” here seems needlessly strong, as if Hill himself is bashing me with the poem. To be clear, my objection is not that these lines are inaccurate as translation. I am happy for Hill to change the poem however he likes to make a new English original. My objection is that he has failed to do so in compelling ways.

This is not to say that no lines capture me. I like the following especially:

lightning that makes stark-white the trees,
the walls, suspending them—
interminable instant—marbled manna
and cataclysm—

It is fruitful to compare “interminable” here to “impermeable” earlier. Both suggest an absolute: the impenetrability of the leaves, the unendingness of the instant. But whereas the poetic work done by “impermeable” is lacking in comparison to the grandeur of the word, describing the instant of a lightning strike as “interminable” captures something real about the instant of it, namely the way lightning’s illumination “suspends” its objects, seeming to take them out of time. Following this, “marbled manna / and cataclysm” plays off the notion of suspension further (“marbled” suggesting both the “stark-white” color and the idea of a statue, which is a different kind of suspension). The contrast of manna and cataclysm captures well the sustenance and danger that commingle in the experience of lightning. Finally, it feeds into what is to follow: “deep in you sculpted…”

So, yes, there are well wrought lines as there will be in any Hill poem. On the whole, however, I cannot say the endeavor is well sounded.

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.

Poem: Offertorium: Suffolk, July 2003
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


A bit of etymology to begin. The hinge word of the poem is the first of the last line: ‘unobliterate.’ A combination of the prefix ‘un’ and the adjective ‘obliterate’. The prefix signals negation. ‘Obliterate’ means ‘blotted out; obliterated’ (OED). That last word might not be a helpful explication, so here is the OED on ‘obliterated’: “1. Completely get rid of from the mind; do away with, destroy” (the second definition is a version of ‘blotted out’; the third is a technical term probably irrelevant to the poem, though I may be wrong).

The verb ‘to obliterate’ comes from the Latin ‘oblit(t)erare’, to strike out. This is itself a combination of a prefix ‘ob’ (“denoting opposition or confrontation”) and a noun ‘lit(t)era’, letter. So to obliterate is to cancel the letter, from which it is only a small step to ‘to strike out’ or ‘to blot out’.

Thus ‘unobliterate’ is a double negative, suggesting the undoing of a canceling of the letter. Now let us see it in context:

…………………………………………….Abundant hazards,
being and non-being, every fleck through which
………………………………..this time affords
unobliterate certainties hidden in light.

Being and non-being are “hazards,” but ineluctable hazards, and we “fleck through” them. “Fleck” itself suggests a kind of marking, and thus we have marks transitioning from being to non-being and back, obliterate, then unobliterated. “Certainties” is a resonant word, here, as the object that takes the predicate “unobliterate.” The suggestion is that knowledge must first be canceled before it can be regained as a certainty, which is consistent with Hill’s general apophatic methodology.

I have, perhaps cheaply, taken the easy way out and discussed only the “moral” of the poem, the generality that emerges from the very close depiction of particulars earlier in the poem, but that will have to do for now.