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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.

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Poem: On the Sophoclean Moment in English Poetry
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


………………………………….Words are never stone
except in their appearance.

This is the key to the poem: we are to recognize in its words, their apparent fixity, some underlying fluidity. They are plain things, “but not basics precisely.” They are little slippery, a little reticent to be grasped.

The critical question is what constitutes the Sophoclean moment. I have not found any consistent usage the phrase outside this poem. I have found it used to mean the moment a hero faces his fate, a moment of direct confrontation, and a moment of desiring never to have been born (this one three times). Then there is also Hill’s own contribution: “Try again.”

In the context of the poem, I suspect that it is the last—the moment of desiring never to have been born—that is at issue. Here is how it is described:

A serene draw, the Sophoclean Moment
if only for a moment, issues thence
into the unforestalled or, failing that,
experienced inexperience.

The serenity of it suggests to me a private desire, however awful it may be. It lasts only a moment, then proceeds into inexperience, whether that inexperience is “unforestalled” or “experienced.” This is tricky to interpret. My best guess is that the inexperience is the natural state, and that experience forestalls it, without somehow eradicating it. But that is not quite sensible, and I do not know how to pin it down. The words simply do not quite slot together neatly. They are not bricks.

The wish never to have been born is naturally counterbalanced with death, and this makes its appearance toward the end of the poem:

Answer for what I am? No time to answer,
a nerve of ageing touched upon and primed:
as when the jittery leaf snags, is a mouse:
one stop from Sophocles to Sepulchre.

There is no time for an answer to the question “what am I,” for the poet, too, is not stone, is not sufficiently fixed to admit of an answer. And yet this reasoning, suggesting by so much in the poem, is not the reason given. Rather, there is a lack of time. He can feel himself ageing, can see how swiftly one may move from Sophocles to Sepulchre.

This last line is rich, with multiple layers of contradictory meanings. In addition to the surface meaning of moving from the living fluidity thus far addressed in the poem to the morbid repose of the sepulchre, there is also the concrete instantiation of the principle that words are not stone, as ‘Sophocles’ is transformed to ‘Sepulchre.’ But this fluidity, which counteracts the repose, is itself counteracted by the fact that sepulchre is a tomb carved into rock. The very fluidity of words has brought them to stiffness.

Poem: To the Teller of Fortunes
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


What follows below are the sequence of my thoughts as I tried to interpret the poem—I started with­out any definite interpretation. We shall see where I end up: at the time of writing this introduction­ I have not finished the main text of this post.

At his most difficult, Hill’s poems seem unconnected from sentence to sentence. Take the first stanza of his “To the Teller of Fortunes”:

Spread sand not straw. Salt useless here although
useful elsewhere. Stresses count in a line,
help weld and wield. Take me to task—or worse—
for misappropriation. Pontoon’s not
bridge: I understand that by reproof.
Plain speaking still an order I believe.
To which now add: the omens
blood-fuddled and in other ways befouled.
Sounds good.

The first sentence is easy enough: the fortune teller is to use sand and not straw for the read­ing. I was able to find a bit online about sand-reading practices, though not about straw-reading. The next sentence tells us some about the proper locations for using salt. One might have expected some explanation of “sand not straw,” but at least there is a connec­tion: sand, not straw or salt.

Then we are told about stresses, that is, poetic meter (the first two lines are both pentameter). Regular patterns of stresses help hold the poem’s materials together and help the poet to wield them. (Right now, it seems like the form of the poem is all that holds it to­gether, without help from sense!) The thought is not obviously connected to the point about materials, but perhaps the suggestion is that the poem is a kind of fortune told from vari­ous omens.

But no sooner have I won that connection than I am immediately thrust back into uncertainty, for the next line does not obviously build on it. What is the misappropriation? The most pertinent sense of ‘appropriation’ appears to be the taking of something external and making it one’s own. Is it the appropriation of fortune-telling into his poem that is earning him ire (whose? the fortune-teller’s?)? And what is he expecting “worse” than being taken to task?

And now we are yanked elsewhere yet again, to the world of card games. There is perhaps a pun here: pontoon and bridge are both card games, but a pontoon and a bridge are both means for crossing rivers. Hill learns the difference by “reproof,” so perhaps here is the taking to task, though I’m not sure how a failure to distinguish is an appropriation.

The next sentence—“Plain speaking still an order I believe”—is a taunt, since what has come before is anything but. Perhaps what follows is an apology for the patent failure to follow this order: the omens are “blood-fuddled and in other ways befouled.” But I’m not convinced: the problem is not with the omens in themselves (if what has come before in the poem are the omens), but in their connection. The promise of stress-counting to “weld” them has not been upheld. Sounds good, I suppose—not that I have any idea who says that.

It is possible that this jumbled array of the first stanza is only set up. Perhaps it will make retroactive sense. I won’t go through the rest of the poem in as much detail, but I’ll see what I can make of it. The second stanza of the poem immediately frustrates with—what is a common technique of Hill’s—unspecified pronouns, in this case ‘he’ and ‘they’. Maybe ‘they’ are the spirits and ‘he’ is the fortune-teller. I couldn’t tell you. The daggers in the air suggest to me Macbeth. “Let the children cross” in the last line reinforces the pun I detected in the previous stanza. I have no idea what to do with the flail-tank and the tyrannicide.

The third stanza gives us Tiberius, a Roman emperor perhaps the victim of the tyrannicide. His emerald, it seems, contained a carving of the likeness of Jesus. There is a “feast of infamy” at which another unspecified pronoun (“your”) observes.

In the sixth stanza, Hill writes, “Reviewing language / I am wrought still by how patient it is.” I must confess that it is more patient than I am. I will have to make another pass at this poem some other time. Certainly I will not deny that it has its logic. Only I cannot find it, and thus cannot enjoy it.

Poem: Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


While I have struggled with many of the poems in Hill’s Without Title, they have all offered me at least reason to want to delve into them further, to unpack their gnarled thickets of words. “Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix” is the first poem I do not care to pursue further. Even without a clear grasp of its sense, some of the lines I find inherently uninviting, irredeemable. For one:

Enlarge the lionized
apparatus of fucking.

Here one may suspect I am a prude when it comes to poetry, and I can’t exactly deny the charge. It is not that I have any general objection to fucking in poetry, but I do find that I have specific objections to nearly every instance, and this is not the rare exception. It does not help that the next line is “Wacko falsetto of stuck pig.”

I do not much like being negative, so I’ll run through only one further line before concluding:

There is no good ending admits fade-out.

I find this line frustrating on two counts. First, semantically, it is so condensed that it will not resolve to any meaning. It is ambiguous between meaning something either “no fade-out can be a good ending” and “when there is no good ending, a fade-out is admitted.” (The poem opens with a quotation of lyrics from “The Wind Cries Mary,” which I presume ends with a fadeout. I could not find a studio version of the song online to check.) I do not see how the poem gains from being undecidable between these opposites.

Perhaps it is unfair to call the sense undecidable. The poem is generally appreciative, so it is likely that the latter is meant. But this still leaves the second issue, which is that the line is hideously unmusical. It starts well enough, but “admits fade-out” allows for three possible readings (bold indicates stress placement):

admits fade-out
admits fade-out
admits fade-out

The first is how it would be read in normal English, but the clog of stresses just sounds… bad. The second reading perverts the normal stressing of ‘admits’ in a way that preserves a perfect trochaic meter for the line, but it is too unnatural to be be believed, and forces the line to be read in a sing-song way that overemphasizes the meter—only that will force the stress into line. The last reading is perhaps best: in other contexts both ‘fade’ and ‘out’ might take a stress, so it less of a deformation to switch the stress around. Moreover, because on this reading the line switches to iambs for the final two feet (after three trochaic feet to begin), it is not so unnatural as the second reading. So it is almost tolerable, but still awkward.

Perhaps with time I will come to appreciate this poem, but for now I can only see it as a misstep.

Poem: Epiphany at Hurcott
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/epiphany-at-hurcott-1433


Like Offertorium: December 2002, Epiphany at Hurcott is a poem of place and mood. But while the title promises us an epiphany, we are nowhere told the content of this supposed mental revolution. Offertorium offers us some glimpse of the spiritual in its talk of distortion, departure, and restitution, but Epiphany at Hurcott gives us only the setting.

We start in “profoundly silent January,” immediately creating an expectation of a drab white or grey scene. It is surprising, then, to find out that it “shows up / clamant with colour.” Here it should be noted that ‘clamant’ opens the second line with a trochaic substitution that is in its own way a little surprise. The rest of the poem presents to us this clamant green and black and orange, the “luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole,” the “red earth, / dampened to umber,” the cliffs that “glitter like cut anthracite,” the reflection in a lake of the “tawny sky.”

What is the epiphany? We are not told. Perhaps the hope is that by describing the scene with sufficient vividness, we can be brought to share it. Perhaps the poet simply recognizes that what is internal resists expression, can only be brought out by indirections such as describing the location in which it was felt. Or perhaps the epiphany is merely this: the realization that this place could be described in this way.