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Poem: The Storm
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

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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: In Ipsley Church Lane 2
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: http://clairenewcastle.blogspot.com/2013/09/in-ipsley-church-lane-2.html


Outside a ferocious rain is winding down, the sort that has hardly begun to rain before it vanishes. Such a rain is refreshing, bespeaking as it does a nature that is self-assertive, that knows what it wants and takes it. How much preferable are vigorous rains such as this to the gloomy, ineradicable drizzle that greys the sky for an entire day, an entire season, that stays long past its welcome, that, infusing everything, does not know its bounds.

But in such tastes I am less of a poet than the late Geoffrey Hill, who can ferret the poetry even out of smur. It is such weather that Hill captures in his poem, “In Ipsley Church Lane 2” (my thoughts on “In Ipsley Church Lane 1” here). “Every few minutes the drizzle shakes / itself like a dog.” The rain may be miserable, but beneath it objects take on new forms, “its heavy body and its lightnesses emblems” and “varieties of sameness.” This mutability raises a question:

my question, since I am paid a retainer,
is whether the appearances, the astonishments,
stand in their own keepings finally,
or are annulled through the changed measures of light.

As I read it, the question is whether or not the changeable surfaces of things ultimately rest in some deep, invariable reality, or whether they become nothing through their ceaseless mutations. His answer is the poet’s answer:

Imagination, freakish, dashing every way,
defers annulment.

The crucial word is ‘defers.’ (Here, a caveat: I am a nihilist whereas Hill is a Christian, and this shapes my reading on this point.) In the end, there is annulment, nothingness. Everything is cancelled out to zero. But so long as there is imagination, there is achieved a perpetual deferring of this cancellation. Why is this the poet’s answer? Because such deferral is the poet’s task. With this poem, Hill has accomplished it.