Peter McDonald reviews Clavics and Odi Barbare by Geoffrey Hill

This review is also available to download in PDF format: Review [59kb]

Today would not be the best time for someone to start reading Geoffrey Hill.  This is not because it is a bad idea to read Geoffrey Hill – on the contrary, he really is that thing he keeps being called, the best English poet alive – but because new readers of any contemporary poet are always liable to begin with that poet’s newest work.  And Hill’s most recent publications, which seem to be coming now at the rate of around one full volume per year, are daunting prospects for even his veteran readers.  For novices, the place to start is Hill’s Penguin Selected Poems or his Collected Poems (1985), moving on then to work like Canaan (1996) and The Triumph of Love (1998).  To plunge straight into Hill with the volumes that have been appearing under the general rubric of ‘The Daybooks’ (the two volumes under review here, plus the Clutag Press Oraclau | Oracles  (2010)) would be for many – indeed for most – an initially unrewarding experience.   This is not to say that these books are somehow just not as good as the rest of Hill’s work – that is unlikely to prove true – but that they will require a lot of time, and a lot of readerly patience, before coming properly into focus.

Now that he is entering his ninth decade, and more than half a century since he published his first full volume of poetry, Geoffrey Hill has surely earned the right not to have his new books judged instantly, and on the same terms as the mass of contemporary verse with which they are only literally contemporaneous.  To complain that Hill doesn’t keep up with poetic fashions would be, at the very least, critically foolish: in the first place, Hill’s poetry has never been greatly indebted to the verse of its own time; more importantly, it is the very excellence of his work which makes dominant modes of poetry seem so tame, so limited, and so similar to one another.  Hill’s name will never, for the best of reasons,  be part of that mutually-awarding circle of poets who dominate the major prize-lists in Britain.  In the cases of most of the British poets who are laden year-about with honours for their new books, a reader will require little patience, and need exercise very little in the way of dedicated attention: most often, one suspects, he or she has only to recognize a name, and tune in to a vague mood-music – unoriginal, untaxing, and unmemorable – which can pass for ‘poetic’.   In Hill’s case, the situation is exactly the reverse, and one can understand how some readers feel initially that they must react with a kind of affront.  In fact, it’s dignity that is being preserved in such reactions, and readers can feel obliged to defend a certain media-led notion of contemporary artistic value in poetry which they sense coming, however obscurely, under attack.  (Why these readers feel that the status quo of contemporary mainstream poetry needs them to defend it – when clearly it does not – is a puzzle for cultural theorists, and not for mere poetry critics.)

Neither Clavics nor Odi Barbare will bring Hill any closer to British poetry’s congratulatory esteem, nor to its business-cold heart.  These two instalments of the ‘Daybooks’ series are both densely formal affairs: Clavics consists of 32 poems, each in an identically rhymed and patterned form of 30 lines in all, divided into a 20-line ‘altar’ shape and a 10-line ‘wings’ visual arrangement  (after George Herbert’s ‘The Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ in The Temple); Odi Barbare is a book of 52 poems, each consisting of six stanzas of sapphics (a classically-derived form, in which the strophes have three lines of eleven syllables, and a concluding line of five, with accents disposed to imitate the quantitative patterns of the Greek and Latin models).  Such things need not pose any problems in themselves; but Hill’s manner of expression in the forms certainly does, since it is so heavily marked by compression, allusion, tonal variation, and complexity of argument.  Connections between individual sections, and even within those sections, are often very hard to discern; and while there is a consistency in form, there is seldom a consistency of voice for long in either book.  Breadth of reference, too, is unhampered by any apparent anxiety about ease of understanding – hardly a new thing for Hill, of course, and a matter which has become one of the most boring (and intellectually pointless) themes for critical debate about the value of his work.   (As Tim Kendall pointed out some years ago, the internet search engine has rendered the referential aspects, at least, of Hill’s notorious ‘difficulty’ essentially nugatory.)

Putting ‘difficulty’ aside, though, it’s true to say that Hill’s current poetry is not exactly easy to enjoy at first go; furthermore, those who claim to be its admirers are under some obligation to explain what they mean when they say they enjoy it, and how that enjoyment relates to literary pleasures more generally.  To begin with, it’s still relatively easy to point to lines, phrases, and even single words that possess the singular originality and power which poets many times more fashionable and celebrated than Hill would love to command, but never will.  From Odi Barbare, for instance, these: ‘Music steel-rimmed spectacles make as objects |Claiming a victim’(I), ‘How the sea-lightning with a flash at hazard | Cleft the lanterned yard into pelting angles’(IV), ‘lampblack scuttery gusts’ (XV), ‘Woods yet thriving wrapped in an intricate still | Tumult of ivy’ (XXII), ‘Luminously radioactive watches | Fizzled green plaque riding elastic wrist-bands’ (XXVI), ‘Passchendaele’s chill mud at a gulp engorging | Men and redhot rashers of sizzling metal’ (XXXV), ‘long demolished | Iron bridges clamped over backstreet inlets | Tremor to footfalls’ (XXXVI),  ‘Bracken-guarded airfields where now the pigeons | Ponderous, wingladen, in near-botched take-offs, | Rattle the spinneys’ (XLII), ‘Glasstight black porter’ (XLIX).  A poet who can write like this is suffering from no decline in his powers of expression.

Since I’ve been accused before (though only by Craig Raine) of quoting snippets of Hill’s poetry in order to avoid the unintelligibility of what I fail to quote, I had better say that such turns of verbal dexterity (though really they’re more than that) are parts of a radically challenging series of poems whose overall import I can’t (and won’t) claim to understand.  But – before cries of victory go up from elderly Martians – this is neither a confession of my own stupidity nor a condemnation of Hill’s lack of clarity.  In critical terms, it seems to me an entirely reasonable position at this stage; and it is not an attempt to hide behind the poet’s supposed mystifications.  Hill, in other words, is not some poetic version of the Wizard of Oz; I am not the Tin Man; and Raine, however hard he tries, makes an unconvincing Dorothy.

What can be said of these new books, in a general way, is that in them Hill’s subject matter has become hard to disentangle from matters of poetic voice.  That other besetting concern of Hill’s critics, the distinction (made in his critical prose by the poet himself) between what he calls ‘pitch’ and ‘tone’, is starting to look less and less helpful as a way of approaching the poetry.  At extreme points, it makes little difference whether the voice – or, more accurately perhaps, the voices – made audible in this verse should be felt as painfully pitched, or as unsettling in tone: the effect is more or less the same.  The voice is marked by insistence, even vehemence, and by compressed, often highly complex, diction (Hill’s own term for his sapphics – ‘cricked’ – catches this discomfort exactly); it can feel as though several shorthands are being employed urgently at the same time, in an exhausting hurry with which it is hard for any reader to keep pace.  In both books, form’s heavy presence forces Hill into a kind of exaggeration of his own voice – in Clavics, rhyme’s high visibility (and audibility) push that voice sometimes beyond what either ‘pitch’ or ‘tone’ can measure:

Worst of our age: no time here for patience

  While there is a grand unwisdom

   Legislates stun-wisdom

    Buy quittance


     Last word

    Stamped pittance

   Although BAD LUCK! quizzdom

  Scores well enough if you buzz bomb

Some sorry target aim pox Christians.                     (Clavics 21)

In a sense, writing like this represents a nightmarish blow-up of earlier Hill at his most delicately painstaking – think of the lines in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), where ‘Patience hardens to a pittance, courage | Unflinchingly declines into sour rage’.  Now, a particular quality of verbal attention, which in earlier poetry was all the more effective for having its disruptive energies held in check, is allowed to go out of control.  Or rather, it might be said, this writing permits control only by the form itself – and rhyme’s potential for chaos, the potentially anarchic workings of its own kind of order, have long been understood as the test of any poet’s nerve and will.  With lines like those quoted above, it is not that Hill’s nerve has failed him, or that he has somehow failed a test; instead, he seems not to be taking the test at all, and writing as though the determination not to be used by rhyme (and pun) was necessarily in vain.  It is an odd decision, but it is a decision, and not an unwitting loss of control.

‘Patience’ is at issue, certainly – the writer’s patience, and the reader’s.  In fact, both of these books – which are in formal terms so meticulous and intricate – are marked by an effect of severe, almost debilitating, impatience in the poetic voice.  ‘No time here for patience’ might put all this in something of a biographical light for, although Hill has been writing about dying now for some considerable time, the poetic idioms in his latest work announce repeatedly that there is no time to spare.  Even here, however, it would be unwise to try to interpret Hill’s work as a series of urgent diary entries for putative last days, as though his poetry was hurrying towards the resolution of a huge dénouement.  Things, in any case, are not getting clearer as the supposed end draws closer; and the sheer energy of Hill’s writing, more in evidence now than ever, forces him away from all conclusions, easy or otherwise.

There are, of course, preoccupations in the place of conclusions; and Hill’s preoccupations, like those of all great poets, are abiding and irresolvable ones.  Clavics paces over again some of the seventeenth-century ground covered in Scenes From Comus (2005), while Odi Barbare returns to the explicit encounters with poetic Modernism (and Modernists) that marked Without Title (2006).  This isn’t a case of repetition, since Hill proves that such areas have plenty left for him to explore: Clavics (following from a pronounced theme also in Oraclau | Oracles) is fascinatingly attuned to the hermeneutics and hieroglyphs of renaissance alchemy, while Odi Barbare gives several new turns to Hill’s edgy, sometimes confrontational, sense of personal communication with the artistic dead.  W.B. Yeats, in particular, finds Hill commanding his attention: in this, he is becoming a much more interesting figure than Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, both still liable to turn up around any corner of Hill’s poetry, but both much more readily dealt with by his imagination.  Yeats remains a problem, in the most creatively productive of senses; and of course it is Yeats who is the most formidable modern poet of old age, one who is in fact every bit as hard for critical tastes to accommodate as Hill himself – harder, indeed, in some ways. ‘Concurring that the old man is in shock | Won’t do’ (Clavics 14): no – and it won’t do for Hill either who, just like Yeats, knows exactly what he is doing, and expertly calibrates the outrage he stirs up.  The image of ‘Yeats and your author | Photomontaged, | Graciously inclined each to the other’ (Clavics 14 again) allows the peaceable relations it imagines to be subtly irked by artificiality, and the line ‘Yeats with his clangour of despotic beauty’ (Odi Barbare XXXVII) records accurately a discomfort even in what looks like Hill’s praise, where Yeats’s word ‘clangour’ (‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, II: ‘All men are dancers and their tread | Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong’) makes an audible challenge to Hill’s own adjective, ‘despotic’, on the disputed ground of ‘beauty’.  Things aren’t resolved here, and Hill’s unfinished business with Yeats – to whom he is now, in terms of years lived, senior – is very much a part of the ‘beauty’ of his own late verse.

And in the end, ‘beauty’ is the right word.  ‘I am sick of this dying || Time that bends so beautifully around things,’ Hill writes in Odi Barbare IX:  the poetry puts that adverb  repeatedly to proof.  However bewildering the complexities and urgencies of these books, and however unclear their immediate intent, Hill remains one of the very few poets now writing who is capable of making beautiful new things because he can conceive of, and believe in, beauty as an absolute reality.  Odi Barbare XXVIII has at its centre the question, ‘Quick, is love’s truth seriously immortal?’: that ‘Quick’ is characteristically pressing, but the poem as a whole is proof that real questions like this cannot have any quick answers.  Instead, the true response is in the slowness of lyric intricacy (a lesson taught most comprehensively, as it happens, by Yeats), and its result in what we call ‘beauty’. In that sense, the question has already been answered by the power and brilliance of the poem’s opening strophe:

          Broken that first kiss by the race to shelter,

          Scratchy brisk rain irritable as tinder;

          Hearing light thrum faintly the chords of laurel

          Taller than we were.

When asked what there is to enjoy in Hill’s latest poetry, where there is obviously so much to find hard, recalcitrant, and offputting, the best answer is verse such as this, and its proper name is beauty.  ‘Beauty,’ as Yeats famously remembered his friend Aubrey Beardsley insisting (and as Pound, in his turn, quoted him remembering) ‘is difficult’.  And in a way – all critical, cultural, and quasi-political squabbles aside – this is for Hill, as it has been all along, the heart and the point of his entire labour.

Geoffrey Hill, Clavics, Enitharmon, 2011. £12.  978-1-907587-11-5
Geoffrey Hill, Odi Barbare, Clutag Press, 2012. £15. 978-0-956543-25-7
© Peter McDonald, 2012
The views expressed by contributors to the reviews section of Poetry Matters are not those of Tower Poetry, or of Christ Church, Oxford