Thursday 22 December 2011

The Age of Geoffrey Hill

He’d have got a job at the Oracle in Delphi, turning the priestess’ ravings into cryptic verse, and would have had gleeful fun with all the earnest misinterpretations.  He looks the part, too.. OK, hardly a Delphic priest, but a part: dressed in black to offset his white beard, whose roundness goes with the roundness of his balding head, voice and vowels.  All he needs is a ruff, and he’d fit into one of those 17th-century Dutch group portraits.  I was just thinking that, when he referred to Grotius. 

This was at the South Bank, down from Parnassian heights around ten days ago.  Hill gave us a mini-manifesto: he’s not concerned with poetry as self-expression, but as imposing shape and harmony where there was chaos, emotion, passion.  Otherwise, irony and humour were to the fore: “This is not stand-up comedy”, he said.  We all laughed; and again when he added that he didn’t get stand-up comedy fees either.  His timing’s good.  He slagged the event off nicely, describing poetry readings as “the most abysmal functions on the face of the earth”.
I went because Geoffrey Hill is there, like a single-standing mountain without foothills.  I greatly admire what I’ve read of his earlier work whose language and use of form I find beautiful, often mysterious.  I’m not sure about the recent stuff.  Hill told us that he used to think himself lucky if he wrote 7 poems a year, now it’s more like 7 a week.  As long, he said, as he can write in strict form, he feels he’s still in control, no matter how gaga he might be otherwise; this was the attraction of the complex (and no doubt very difficult) form of Clavics, which he read from.  Was he challenging us to discriminate between learned, deliberate obscurity and the ramblings of a once-great poet?  He was, of course, the opposite of gaga. 

Clavics is like a pageant with lots of themes and fragments all mixed up, drawn from literature, history, religion, music, legend.  There are a few contemporary touches: the Lotto, Ronnie Scott, ‘dead in Afghanistan’.  Even the George Herbert-derived shape of the poems is processional, thin strung-out bits mixed with fat crowded-together lines, all held together by strict form and somewhat trenchant rhymes.  The second ‘wings’ sections are also hour-glass shaped and there’s an hour-glass in poem 20.  The two sections feel like thesis and antithesis, or statement and gloss, though often it’s hard to work out the connection.  And then one wonders if the connection one finds was meant or not, as in the last poem, which starts:

There is a noise in my head: the breaking
of sequence.

The second section includes this:

I shall not reveal how
  Much warmth was spent
     In ice

This combination brought to mind the effects of global warming in the Arctic and Antarctic.. quite possibly unmeant. 

Clavics reminds me of the way some of my male contemporaries used to sit around and top each other’s obscure references.  It’s as if this collaborative/competitive process has been turned into a poetic monologue.  I don’t know whether the Emperor with New Clothes is part of the pageant.  I’ve quite enjoyed reading the book, but don’t find it compelling and am not sure how rewarding it would be to give it hard work.  It lacks his earlier beauty, and without this the tone is more problematic: it’s erudite (of course) and humorous but also mannered, seen-it-all, conservative, irritable, seeking refuge in elaboration. 

Hill’s own description of Clavics was interesting: like iron spikes sticking out of a blasted landscape, an Anselm Kiefer one, and Kiefer was interested in Paul Celan…  But this made me contrast the way Celan’s poetry draws me in, with the way Clavics doesn’t. 

I was able to inspect a cross-section of GH fans, as I stood outside the venue to hawk a friend’s unused ticket.  A high proportion of men on their own; ditto of Hill-friendly black clothes; mostly more-than-averagely intense.  They were nice about me trying to sell them the ticket, unlike the security guards.  The life of the mind was definitely there in the Purcell Room.  I was surprised by the length of the queue afterwards for book signing; surely an activity Hill would despise.  I’ve just looked on eBay where there’s a signed copy of Clavics available for £59.99. 

Here’s Clavics no. 19, which feels less fragmentary than most.  (Where the words are spread out, the letters should be, to make the pattern work; but I don’t know how to do that.)

Into life we fell by brute eviction:
What prize brutish joy; what price compunction?
             To feel by trust
             Most things ill-won,
             Ill-held; even
             Your perfection
        Gross in its mistiming.
             In the dead mist
The fleet sweeps past, Invincible, others,
Derfflinger, Grosser Kurfürst; it is a dream
             Of undreaming,
             Chaste, all weathers.
             The journal ends
             Here in its fronds;
        Oblivious    the     calm
             Jolt of a wave.
That is an odd world from which to derive.
You may call ecrased a deep-whelmed acclaim.
             Forgo blaming
On the loss of Empire the spent compère. 


You look at the thing; you think, Not today.
   Inopportunist    Mechanics
      Adjust   it   otherwise
        Write as on slate.
           Yet   I’d
        Sensing the bite
      From the deep-laden rise
   Of the word my thrill; as sonics
Are to spheres where surely strange gods deploy.

‘Ecrased’ isn’t in the SOED; in French, écrasé means overcome, overwhelmed.  The Battle of Jutland links the ships (that bit was easy).  I haven’t even tried to probe the rest.  There’s plenty on the internet about Hill and Clavics; I enjoyed Rob Mackenzie’s two pieces, on obscurity and on tackling Clavics no.1 with a bottle of Shiraz.  Clavics is published by Enitharmon


  1. Fiona, thanks for your thoughts on both this and his appearance at Southbank. I've had Clavics on my shelf for several months, I look at it from time to time, but I rarely get further than a few pages before it goes back on the shelf. It's very clever stuff, but so are crossword puzzles. I'm pleased to see your reference to Hans Anderson; I've thought the same of this and other masterpieces. And yet I still find Hill fascinating, and all that surrounds him.

  2. Thank you Anon, I agree both about the crosswords and the fascination.