Selected Poems, Geoffrey Hill. Yale University Press. 288pp, $35.00.
Let us begin with the cover, a proverbially dubious strategy for assaying the worth of a book. An aging, cannonball-domed man of ruddy complexion glares at the reader, his head filling most of the frame. His white beard is a day or two out of trim. The lips are thin and tightly pursed. His brows and the planes of his face converge like a hawk’s. He might be King Lear.
This is Geoffrey Hill, seemingly daring us to open his Selected Poems, more than half a century of rewardingly difficult work distilled. Longtime readers of Hill’s incomparable poetry will feel gratified by the poet’s unwillingness to charm, and hardly surprised. Hill’s verse has always had a chip on its shoulder: read me if you think you can. In an age when poetry aspires to gibberish or e-mail prose, Hill’s is craggy, cranky, beautiful, and deeply informed by history, theology, and two millennia of poetry. The reviewer’s predictable terms of opprobrium are “elitist” and “obscure.” In The Triumph of Love, Hill turns his oppositional stance into verse, an apologia of sorts for his career:
. . . what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry
It’s typical of Hill’s generous erudition that the tag, so tailored to fit his poetry, in fact comes from Leopardi’s description of Tasso’s burial marker “barely showing / among the cold slabs of defunct pomp.” It’s also typical that he speaks ironically, in the voice of a schoolmaster: “Repeat after me . . . ” In Hill, the roles of poet, teacher, and prophet are indistinguishably mingled. One suspects that much of the baffled hostility to his work is rooted less in its apparent difficulty than in disdain for Hill’s embattled Christianity, his taking old-fashioned questions seriously. He is an unapologetically religious poet in an irreligious age. Elsewhere in The Triumph of Love he tauntingly demands: “Whose lives are hidden in God? Whose?”
One of the barely noted literary scandals of our age occurred several years ago when Hill, the dominant poet of the age, went without an American publisher. Selected Poems, while welcome, is a curious production. The book includes work from eleven Hill titles, two in their entirety—Mercian Hymns and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy—but contains no introduction, no explanation of the selection process by Hill or his editors, and no index. Also absent is Hill’s most recent volume of poetry, A Treatise of Civil Power, brought out by Yale University Press, publishers of the present volume, in 2007. The work of his first twenty-five years as a published poet is disproportionately represented in the Selected Poems, and a reader new to his work will have no sense of the remarkable efflorescence that has taken place in the last decade and a half. Since 1996, Hill, who turned seventy-seven this year, has published seven volumes of verse containing some of his strongest work. The only comparable achievements that come to mind are the late eruptions of creativity in the careers of Henry James and William Butler Yeats.
The abattoir of the twentieth century remains one of Hill’s abiding obsessions. Let’s look at a familiar poem from Hill’s second collection, King Log. “September Song” comes with a dedicatory epigraph: “born 19.6.32 – deported 24.9.42″:
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
Here the language is simple, if not simply used—no exotic words, archaisms or recondite allusions. Reticence is all. The poem is an artful arrangement of understated tones. “Zyklon” is Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used by the Nazis in their gas chambers. Thus, “undesirable,” as when Hitler writes: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.” “As estimated” is tribute to the Nazis’ murderous efficiency, as is “patented terror.” Most of the poem’s sentences are fragments, moved along inexorably by blunt momentum and unexpected line-breaks: “for myself it / is true.” The parenthetical phrase is revealing: Hill was born one day earlier than his nameless subject, June 18, 1932. Unimaginable horror is made bureaucratically familiar, like an absent sibling. The victim can’t even be assigned a proper death date, merely a day when the Nazis took her away. Hill has said elsewhere the victim was a girl who died in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. The poem memorializes an anonymous child while acknowledging the moral awkwardness of transmuting a murder into a work of art.
There’s another echo in “September Song,” a Christian echo in a Jewish context—Matthew 6:34: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” The muted allusion resounds with “sufficient” in the fifth line and “more than enough” in the last.
Some forty years later, in Without Title, comes another elegy—perhaps Hill’s defining mode—”Offertorium: December 2002″:
For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.
An elegy—for the departing year, for the self and its failings—and a prayer of thanks in a time of darkness. The yew berry is toxic and medicinal. “Atrorubent” means dark red. Darkness mingles with light. “Claustral” is cloistered, with a suggestion of monasticism (and of Dickinson: “There’s a certain slant of light / On winter afternoons”). The poem comes as close to conventional consolation as Hill ever gets, and the descent of the conclusion into the colloquial is typical of Hill. The rare appearance of the demotic in his poetry usually signifies the comic, however mirthless it may seem.
How odd to think that Hill, the bane of postmodern poets and critics, may be the most “avant-garde” poet working today. He pushes the resources of English—etymology, music, multiplicity of meaning, rhetorical devices—further than other writers dare. His poems can be as densely allusive, multi-voiced, polylingual, dissonant, and radically playful as Finnegans Wake. Many poets deploy surface difficulty (Guy Davenport called it “false density”) to mask essential emptiness; when Hill is difficult, he has something to say that cannot be said glibly, and he thus rewards attentive readers.
One of the joys of Selected Poems, for old Hill hands and readers new to his work, is the opportunity to witness the evolution of his style, from the daring use of traditional forms in the early books to the elastic free verse of the later. My favorites are probably Mercian Hymns (prose poems!) and The Orchards of Syon, but Hill is rare in having never published a weak book, and hardly ever a weak poem. Most contemporary verse is thin and forgettable next to Hill’s. One of the epigraphs he gives Without Title is drawn from Emerson’s essay “The Transcendentalist.”
The profound nature will have a savage rudeness; the delicate one will be shallow, or the victim of sensibility; the richly accomplished will have some capital absurdity; and so every piece has a crack. ‘T is strange, but this masterpiece is a result of such an extreme delicacy, that the most unobserved flaw in the boy will neutralize the most aspiring genius, and spoil the work.
This reads like secondhand self-analysis. Hill is not for the faint-of-heart. His rudeness is often savage, and he is seldom afraid to skirt absurdity. He once wrote: “An achieved poem is always beautiful in its own way, though such a way will many times strike people as harsh and repellent.”
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, WA, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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