Friday, March 20, 2009

`Shocked By Excellence'

I was touched by Elberry’s admission that during a period of immersion in poetry he “got used to being routinely shocked by excellence.” He cites as examples the poems of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Browning, Hart Crane and his most recent discovery, Geoffrey Hill, our foremost living poet. The shock is hardly difficult to understand. Excellence is always rare but especially in so difficult an endeavor as writing poetry. Only musical composition seems to rival it in near-impossibility. A reliable test of a work’s worthiness for survival – and for earning a berth in the “canon” -- is its capacity to shock us with its excellence. Even poets are not immune to such shocks, as Hill explains:

“At one point in The Orchards of Syon (XXIII), I say `I write/ to astonish myself’. This self-astonishment is achieved when, by some process I can't fathom, common words are moved, or move themselves, into clusters of meaning so intense that they seem to stand up from the page, three-dimensional almost.”

How many poets astonish themselves in their work? And how many astonish us, their readers? More than prose, poetry seems susceptible to bullshit of myriad sorts – falsity of emotion and tone, shrillness, pontificating, self-conscious poeticizing, a tin ear. Its appeal to the resolutely ungifted is virtually unlimited, though we’re fortunate truly bad poetry is easy to recognize. Thus, our astonishment when we encounter what Hill calls “common words” marshaled uncommonly, as in his “An Emblem” from A Treatise of Civil Power:

“Among the slag remonstrances of this land
memory reinterprets us, as with
a Heraclitean emblem. On a sudden,
sunslanting rain intensifies, the roses
twitch more rapidly, flights
of invisible wing-roots lift
from the lighter branches; a purple sky
ushering a rainbow. Now it is gone.”

To remain indifferent to such a poem (better to hate it) amounts to aesthetic impoverishment. To be shocked by its excellence is a gift to envy.

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Hill is phenomenal. His poetry always condenses music with the full weight of the British poetic tradition behind it. “Emblem” is an eerie sonic landscape, where “sunslanting rain” and “invisible wing-roots” seem like run-of-the-mill descriptors of the English countryside and conventional images like “slag remonstrances” and twitching roses seem imbued with a certain poetic heaviness, of memory trying to justify itself.

Hill’s remarks about his own project, also linked, show an even more shocking rarity: a poet actually explaining his themes, his motivations, his influences, his effects. That’s something a critic can’t understand and a poet can’t word, but he seems to take it as a given, something that is part of his “civic obligation.” Contrast that with the attitudes of U.S. academic poets, full of preening gestures (“a crisply pop vocabulary [that] belongs to the realm of high-definition television”), chimerical generalizations (“linguistic dislocation from gender/racial power structures”), and naval-gazing appeals to the authority of the canon (“Emily Dickinson wanted to be published”).