Wednesday, April 29, 2009

`The Forgotten Obvious'

It’s heartening to see Bryan Appleyard reading Geoffrey Hill, his country’s greatest living writer. If our offspring remain literate – never a certainty-- this squalid era may be remembered as the Age of Hill. Readers who complain about “inaccessibility” confuse literature with “entertainment options.” Mary Oliver and Elizabeth Alexander, like television sit-coms, are accessible. Hill is merely a supremely powerful poet who deals in unpleasant truths and can do anything with language.

The lines Bryan quotes are from “On Reading Crowds and Power,” Hill’s meditation on Elias Canetti in A Treatise of Civil Power (2007). Note the reiteration of “power.” In the same volume, from “A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power,” come these lines:

“Civil power now smuggles more retractions
than hitherto;public apology ad libs its charter,
well-misjudged villainy gets compensated.
I still can't tell you what that power is.
The statute books
suffer us here and there to lift a voice,
judge calls prosecutor to brief account,
juries may be stubborn to work good
like a brave child
standing its ground knowing it’s in the right.”

Here we recognize the lineaments of early-21st-century power – in particular its dishonesty -- without the simple-minded stridency of most public literature. As an experiment, however, substitute “poetry” or “literature” for “power.” The indictment holds.

The students in a high-school class where I recently worked were reading – and listening to – The Tortilla Curtain (1995) by T. Coraghessan Boyle. The novel is no worse than most books read in public schools but the recording made plain the dullness of its prose, the movie-saturated mundanity of its plot and characterizations, and the didacticism of its themes (illegal Mexican immigration, etc.). As the reader recited his lines, I would try to anticipate the next word, phrase or sentence, and often got it right -- the literary counterpart of Paint-By-Numbers. Teachers and students alike treated the book as no more than a dramatization of ideas, a plot-driven confrontation between “sides.” A teacher spoke of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Everyone in the classroom looked bored. Back to Bryan and the lines he quoted from Hill:

“But think on: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.”

Thinking about the complexity of Hill’s vision and poetry, and the wide-spread resistance to it, I was reminded of a passage in W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, from the chapter on Johnson’s Shakespeare:

“As in his moral writing, the drama of his literary criticism lies in the power [that word again] with which he moves at once to that rarest of all things for frightened and confused human nature – the obvious. The catharsis, or relief, as in all good drama, lies in the fact that nothing is being disregarded as he walks toward the forgotten obvious….For every civilization, there was a time before it existed; and it would not have developed without the `intellectual light’ that literature – taken as a whole – was able to provide. That `intellectual light’ may certainly `enable us to see what we do not like; but who would wish to escape by condemning himself to perpetual darkness?’”

Hill’s dark, difficult poetry enlightens, brings light.


Anonymous said...

Light-bearers often have a dark aspect to them. The light often springs out of the deepest dark in the first place, and has something of that about it - it's not everyday stuff. So the light-bearers too: they have to be comfortable in the dark places.

Orna Ross said...

"The forgotten obvious" -- I like that. Thank you for bringing Hill to my attention, am off to buy some of his work. nice blog.

James Marcus said...

We share many enthusiasms, Patrick, but I'm going to have to keep trying with Hill. Please, enlighten me--I can't see what you admire about these lines:

Civil power now smuggles more retractions / than hitherto; public apology ad libs its charter, /
well-misjudged villainy gets compensated.

They strike me as just awful, like a bad translation of a foreign newspaper editorial. The rest of the stanza is a little better.

On the bright side, there's going to be a collection of letters by J.F. Powers.