Friday, May 27, 2011

`The Fascination of Tinkering With Rhythms and Meanings'

“…it’s very difficult to break a habit of seventy years. The fascination of tinkering with rhythms and meanings and verbal structures is, after so long, a deeply engrained habit.”

Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to an interview with Geoffrey Hill in The Oxford Student, the newspaper at Oxford University, where Hill serves as the Professor of Poetry. The interview is conducted by a student, Jessica Campbell, who betrays no familiarity with Hill’s work. She is well-intentioned but seems unusually interested in the poet’s reputation for “difficulty.” Hill’s speech, always courteous, resembles his poetry in its mania for precise expression. He is, Campbell says, “intensely concerned about being misrepresented.” And who isn’t?

Hill celebrates his seventy-ninth birthday on June 18. Ten days later, Enitharmon Press will publish his new book of poems, Clavics, in the United States. I put in my order a month ago. In the interview, Campbell asks, “Does it matter if poetry is unpopular?” and Hill replies, with admirable forbearance:

“Not at all: I cannot understand the contemporary clamour which insists that unless poetry is popular it is somehow failing. Poetry will survive however few its readers.”

His faith is touching but one wonders how many Americans, even among the infinitesimal sliver who bother with poetry for adults, will read Clavics? Not to read Hill is comparable to serious readers in the nineteen-twenties or -thirties refusing to read Eliot or Yeats, regardless of their feelings about these poets. If Hill is right and poetry (writing it, reading it) survives, our time will be remembered by the happy few as the Age of Hill. Here is “Epiphany at Hurcott” from Without Title (2006):

“Profoundly silent January shows up
clamant with colour, greening in fine rain,
luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole
brightest at sundown.

“On hedge-banks and small rubbed bluffs the red earth,
dampened to umber, tints the valley sides.
Holly cliffs glitter like cut anthracite.
The lake, reflective, floats, brimfull, its tawny sky.”


William A. Sigler said...

Love the poem (Hill's mathematical working and re-working of words is the closest thing the English language has to Mallarme), love the interview (especially his line "it's only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists"), love the word "clamant" (with its twin suggestions of loud clamor and of pressing urgently for attention). I also appreciate your comparison to later Yeats (born June 13), the way they both relentlessly experiment in search of meaning that is, in Hill's words, "lasting."

It will take a while for the poetry world to catch up with the explosion of work Hill has produced in the last 15-20 years. In the meantime he must endure the trials of celebrity with a "voice like God" and a beard like Methuseluh - helping students learn to varnish the archetype of the press.

Jordanian Joe said...

Gone are the days when everyone had a copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson in their household. Novelists aren't faring any better (there aren't Michael Chabon groupies outside of a handful of MFA programs). On the other hand, poets like Billy Collins and George Bilgere are raising the banner of poetry high. Which is why I can never understand your distaste for these more contemporary versifiers? Are they really less gifted or less prolific or less worth our time than the great Pole?

George said...

I find that I have two books on my shelves by Hill, Canaan and A Treatise of Civil Power. I'm not sure how I encountered his work, except that it was certainly in a local bookstore.

There have certainly been better and worse ages for poetry in the English-speaking world. How much American poetry before Whitman would one care to read except for historical purposes?

Sarang said...

Thanks for the heads-up about the new Hill book. It seemed strange to me that the interviewer (as you observe) had evidently not read Hill, as it is quite easy to find British undergraduates -- and not only in the English department -- who have at least read Mercian Hymns. I love the Hurcott poem too -- that, Broken Hierarchies, the Ipsley Church Lane sequence, and the Wyatt/Jonson poems and "The Peacock at Alderton" from the next book, are among his best work I think.