Thursday, January 05, 2012

`Wondrous in Themselves'

In his BBC interview Geoffrey Hill reads brief excerpts from Section 26 of his most recent collection, Clavics (Enitharmon Press, 2011). All of its poems are typographically shaped, rather like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings.”  Here are the lines Hill reads:

“As to the ant when chance disturbs the State,
Divisions huge, minute, crude, delicate,
Like egg-and-spoon
White grub – rice grain –
She works her reach
With pitch and stretch,
Staithed in that giant crèche.
No metaphor.
The butterflies, high flyers on high winds;
Invisible to us they plane and soar
Beyond our minds’
Troubled conventioning and do not err.”

The ant’s appearance brings to mind those rare, coherent lines in Pound’s “Canto LXXXI”:

“The ant's a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry…”

In his Literary Essays, Pound writes, in a passage pertinent to Hill’s late work: “Poetry is a centaur. The thinking word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties.” Clavics is the most willfully difficult of Hill’s books, but the butterflies signal a rare “radiant gist,” to borrow William Carlos Williams’ phrase from Paterson – an illuminated moment in the murk.

Odd to think of butterflies as invisible. We value their colorful flitting and evanescence, and their attraction to comparably brilliant flowers. If butterflies possessed the bulk and solidity of, say, cows, would we still cherish them? They are, with birds, the most visually appealing of animals, and part of the appeal is their diminutive fragility. And yet, for Hill, they move “Beyond our minds’ / Troubled conventioning and do not err.” This echoes my private mythology, composed as a boy lepidopterist: Butterflies represent beauty, delicacy, toughness and mutability. Consider Hill’s ant: “huge, minute, crude, delicate.” I saw a fritillary on campus less than two weeks before Christmas.

Thanks to Nige I’m reading The Butterfly Isles (Granta, 2010), in which Patrick Barkham recounts his lifelong love of the insect and his quest to see all fifty-nine species native to Britain in a single year. In his introduction Barkham writes:

“Wondrous in themselves, for their own will to survive, butterflies are also colourful canvasses for all our projections.”

No comments: