Monday, July 04, 2016

`Beauty Inclement'

The interviewer asks: “Who are you writing for, then? The dead?”  and Sir Geoffrey Hill answers:

“I’ve said so, I believe. I’m writing for anybody who is able to make contact, and there is no point trying to write for those who, for whatever reason, are not going to make contact, but one hopes, I suppose, that, in a way, over time – to use that cliché about the pebble and the pond, you know – that the circles radiate outward but it would certainly be a fairly lengthy process and there may not be time for that.”

Contact is mutual, if not always accepted or acknowledged. When reading Hill, verse or prose, we are always made aware of the past, of our eminent and obscure dead, and of the living tradition. He reminds us that the present is a ditch in time where refuse is collected, a very provincial place, and no cause for self-congratulation. To think otherwise is delusion and sentimentality. Hill dedicated Odi Barbare (2012) to Christopher Middleton and Marius Kociejowski. Middleton died in November, and now Hill. Marius wrote me on Sunday to say Hill was writing until nearly the end, just hours before his death, “which is a kind of consolation”:

“I’m feeling bereft: the fact of Christopher’s going and now Geoffrey’s, the last two stars in my poetic constellation. I have such a fond memory of them both at our dinner table spontaneously breaking into a rendition of `Cigarettes,Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women’ which yesterday I played as a memorial to them both. Very few people realised just how funny Geoffrey could be. I will miss our zany telephone conversations.”

Hill belting out Buck Owens is a vision to savor, a consolation. After all, Jimi Hendrix and Elton John, as well as Eugenio Montale and Aleksander Wat, show up in his poetry. There are many sorts of learning – and beauty. Hill reliably delivers a poet's obligatory task: pleasure. Consider XLIV from Odi Barbare:

“This had best be set as an intermezzo.
Prettily scarsilvered the cuffs that grow round
Stumps of lopped branches, that are seen in winter,
            Beauty inclement.

“How to praise rightly or to prize you; even
Beg the folk verb uncomfort; none shall thee un-
Comfort. As it might be in some sought language
            I should have known you.

“Half-stripped altars, these I have troubled lately.
I would not quota to the lengths that some do,
Casting back light’s verification darkly
            Into the spectrum.

“Move the registrar, the domain eludes him.
Undisclosed clairvoyance of apperception
All around: church towers and silos catching
            Shafts of broad day;

Mistletoe’s globules and conglomerations 
Sealing boughs waxen with rich-cupped meniscus; 
Gilding bare orchards by the moon’s endowment 
            Even at sunrise.

“Sacrosanct life which is so held in prospect,
Dispossessed inestimable regard, such
Years to accomplish sent astray one morning
            By misadventure.”

Reread the second-to-last stanza and consider Hill’s standing as a nature poet and as a poet of the English countryside. Perhaps my favorite among all his books, certainly the one I return to most often, is The Triumph of Love (1998), especially for this passage from CXLVIII, narrated in the tongue-in-cheek voice of Hill the schoolmaster: 

                                                “I ask you:
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 anry

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