ZMKC and I have been commiserating over difficult poems, with Exhibit A being Geoffrey Hill. At least in the U.S., the public schools have done their best to ruin poetry (as if the poets and critics needed help in that endeavor) by turning it into a minor branch of cryptography. A poem is a code to be cracked. Meaning extraction has come to resemble dental extraction, and the poetry gets ignored. Recall that there was a time when The Waste Land was presumed nonsense. Today, people who have never heard Eliot’s name confidently report that April is the cruellest month.
In my experience, it doesn’t take long to figure out which poems are justifiably difficult and repay the effort to understand and enjoy them, and which are claptrap. In the broadest sense, contemporary poetry has bifurcated: on one side, the Tin-Eared Prosers; on the other, the Evangelists of Pretentious Gibberish. A poem by Hill cannot be reduced to a prose trot, nor can any genuine poetry. Hill is almost pathologically allusive. He is hypersensitive to words and their connotations, etymologies and music. Reading his poems aloud, I’ve learned, is helpful. Over time, Hill has earned my trust. He rewards my devotion. Some poems in Clavics (2011) and other later books remain opaque, but I go on reading them for the sonic pleasure they deliver. I feel the same way about the work of another favorite English poet, C.H. Sisson. Here’s a simple example of difficulty – “Frigolet,” from Sisson’s 1976 volume Anchises:
“Thyme, and cicadas in the grass
The white light of idleness.
Empty as a shin-bone, a hare
Or a bird from anywhere.”
I looked up “frigolet” in the digitalized OED, and it referred me to rigolet, friggle, frijoles, froglet and triolet. Sometimes the sheer arbitrariness of language is a hoot. The poem’s title may refer to the Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet, founded in 980 in Provence and recently saved from closure. The French name may derive from the Provençal word for “thyme,” ferigoule, an herb that commonly grows in the region. The abbey still produces a liqueur made with thyme and other local herbs. Thyme is associated with courage. For the Greeks it suggested elegance of style. In English, it makes for a nice pun. Sisson bundles the poem with five others on French themes in Anchises, including "Alyscamps." I hear an echo of Yeats’ “The Collar-Bone of a Hare.” Is Sisson sketching a heaven or a hell? I don’t know. The poem is beautiful in its Imagistic starkness, enormously dense with meaning, and I have no definitive conclusions. As Eliot said, “Poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
One more thing: the epigraph to Anchises is from La Bruyère: “La vie est sommeil: les viellards sont ceux don’t le sommeil a été plus long; ils ne commencent à se réveiller que quand it faut mourir.” A translation: “Life is a sleep. Old men are those who have slept the longest time; when they wake up, they find it is time to die.”