I’m getting around to the March issue of Poetry, which includes five new poems by Geoffrey Hill, our greatest living poet. One of them, “On Reading Crowds and Power,” is based on Elias Canetti’s confounding study of mass movements, a sort of nonfiction sequel to his novel Auto da Fé. The second of the poem’s three stanzas is a reworked paragraph from the chapter on “Fame” in Crowds and Power. The third contains a forthright statement of Hill’s poetics:
“But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.”
In a profile of the poet by Robert Potts, published in The Guardian in 2002, Hill makes a similar point:
"Hill says of the accusation of `inaccessibility’ that `the word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms which lie behind most people's use of the word.’
“`In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.’”
The arts, of course, are not democratic in any sense. While difficulty is no guarantee of poetic greatness – witness Charles Olson – much of the greatest poetry rejects an easily assimilated transparency. Think of Donne, Dickinson and Hopkins. The best poems express something that cannot be expressed in other words. Change a word, a syllable, and you’ve changed the expression. If I can read a poem with the same ease and certainty as I do a billboard or newspaper, it’s probably not a poem, though it may be propaganda.
A poem is music embodied in words. Something is fatally lost in paraphrase, and deferred understanding is the essential nature of reading poetry. Hill compliments us when he makes us work hard, because our hard work pays off. In the same issue of Poetry, the poet Anne Stevenson’s essay, "The Unified Dance," touches on this issue. She begins with her love of Yeats, which dates from childhood, then bafflingly writes with admiration of a poet I find unreadable, Frank O’Hara. She acknowledges “the disciplined art” of a Yeats poem and “the clever tone and pacing” of one by O’Hara, and ascribes the contrast to “a difference of purpose.” She continues:
“What do you want poetry to do? What do you think poetry is for? Those are questions, of course, that people who care about poetry have to answer for themselves. It's no good trying to wean people away from their tastes. Quarreling about what poetry should or shouldn't be usually ends up with poets hotly defending their own brand of the product.”
This is a useful, realistic observation, though Stevenson’s point can easily be bastardized into something like this: “I think Rod McKuen [or Frank O’Hara, or Charles Olson] is great. He speaks to me. Geoffrey Hill is boring. He’s an elitist” Can I reply to that, mustering evidence for Hill’s greatness and McKuen’s manifest awfulness? Sure. Do I want to? Never.