I am a selfish reader. Except for some of the books I read to review, I read only those I expect to enjoy or have enjoyed in the past. When younger, I succumbed to pressure to read fashionable titles, or those mistakenly stamped “Classic,” but how else could I have experienced the brain-wounding awfulness of William Burroughs and Sir Walter Scott? Getting older means spending one’s remaining time prudently, so I wish merely to enjoy myself and learn something while doing so.
I have written about Geoffrey Hill with some regularity. That is a measure of the pleasure his poetry and prose have given me for decades, and how deeply his work has suffused my thinking. I believe him the greatest living writer, the only living poet we can usefully set beside the giants of Modernism -- Eliot and Yeats. His work is inexhaustible and I frequently reread it, at least as often as I reread Eliot and Yeats.
In private e-mails, two readers this week have objected to my frequent references to Hill and his work. Both claimed to be offended by Hill’s “elitism” and “difficulty.” Both, one more vehemently than the other, claimed to find his “politics” objectionable, though I know nothing about Hill’s political thinking, which would seem to be a private matter. One called him “reactionary” and described Hill as “a Dead White Male whose [sic] still alive (unfortunately).”
Hill does not write poetry one can usefully skim. He is deeply thoughtful, serious and allusive, which makes him a disturbingly alien presence in a superficial age. For a reader to say he finds Hill too difficult to read is perfectly honest and acceptable. To say the difficulty of his work is a moral or political affront is ridiculous. Extend the logic of this complaint and you’re left with a simple-minded recycling of Zhdanovism -- tractors and the courageous proletariat. Hill has often fielded such objections with forthrightness and good humor, as in the interview he gave Carl Phillips, published in the spring 2000 issue of The Paris Review. Here’s the pertinent exchange:
Phillips: “What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.”
Hill: “Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most `intellectual’ piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right – not an obligation – to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification….any complexity of language, any ambiguity any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualification and revelations…resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”
There is the difficulty of a certain sort of pretentious, ego-driven art – Gertrude Stein, for instance, and the so-called Language Poets. And there is the difficulty of artists wrestling with a dense, intractable, ineffable reality. The former hold readers in contempt. The latter honor us.