“I believe that poets should be self-taught, based on an intensive programme of preferably serendipitous reading.”
That’s the unmistakable voice of Geoffrey Hill merely stating what would have been obvious to most educated people 200 years ago. How can we write – poetry, prose -- without knowing what our forebears have already written? Reading is going to school in the happiest sense. I was rereading Hill’s Scenes from Comus (2005) on Saturday because I’ve been also been reading Milton’s shorter poems, including his incomparable sonnets, when an e-mail arrived from a reader who took issue with a review I had written earlier this year of Hill’s Selected Poems. He/she writes, in part:
“You call him `densely allusive’ and I call him an elitist. Nobody understands this shit. You pretend you understand it because you’re an elitist just like him and you want people to think your [sic] smart.”
I was impressed by my reader’s post-Christmas sense of charity: He/she has taken the time to read what I’d written, and even seems to have thought about my words and tried to understand them. This implies some sense of seriousness and discernment. In French the word is élite, meaning “selection, choice,” from the Latin eligere, “choose.” “Election” has the same root. Each of us, to survive and thrive, makes choices, selects, for ourselves and others, whether books or what to eat for dinner. All of us, on some level, are elitists. We value, I trust, what is best and scorn the chintzy and pernicious. Hill has called his poems “stronghold[s] of the imagination.” That phrase and the first quote above come from an interview Hill gave The Oxonian Review earlier this year, where he also says:
“I’m drawn to writers who seem to me to be brave, beleaguered, and cheerful—like John Dryden.”
You do know Dryden, dear reader?