Tuesday, July 05, 2016

`A Rich and Solemn Music'

Since his death last week I have read little except the poems and essays of Geoffrey Hill, whose absence I take almost personally, with the wounded selfishness of a longtime devoted reader. Thirteen of his books sit on my shelf. I can’t remember what I first read by Hill or precisely when, though it was in the early nineteen-seventies, around the time of Mercian Hymns. In those pre-internet days, England was a very foreign country for this American reader. There was always a lag, a delayed reception for English writers except, it seemed, Ted Hughes. He and his American wife were too much with us, and still are. Hill was linked early on for me with two poets I already knew fairly well – Donne and Eliot. They shared gravitas and linguistic density, qualities they teach us to prize. Among his other roles – poet, essayist, prophet, amateur theologian, comedian -- Hill is a first-rate tutor. So allusive a poet encourages enthusiastic reading throughout the library, and a lively respect for one’s literary forebears. He has a way of recoining words, making them his own. Take the first words in the first poem, “Genesis,” in his first book, For the Unfallen (1959):

“Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God.”

Hill lays claim to “burly.” Eric Ormsby says of Hill at a reading in 2006: “He might be mistaken for an aging wrestler.” The OED gives the old definition -- “stately, dignified, of noble or imposing presence or appearance” – along with the new: “stout, sturdy, massively built, corpulent; of large body or trunk.” There is about Hill the poet (and, perhaps, the man) a virile energy that could never be confused with machismo or metrosexual mincing. He is strong, forthright, tough and resilient as an unlikely melding of Lear and the Fool: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” And now the final poem in his final book, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is section 95 from Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti, the sixth of The Day Books:

“Reality so made: it is like fiction;
Like Brunelleschi’s dome proportionate
Both to the thrustings of the city-state
And to the golden straddler, his perfection:

“Quattrocento masters knowing them-
Selves imbued practitioners of their scope
In fallen matter, in the mundane scape,
The bode of majesty their signal theme:

“Donatello himself many times over
Master of the resources: Virgin, Babe,
Playing nosy-on-facy. So, what scribe
Or what Evangel, seeking things to discover,

“Took such enraptured gazers for God’s plight?—
They speak of what we are. Shagged Abraham
Self-thrusting from the knife, the trammeled arm;
John’s head plumb on a platter, seem just right.

“Judith feels Holofernes by the hair,
Wafting that scimitar, a broody look,
Taking her time, a murder for the book.
A picnic party addled by slurp-beer.

The Apostles grunt and twitch, each as they’re strewn;
How would you step among them? A courtyard,
Contorted accusation, Pilate’s guard
Poising their torsos as they leer and fawn.

“Perhaps not Donatello; one stands bemused.
That much would be in keeping. Error is
And is endemic, and speaks mysteries;
Yahweh himself not wholly disabused

“Of procreation. Time is the demiurge
For which our impotence cannot atone.
Nothings so fatal as creation’s clone.
The stars asunder, gibbering, on the verge”

No period, no closure. A word-hoard unlike any in centuries: "Time is the demiurge." Give the final word to a fellow poet and eloquent admirer of Hill, Eric Ormsby:

“Even those who dislike Hill’s poetry—and they are surprisingly many—will concede that his best work possesses a rich and solemn music. In fact, the musicality of his verse often poses an obstacle to these resistant readers; something so sonorous, in our tuneless day and age, has a suspect ring. But the suspicion rests on a misapprehension. In fact, and especially in his work of the last decade, Hill’s festive cadences are often crosscut by rather savage squawks, ranging from outbursts of self-loathing to caustic vituperation . . . (Odd to consider that in the jagged dissonance of his verse, as well as in his lacerating themes, he is not only the most modern but the most `avant-garde’ poet now writing.)”

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