Friday, June 30, 2017

`Creative Cold-Bloodedness in Writing and Making'

“Dying’s no let-up, an atrocious
means of existence: nobody saved;
no sign of ransom if you comprehend me.”

Geoffrey Hill died one year ago today, age eighty-four. In the second-to-last section of the final poem in his final book (“Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti,” Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, 2013) he writes his epitaph or apologia: “The glory of poetry is that it is solemn, / Racked with anarchic laughter.” Loyal readers will get the joke and the point. Hill is never simply one thing – visionary, laudator temporis acti, embattled Christian, “Ruskinian Tory,” Joycean word-alchemist, hectoring prophet, tummler. He contains multitudes. He doesn’t write for readers who expect poems to be as one-dimensional as billboards. Take “In the Valley of the Arrow” (Without Title, 2006), the source of the three lines quoted at the top. The second section demonstrates Hill’s mastery of English landscape painting:

“. . . the singing iron footbridges, tight weirs
pebble-dashed with bright water, a shivey blackthorn’s
clouded white glass that’s darker veined or seamed,

“crack willow foliage, pale as a new fern,
silver-plated ivy in the sun's angle—

“this for description’s sake—“

A nice self-reflexive gesture, that last line. “Shivey”? “Full of shives,” the OED tells us, which brings us to “shive”: “a particle of husk; a splinter; a piece of thread or fluff on the surface of cloth.” Hill is good with the argot of trades (see Mercian Hymns). A secondary meaning is drawn from papermaking: “a dark particle in finished paper resulting from incomplete digestion of impurities in the raw material.” That sounds familiar and would have appealed to Hill. Next, he turns meditative and elegiac: “My shadow now resembles my father’s cloth / cap flat-planted with its jutty neb / that prods the leaf-litter. Ineffectually.” (Look into neb.) In the third section, “for description’s sake”:

“Sun off shields in middle distance
And lidded water saurian-scaled.”

Hill is a voluptuary of language. He recovers it from the dulling of convention. After a steady diet of Hill, most other contemporary poets read at the sub-primer level, a cold pabulum of subject-verb-object. Readers who complain of his difficulty can stick to Mary Oliver. In his essay “Civil Polity and the Confessing State” (Warwick Review, June 2008), Hill writes: “Cogent difficulty, that yields up its meaning slowly, that submits its integrity to the perplexed persistence of readers of good will, is one of the best safeguards that democracy can have.” Fascists of all stripes thrive on phony clarity: “sentiment in collusion with itself.” The final stanza, a squalid scene, represents the “transgressive” Hill, who never leaves the reader lulled. The poem we have just finished reading is itself cinematic, a “video’d provocation.” Last year, after Hill’s death, Sameer Rahim published the full transcription of the interview he had done with the poet in 2013. In it Hill says:

“The art of poetry is the art of making formal structures expressive. It ought to have absolutely nothing to do with personal feeling—I feel sad or I feel in love or I feel ecstatic. What terrifies people is an element of what one might call creative cold-bloodedness in writing and in making. And it seems to me that the fear and dislike of that aspect currently is a type of sentimentality which can only weaken the real relationship of art to any sort of wider culture.”

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