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Geoffrey Hill

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#1 J.A.A. Purves

J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 29 March 2012 - 10:28 PM

I have just become incredibly addicted to the poetry of Geoffrey Hill. His love of the English language, his ability to convey so much with so little to such perfection, his layer upon layer upon layer of meaning with even more said between the lines, his carefully selected word upon word building to slow and steady crescendos, his downright aristocratic Old England/Puritanical/Medieval/Modern lofty and masterly vocabulary ... I could go on and on.

I started with A Treatise of Civil Power (2005) with its allusions to Milton and Cromwell, war and politics, classics and modernity, and was immediately addicted. Hill somehow completely enmeshes 1500s and 1600s history with modern day references, phrases and understanding. But the way he does it is a credit to the English language. This is the sort of thing best read to yourself or to others out-loud. Like:
 

"...Getting into the act I ordain a dishonoured
and discredited nation.
Milton or Clarendon might well approve.
Can't say who else would. It smacks rather
of moral presumption. Things are not that bad.
H. Mirren's super ..."

or
 

"... If God were not light - how does it go on?
Or at whose say so? Trouble the hypothesis
to be an immortal fact. It is enough
even mortalists concede the nub. Save God's
being light, spirit could not have been.

The marvellous webs are rimed with eternity ..."

or
 

"... Cut our loss. Make Prognosticks a back-list.
For labour of petty conundrums use
any commonplace book as model: strings
of synonyms, cramped maxims, anecdotes
nine-tenths botched in conveyance ..."

Or from Clavics (2011), which I read next:
 

"Even less able to approach or end.
Things stood thus last time. So try periods.
But don't go there.
Merrier duds
Transmitted blind
Tortoise and hare
Divisions to the wire.
Tune out of my mind
Speaks well of sensuous apprehension
Somebody in a different domain
Or dimension
Segmental Man
Modulating
Take the Rach Three:
That will play your manhood
My young maestro!
I may be monstrously understating -
ETERNITY IRRADIATES COUPLE.
With none to care
Blank Cretaceous settled down this bubble.

Set yourself as finality avails
Conjurated ex-syllables
Tell most without saying
Configurate
Assign
Some coign
Of self-debate
Introvert surveying.
From blood-clay build what ennobles.
Untenable still the timeless values."

Over the last week I just devoured King Log (1968), Tenebrae (1978) and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) and I can't stop. Hill's words are too entrancing. I'm not financially rich enough to buy the books as fast as I want to read them. They are, in fact, finite in number however. So I'm going to have to slow down and allow myself only one or two a month. Anyone else here discovered Hill yet?

Here's a quick excerpt from Gregory Wolfe's Beauty Will Save the World (pages 87-88):
 

... Hill inhabits a world which has seen the brutality of totalitarianism and the banality of materialism. His generation has set its sights lower, looking to the small moments of lyric inspiration for its subjects.

Geoffrey Hill nonetheless has stood resolutely from his poetic contemporaries. For thirty-five years, he has written poetry preoccupied with power and violence in European history, and with religious experience. Hill's baroque, sensual, highly formal verse manifests all the qualities which Eliot believed "difficult" modern poetry must possess - allusions, indirection, and ambiguity abound. Only in the last few years has Hill's stature come to be recognized. It now seems likely that in the future his name will tower over those of Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, as well as his American counterparts.

Hill can be thought of as a Christian poet only in a limited sense. Brought up as an Anglican, Hill has refused in his mature years to identify himself with Christian belief, though he has insisted that he is a theist. He has claimed that his poetry is largely concerned with the inability of someone with a modern consciousness to experience religious faith. Hill's character is in fact very close to that of Simone Weil, who was locked in an anguished dialectic with Christianity and the Catholic Church. Despite the pronouncements of many secular critics who downplay Hill's religious dimension, it remains true that Hill continues to grapple with the tensions of Christian experience, and he has even commented that the poet may communicate grace without possessing it himself. His poetry is of inestimable value because it brings a thoroughly modern sensibility to bear on the experience of faith - and it does so with searing honesty and even, on occasion, humility. His challenge is one that Christians must accept and attend to ..."

I occasionally read poetry, but I haven't been this fascinated, upon discovering the poetry of someone I hadn't read yet, for years.



#2 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 13 March 2014 - 12:18 PM

For everyone's information, Geoffrey Hill's twenty books of poems have just been collected and published in a single volume called Broken Hierarchies.

 

I just finally received my copy of it in the mail, and it's immediately turned into one of the most treasured books I own.  The current price on Amazon, when you consider that you are essentially buying 20 books (a few of which were unpublished) for the price of 2 books, is quite a bargain.  I'd expect the price to go up with time.

 

I still think Hill may be our greatest living English poet.  I have read no one like Hill, since T.S. Eliot, whose poems are so incredibly rich in allusion and detail (referring to everything from Greek philosophy to 2nd Century Christian theologians to the Reformation to obscure little read WWI war poets to stand-up TV comedians) while also having often a perfect ear for the music of language.  Most good poems are impossible to plumb the depths of upon a first reading.  Hill's poems are impossible to plumb the depths of upon a first five readings.  But each time you re-read one of his poems, it gets better than it was the last time you read it.

 

What is not cool is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one reads Geoffrey Hill.  I personally know quite a few English and literature majors, and not a single one of them had ever heard of Hill when I asked them.

 



#3 Josh Hamm

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Posted 20 March 2014 - 10:09 PM

Thanks for the tip about Broken Hierarchies. It’s very alluring, but I’ve just used up my “poetry fund” on Christian Wiman and Wendell Berry. Even so, I’m tempted to make an exception and spend a little bit more. I was introduced to Hill through this excellent essay in Image by Gregory Wolfe, “Who’s Afraid of Geoffrey Hill,” after which I bought a couple of his books(A Treatise of Civil Power and The Triumph of Love). 

 

 

I still think Hill may be our greatest living English poet.  I have read no one like Hill, since T.S. Eliot, whose poems are so incredibly rich in allusion and detail (referring to everything from Greek philosophy to 2nd Century Christian theologians to the Reformation to obscure little read WWI war poets to stand-up TV comedians) while also having often a perfect ear for the music of language.  Most good poems are impossible to plumb the depths of upon a first reading.  Hill's poems are impossible to plumb the depths of upon a first five readings.  But each time you re-read one of his poems, it gets better than it was the last time you read it.

 

 

I find myself in a similar mindset, especially on the re-reading front. I love the density and “difficulty” of his work, because it encourages me to immerse myself in past works of history and philosophy and politics that I might have otherwise passed over, just so I can understand his context.  It's quite humbling to read his poetry, because sometimes, rather foolishly, I consider myself well read. But whenever I read Hill I realize that it's as if I’ve been reading magazines in a waiting room instead of entering the open library before me.

 

 

What is not cool is that, as far as I can tell, almost no one reads Geoffrey Hill.  I personally know quite a few English and literature majors, and not a single one of them had ever heard of Hill when I asked them.

 

I don't know anyone who has heard of him either. But I think that's partially due to a general lack of interest in poetry. From my experience as an English major I’ve noticed that even most English majors don’t know/care about poetry. For example: A professor in one of my upper level courses quoted the infamous opening lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”

 

  “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.”  

 

He quoted it in a very offhand way, just looking out the window and making a connection between the poem and what he saw. Then he asked the class, half joking, if anyone knew who he was quoting. And out of twenty five people, all English majors in their last or second last years, maybe four knew it was Eliot, the rest hadn't the faintest idea. Schools simply don't emphasize poetry in education, at least not where I've studied. Over the next three semesters at SFU there are only five poetry courses offered– including both graduate and undergraduate courses. Again, this is just my limited experience at SFU, and even though it is a major Canadian university, I’m not sure if I can safely name this as a larger trend elsewhere. Whether or not it's a larger trend though, I still find it a little sad, if only because people are missing out on all the beauty, and joy, and fun/pleasure (which is rarely emphasized enough) that poetry can bring.







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