Looking at Glass Ceilings

Acceptable Words: Essays on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Jeffrey Wainwright
(hbck, £45, Manchester University Press)


It was news to me that Geoffrey Hill had somehow outed himself in his late poetry as taking antidepressants, until I read a review of The Triumph of Love that announced this as if it were self-evidently and obviously in the text itself (and not perhaps something that the reviewer had been told through the grapevine and alerted to).

I was not seeking mere revelations of gossip in a book-length overview of Hill's work (up to 2005, when Acceptable Words
was published.) Perhaps a little help. Hill's work challenges me. There is the reader and writer in me nostalgically hopeful for a new, best possible twist on the lyric poem, the one that we studied in the school classroom. Hill might do it, have done it. Part of me thinks of school as the place where the right poem - in the strict conditions (conditioned strictures) of that place where we last studied poetry with the general reader – introduced into the room might make the room a better place for me to be. No-one in practice gets to have a chat with the general public about poetry. But almost everyone has had 5 mins of the experience that they are talking with the generic public, in school, about poetry. The conversation one has in one classroom is the same as that from any classroom.

Doesn't this render a strange new historical moment for the Wordsworthian idea that poetry speaks to the child in us? School discussions of poetry make a mockery of Wordsworthian innocence at its finest. They actually inhibit it. Yet in a rare classroom, among all and not least one of the generic classrooms, a Wordsworth poem might get an outing, even a hearing. An early Prynne poem, where Prynne is at is his most Wordsworthian, might. I've personally taught the same workshop on writing mesostic poetry in many schools, and it's often gone the same. The form, like the acrostic but with greater flexibility, encourages one to snatch, chance-like, at expressions to incorporate into the poem – the plainer but also the gawkier the better. The kind of poetry this encourages young people to write is a great deal better than the poetry of finding similes, the dull syntax and the preponderance of the word 'like' in young people's poetry. All the forms, as school exercises, have a glass ceiling on them, nevertheless.

Hill's work challenges us to look at our glass ceilings, whatever forms we're writing. This is, sadly, not as subtly, plangently true of poems by poets who are writing in more modernist and postmodernist ways these days, except for a small handful I'd myself try on young people (Ron Silliman, Kenny Goldsmith, Carla Harryman, and, for me, right now, from memory, that's it).  Teaching English to young people over 16, maybe, but by then the battle is lost, the general public has left the classroom. The rest is a self-disciplined route of following your own star and maybe one day being Laurie Anderson played on John Peel, overheard by Tony Blackburn, and played by Tony Blackburn for 3 mins the last day, and your Oh Superman makes you a crossover hit artist. (Which is not unlike Geoffrey Hill's path.)

There isn't much applicability of poetry to life, much fresh air about poetry, in Jeffrey Wainwright's book on Hill. There isn't much of an overview on Hill, except in a page at the end where Wainwright sees that Hill is always standing on beaches looking out to sea (what he calls the 'littoral'), which to me was a nice plain statement of something I hadn't seen so clearly before. There are some very good translations of foreign poetry, done unostentatiously by Wainwright; in fact I'd have liked every instance of anything in another language also Englished by this rather good translator. These are helpful, and should go into the footnotes of any scholarly text of Hill's poems in future. Wainwright himself writes wonderfully clear and plangent poetry himself, right to the nub of things, uncomfortable and candid to albeit rather non-heroic things. His are even I might say Wordsworthian sentences clipped out of, and less than, a Wordsworthian full unrolling (as Wordsworth's one short poems are clipped and lesser than Wordsworth in full flow.) Wainwright pays lip service to Hill's great ability with keeping collages of sentences building – but it is not into 'strophes', not paragraphs, but into a segue, a montage, a medley, a DJ's perfect set, a movie I'd contend. Hill's sentences in poems are not always Wordsworthian, Wainwright's almost always are; and the extent to which Hill jumps into other kinds of sentences is the extent to which Hill pulls fast ones, sometimes naughtily, sometimes evasively. Sometimes in the overall work one wishes if only Hill would veer somewhere back on course since 2005, then his fast ones would be as good as tragic.

Wainwright's prose about Hill is, to me, terribly hamstrung compared to Wainwright's plainness in his poetry. It's weak, has no rhythm, and overall makes no argument. There is a hint or two (he receives, he says, texts from Hill before Hill publishes them) of personal acquaintance, and I speculate if this makes it hard for Wainwright to write honestly about Hill. Wainwright is natural and tender, familial, in his poetry, and family often puts you in the present tense. (Stockhausen said he would always take a phone call from his children, even in mid-composing). It may be that thinking too cerebrally about poetry makes Wainwright trip over his very present tense words, makes him absent and distracted, unhappy, not wanting to be there, when writing critical prose. He may be in a big sulk about writing critical prose to order, or to form, or because he doesn't want to at all. He may be wanting to be more vituperative about Hill, without personal malice; more rebuking, more upbraiding. So, the praise to which he restricts himself instead feels faint. And, overall something else comes through: discomfort.

Wainwright  often picks up on isolated lines from poems and then assigns too much, or too silly of, a significance to them; a simile Hill uses about burnt cauliflower, for example, is praised; and by that very act ceases to be the little flick of Pollock-like gesture in the non-dominant colour scheme of the overall picture, takes an awkward bow in embarrassed silence under Wainwright's spotlight and slopes off.  Again and again, what Wainwright picks out with his beam would be best kept in proportion in the whole by a more diffuse light, a more present Wainwright not in awe but amity, standing nearby. Isolating four or five lines fragments in Hill's long flowing Orchards of Syon
book, for example, is a mistake of the same order, with or without commentary. The overall theme of myopia and blur in the Orchards of Syon fits perfectly with the unstoppable banquet of it, it makes the banquet stir to life, its great dance of a hippopotamus picking up a pea (as Wells said wrongly about Henry James) rendered touching. Isolated into five line chunks, it all seems just more Hill, as Ashbery is often just more Ashbery, and that's not the effect of the overall book.

Wainwright has an awkward moment of quoting, however, with great potential, and this might have been the core of a completely different book - a place from which to revise the whole endeavour. More than once, Wainwright quotes Hill's line 'the dead are my obsession this week'. But every time, he quotes it in context but also with part of the line from the next verse, like so:

     Some of us have heard the dead speak:
     The dead are my obsession this week

     But may be lifted away.

Quoted like this, this seems a bathetic, rather vulnerable note by Hill; almost, unthinkably for what Davie has called the 'zero-sum' Hill, a resolution, a conclusion. Quoted like this, it doesn't seem Hill, and that is very interesting, given what Wainwright says elsewhere in the book about modernism as collage (of different sentences in different styles, whereas I am saying Wainwright himself gulp-collages in one consistent Wordsworthian style, like trying to control hiccoughs in himself). It feels like Wainwright has successfully collaged Hill.

The actual Hill verses, in full, are these:

     Some of us have heard the dead speak:
     The dead are my obsession this week

     But may be lifted away. In summer
     Thunder may strike, or, as a tremor…

Even with only nine more words restored, it feels more like Hill. The 'but may be lifted away' line goes to memory much more as 'but may be lifted away in summer' if it goes at all. Yet Wainwright is really talking to Hill here. He is like the therapist (as Jeffrey Masson has over-defensively said friends should be, and there should be no therapists) to Hill, echoing and isolating a key phrase, something one feels Hill is crying out for sometimes. The first essay of Eliot's The Sacred Wood
asks the reader if we are friend to the poet, pastor to the poet, or fellow technician.

Wainwright is not having a lot of fun, nor is he making any points of moral compass to make the reader gasp. He is not a bad writer like so many academics. His sentences are clear, but clash and flag in his paragraphs. The big statements (that there are) just don't work. It is ludicrous to say Hill is a poet of history, in any book that even quotes a few lines from Ezra Pound's Cantos
anywhere in its pages, as Wainwright's book does (both things). Pound takes one into the moment when history is made, in detail. So too does Wallace Stevens, it is not a question of mere technical procedure, or poetic form. Stevens' much less well-anthologised poems about war and soldiers dramatise old wars, bring them alive, make us feel unsure they should have been fought, or fought badly, with little or no mention of actual historical detail. Hill looks back at history, at a distance. Hill makes us feel, very effectively, that people have died, that we don't care about the suffering of even someone in the next room we can't see and breathe air with. In this way, Hill fights a battle with the fad for World War 1 poetry, which in England is not good poetry and with little or no moral compass and quite a lot of teenage gore and attitude. But this is stingy, cranky Hill (whom Wainwright defends) when one zooms out to look, more objectively, albeit with one good point to make about blindness to suffering.

Hill is not an historical poet but a political poet, and not political in the sense of wanting to introduce ideas to politics. He is a politician of a poet, a tugger of heart strings and with a feel for rhetoric. Wainwright helps us see Hill's great ability in bringing classical technical formal rhetoric (more than rhythm) into modern poetry to knit it together so freshly, yet one wonders if this is an extension of his interest in speech-making politicians, somber and learned but childish whimsy at heart. Hill alludes to Enoch Powell's rivers of blood speech in Mercian Hymns
, and in a way not easily forgotten. He has the feel for speaking to the cynical as if to the idealistic, and skill at building a powerbase. I praise this because we need politicians, and we need not be against them in toto. Rather we need to say, Cometh the hour, Cometh the man, and until such moment nothing can be said. The politician is empty until that moment, in a way we would praise in an actor but fear like Caliban in our politicians.

Hill is playing politics with imports from over the pond, as politicians do, like our current politicians look to American welfare to work programs, say, or approaches to children's learning and selfhood. But is he flubbing his hour? We see Hill the child in his work but where are his own children in Hill's work? We find a dedication to grandchildren in the later work, but where are the children, where the marriages? The sex we can guess at. One of the great things about the Triumph of Love, which Wainwright doesn't see, is that love is everywhere in it.  Wainwright says

     the word 'love' rarely appears, and then in a heavily defended
     context as though its very utterance is hard-won.

For Wainwright, in his own touching and plangent poetry, this would be unbearable. To put love in the title, and only put the word 'love' in the poetry in such a way. For Hill, it is de rigeur. The word 'love' hardly appears in Bob Dylan's song 'Most of the Time', but it is clearly his own way of singing 10CC's 'I'm not in Love (So Don't Forget it)'.

Everywhere in The Triumph of Love
, Hill is reborn in love, in the possibilities of love. After the weed-choked, style-choked Canaan, some prose, and some of his own prose, not just of the Mercian Hymns but of Hill's essays, comes into the poetry with new lightness, new life. Hill is like a child, in the Wordsworthian sense. Even when he calls himself, stupidly, self-molested, he is still held in his own light of letting more hang out, in hope of acceptance. The next book Speech! Speech! finds a language spin-cycle, a gestalt, to try to work some more violent and sinister debate out, something to learn from the mob, some openness to candour as comes in Donald Davie's work in the 80s ('desperation, too, is quiet' so we need noise!). There is a fear of damnation and hope for undeserved salvation through grace in the next book after that, Orchards of Syon. But, more and more, we are gathered with Hill into less and less prayer.

   © Ira Lightman 2007