March 28, 2007

BREAKING THE DROUGHT:

The Long-Cherished Anger of Geoffrey Hill (ADAM KIRSCH, March 28, 2007, NY Sun)

For the last few years, one of the running scandals in the world of poetry was the failure of Geoffrey Hill to find an American publisher -- or, rather, the failure of any American publisher to make its way to Mr. Hill's doorstep. Mr. Hill, an Englishman who teaches at Boston University, has been considered one of the leading poets of his generation ever since his first book, "For the Unfallen," was published in 1959. But in the past 10 years, he has become something more, thanks to a sudden and surprising transformation of his style.

For four decades, Mr. Hill was the most costive of poets. His "New and Collected Poems 1952-1992" runs to barely more than 200 pages, and each of his poems seemed to require long gestation: They were gorgeously wrought, highly allusive, and obsessed with the difficulty of honest poetic speech. Mr. Hill seemed to write little and rarely because every word he did write was charged with conscientious labor. His style was darkly beautiful, saturnine, full of Latin echoes:

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.

These lines, from Mr. Hill's 1978 collection "Tenebrae," also suggest his favorite themes. He is deeply engaged with English history, including church history, and with the landscape that is history's theater. At a time when English poetry was becoming more modest, confessional, and cosmopolitan, Mr. Hill's high seriousness and implied conservatism made him distinctly unfashionable.

Then, in the mid-1990s, came a surprising change. Mr. Hill began to write very rapidly, his trickle of poems turning into a torrent -- he has published more verse in the past 10 years than in the previous 40. And his poems, while still intricate and ambiguous, became much more personal, outlandish, and comical. Instead of small, poised objects, they started to seem like installments in an ongoing monologue. In the rants that make up "The Triumph of Love" (1998) and "Speech, Speech" (2000), the poet presents himself as a cross between King Lear and Coriolanus -- a bemused, outraged, always eloquent denouncer of his times and his fellow men. Sometimes, the manic energy of Mr. Hill's writing sends it careening over the cliff of sense, so that all the reader can glean is a mood:

Ruin smell of cat's urine with a small gin.
Develop the anagram -- care to go psychic?
Psych a new age, the same old dizzy spell.
Force-field of breakdown near the edge.

Whether Mr. Hill's late style is an improvement on his early style remains an open question. What is beyond doubt is that the transformation has made Mr. Hill one of the most fascinating poets at work today -- one whose every new book promises a revelation. That is why so many readers of poetry have been aghast to see Mr. Hill's publishers grow smaller and smaller, and finally disappear, so that his last collection -- "Scenes from Comus" which appeared in England in 2005 -- was never even released here. It is now common to hear English critics call Mr. Hill the greatest poet alive; in America, where he actually lives, it is hard even to find his books.

Happily, the drought has broken with the publication of "Without Title" (Yale University Press, 96 pages, $26).

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 28, 2007 5:20 AM
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