August 8, 2010


Great poetry is no scandal (Richard King, 8/04/10, The Australian)

For [Geoffrey] Hill, responsibility to the richness of the language is inseparable from responsibility to the truth. This is a heavy burden to bear, and Hill is aware that such a vision can lend itself to self-aggrandisement and to comedy. In his Mercian Hymns (1971) he imagines himself as a poet-king, wryly fusing an account of his childhood in the English Midlands in the 1930s with the life of an ancient king of that region. But he also knows that writers can, and do, have an impact on historical events, and in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (1983) he explores one instance when this was the case. Peguy was a French intellectual and patriot who attacked the socialist leader Jean Jaures for attempting to keep France out of World War I, an attack that may have led indirectly to Jaures's assassination in 1914. The responsibility of the writer is laid out in the starkest terms:

Did Peguy kill Jaures? Did he incite

the assassin? Must men stand by what they write

as by their camp-beds or their weaponry

or shell-shocked comrades while they sag and cry?

Here, the cliche -- to stand by something -- is brilliantly restored by the image of the camp-bed, which takes us straight from Perguy's rhetoric to the reality of life on the Western Front, encapsulating in a single phrase the theme of artistic responsibility. The exploration of the relationship between thought and action as it played itself out in a unique intelligence has, one feels, a particular resonance for this most engaged and engaging of poets.

The late Peter Porter once remarked on the tendency of contemporary poets to turn themselves into stand-up comedians, so concerned are they to appeal to a world that appears to be turning its back on their art. Hill will have nothing to do with such nonsense. His is a serious poetry about serious things. Sometimes he can seem too serious, forbidding to the point of rebarbativeness. Still, I'd rather have the rebarbativeness, replete as it is with exquisite effects, than the purveyors of performance doggerel seeking to lighten my day. There are perhaps a handful of poets whose work will survive into the 22nd century. In my view, Hill is one of them.

-REVIEW: of True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, by Christopher Ricks (Patrick Kurp, June 7, 2010, The Quarterly Conversation)

True Friendship started life as the Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities at Bard College in 2007. Ricks’s challenge is to keep from tangling so many threads on his loom—five writers and all their possible pairings and treblings—but there’s nothing grim or workmanlike about his ambitious task. Among his other virtues, Ricks is a grateful, happy critic:

It would please me if, after all these years and all that is owed to these poets, the five of them were to form for others as well as for me the mysteriously persuasive shaping that Sir Thomas Browne delighted in: the quincunx. But I should of course settle for something along less far-fetched lines, such as the dear, down-to-earth way of putting it that William Empson came up with: the right handle to take hold of the bundle. Or rather, merely a right handle to take hold of the bundle.

Seldom do audacity and humility so charmingly mingle in a critic. Ricks begins with Hill, a poet he has championed for more than forty years. Hill’s work is unimaginable without Eliot’s example, but the friendship is never true—or uncomplicated. Ricks notes that Hill’s poetry is suffused with Eliot’s, but his critical work is often dismissive of his great precursor. Hill goes so far as to call Eliot’s late work “demonstrably bad,” but Ricks notes that “the grudging respect that Hill has for Eliot remains respect, even on the occasions when it is palpably outnumbered by the grudging or even the grudges.” For example, Ricks cites a passage from section 29 of Hill’s Speech! Speech! (2000):

The sanctuary hung with entrails. Blood
on the sackcloth. And still we are not
word-perfect. HARUSPICATE; what does that
say to you?

The odd-sounding upper-case word means inspecting animal entrails for purposes of divination, but Hill isn’t merely showing off his Latinate vocabulary. Ricks writes: “Well (since you ask), what this says to me is that (among much else) the entrails of a poem by Eliot are being inspected.” Then he cites an echo from “The Dry Salvages” section of Four Quartets:

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behavior of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures . . .

The spell-check software on my computer recognizes neither “haruspicate” nor “scry” (crystal gazing), but Ricks recognizes Hill recognizing Eliot, and a good reader recognizes a small gift from a good critic.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 8, 2010 8:36 AM
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