“Think seer as you would sayer”– Geoffrey Hill


As a poetry reviewer in the 1980’s and 90’s I was frequently asked to review books by Geoffrey Hill. Reviewers are not asked to actually read and understand what they review, their task is to write good copy for the column inches reserved by some managing editor. But I also sought out assignments involving Hill, in prose and verse; for me, there was no one more fascinating at large.

At large — indeed. When I finally saw Hill’s very large Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, words from Basil Bunting on Ezra Pound’s cantos came to mind: Hill’s big book is a mountain of a book and may serve to orient me and so it has. It has many faces, many weathers, several eco-systems, and will never be mastered.

In his Gifford Lectures, Rowan Williams connects freedom and difficulty. “To struggle, to test and reject and revise, is to experience language as a project requiring intelligent discernment, choice and action: language cannot be left to the realm of fixed and predictable responses to the environment. It creates a world, and so entails a constant losing and rediscovering of what is encountered. The connectedness of language to what is not language is a shifting pattern of correlation, not an index-like relation of cause and effect” (The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (Bloomsbury, 2014, p 59-60).

Hill gradually mastered the art of being difficult in poems that have always attracted the epithet “difficult” — so Williams’ argument helps situate his oeuvre in a landscape provided by language itself as understood today. Too often “difficult” had a personal usage, but Hill enjoyed, if that’s the word, being difficult. Style is the man, I suppose.

But there is something essential and indeed “universal” about Hill’s being difficult.

Williams’s words — “a constant losing and rediscovering of what is encountered” — well describes the unfolding of Hill’s lifework as well as many of his poems. To submit oneself to the dialectical contraries and the turbulent eddyings of Hill’s poetry is paradoxically one of the chief pleasures of our time. As a young man I would sometimes bodysurf in the Pacific off the Southern California coast: the disorienting tumbling I took and the momentary achievements of lucidity and bodily ecstasy is something I cherish and will continue to expose myself to by reading Hill as this most unremarkable death sinks in, which it will never ever do.

Think seer as you would sayer. Even

thinking at all earns points; but if this

is the home-straight, where is my fixed home?

City of God unlikely. Then in medias 

res, interactive with inertia? Or

something fazed mentors call the lyric cry?

You can cross frontiers in suspended

animation, homing onto the inner voice.

Lyric cry lyric cry lyric cry, I’ll

give them lyric cry!

Whose is the voice, faint, injured, and ghostly,

trapped in this cell phone, if it is not mine?

Some voices ride easily the current. Some

lives get away with murder any road.

How slowly — without discord — all hurls to oblivion. 

–The Orchards of Syon XXX

Poetry and Extremism


We live between the ultimates — between birth and death, between utter joy and utter despair, between immanent perfection and hopeless alienation. So we should not be shocked by extremists who want it all right now.  Poetry, as a medium of experience, exhibits the role of finesse in understanding and acting on our desires. Figures of speech like metaphor embody poetic finesse. They need to be taught as finesse between extremes unless they too become hardened into false certainties.

One of Those Nights

It’s 2:30 and I’m up typing away knowing I have a meeting at 7:30. Certain lines of research came together earlier this evening as I read Joan Dargan’s book on Simone Weil (Simone Wei: Thinking Poetically, SUNY 1999). By placing Weil’s ascetic Platonism (not Dargan’s phrase) in the context of poetry from Baudelaire to Heaney, she provides a new starting point for my old concept “metaxyturn.” That concept is a response to the immemorial agon between philosophy and poetry, a battle I have been waging with myself as long as I can remember. Tonight’s thought-storm comes after a building up of pressure — there’s a barometric metaphor here — caused by my post on Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones.” (That’s posted at http://thepoembetween.com.) Which I felt did not go down well! It’s an application of a standard of poetry forged in the war with Plato, so I’m unrepentant. But I was ready for some fresh support, and I found it in Dargan. See now http://dailymetaxy.com. I’m hopeful that I can find ways of talking about all this that aren’t so off-putting to poets. It’s at the core of what I do as a writer.

Lyric: Use Your Head

just now walking a-

round worrying my head a-

bout poetry and


it starts to rain! It

starts to rain wee drops of rain

on my poor bare head


and it feels so good

to be using my head my

head to feel the rain



New Project: Poems and Freedom

Having retooled an old website, I’m now preoccupied with writing for http://dailymetaxy.com under the title poemaspassport

Please pay it a visit and subscribe if you like. 

The concept is that poems “travel” well — and the difficulty of this notion is that to understand a poem is to understand it as representative of a thick particularity or set of contingencies. A poem is a parochial artifact. But the games poems play with words are real: they connect communities of language users to each other in multifarious ways. Poems use all sorts of means to transcend the fictions of univocal meaning: metaphor, rhyme, all sorts of echoings of intertextuality.  But by “seeing through” the language games AS games — perhaps this is one way to put it — poems travel lightly across communities. Poems are “transcultural.”

And the analogy with doctors-without-borders is that poems liberate their readers from their own cultural limitations. Poems have a healing power that suggests something other to fixed identities. The limiting functions of words, their power to specify what we mean,  which make everyday life possible, would not be comprehendible without countervailing freedoms — of conscience, of expression, of self-consciousness. Language is dialectical; it abounds with significant others.

Reading poetry closely builds a model identity that connects one with ethical others and ultimately with the Other as transcendent creator. That is: the creator whose existence is suggested by the fact that there is a creation to talk about. The logic of the distinction between creator and creation is crucial to the concept of poemswithoutborders.com

Or put it this way: The verbal play at the root of poetry suggests a primal energy, an original creative energy. The Taoist poets of China understood the Tao as the unnamable source of the 10,000 things; they experienced openings of “the fertile void” as source of “being happenings” to which their poetry referred, either by imagery or by its absence. In the West, a cross-cultural study of the idea of creation such as David Burrell’s Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame 1993) makes explicit the sources of the idea of free creation in the faith traditions sharing Abraham as symbolic root. This kind of reading is not for everyone, but the cultural life made possible by it is, it seems to me, the “good life” if that phrase is to have any meaning.

So, in a nutshell, I’m exploring the idea of “poetry” as a primal energy which a poem taps into — to be crude. The “primal” aspect is what is universal and travels so well. Poetry is notoriously untranslatable, and yet what is reading but translating, with whatever faithfulness to the original we can bear.

The practical implications of this “theory” in the practice of a poet is explored in the essay on Denise Riley at http://dailymetaxy.com





The joy of rewriting while the Jury is on break

Having fun this morning doing rewrites of a bit of doggerel I posted on Twitter last night. It’s the Argument for my newly-designed blog poemswithoutborders.com

The blog is devoted to exploring the phenomenon of “freedom” in poetry, how a poem represents moments of acute penetration of a set of circumstances by principles drawn from literary tradition. Poetics as a branch of ethics; the workings of prudence in the mishmash of contingency that constitutes the world as such. In this sense the old notion of equity is paramount in poetics. I first learned about this from that grand old Stanford scholar Wesley Trimpi. I had failed my Masters exam at Berkeley and took a year off for rebooting in Trimpi’s seminar. Couldn’t have done a better thing.

Anyway, here’s the latest incarnation of the epigraph for the new blog:



The poem’s healing art

Invades the ragged (bleeding?) heart

Breaks down the stupid whole

Of self and frees the soul.


The original tweeted early this morning was

The poem’s hearing art

Invades the human heart

Breaks open the closed whole

Of self and saves the soul.

This  has a lot going for it: the rhythms of the final two lines are superior to those of the rewrite. There’s something to be said for the “natural” perhaps faux easiness of the first two lines as they lead into the crash of the last two.

The jury is out.