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