Saturday, 31 March 2012

Another Hill to Climb!


For the last couple of years, Geoffrey Hill's been eschewing Penguin and publishing new collections through small publishers, with limited print runs. In the age of the 'kindle', this is clever niche marketing. Two have been published by Clutag Press and the other by Enitharmon. The first one published without fanfare by Clutag - 'Oraclau' - is now almost unobtainable, and sells second hand for hundreds of pounds.

Thus, 'Oraclau' passed me by - the only collection by Hill to do so -, but 'Clavics' (Enithamon) did not (in fact, it's still on sale, if you want to buy it). And in the time it took me to gather some thoughts together for 'Clavics', Hill had published yet another volume with Clutag, 'Odi Barbare'.

Both are in his 'late style', so intense, obscure, full of allusion as well of moments of powerful lyricism. Quick moving, bristling with opinion and attitude. I haven't yet collected my thoughts about 'Odi Barbare'. Anyway, I'm not in the mood to write an academic review, so here are some thoughts on 'Clavics' instead - to encourage you to buy it.

Let me say firstly and categorically that it is NOT, as the Independent stated, 'twaddle'. This is the MOST interesting poetry being produced by an English poet today and, notwithstanding its obscurity, is incredibly open poetry. It seems to reflect the moments of creation and connection in the poet's own mind as he contemplated the diverse subject matter of the poem, yet it is also very formal in layout and approach. This clash between spontaneity and stucture- Hill uses the concept/ trope of dissonance - is both at the heart of the poem and the centre of Hill's own mind. Whilst resisting autobiography, it becomes extremely revealing. That's not to say that every line is perfect - it's not always meant to be pretty or tailored to the anodyne creative writing group style of today- sorry, which I think is poetry with a labotomy. It's meant to be difficult because we live in a complex age, with an ahistorical present clashing with the influence and attraction of a partially forgotten past.

This might help to explain why the main subject is William Lawes, a relatively obscure seventeenth century English composer, who died at the Battle of Chester in the English revolution/ Civil War (take your pick).

My notes on the poem refer to 'a mix of astrology, Kabbalah and civil war history', but he uses the verse form - lifted from that most contained and calmly conflicted metaphysical, Geoge Herbert - to issue challenges and insults like a rap artist. Inbetween these, he does all sorts of different things, including write metaphysical verse - perhaps aware of the end of his own life, which at 80, must occur to him as a real possibility: 'Earth/ billows on; its everlasting/ shadow in tow/ And we with it, fake shadows onward casting'. This may also refer to the futility of life or our illusion of progress. Each of Hill's phrases is rich with possibility.

There is an elegiac note to Hill's work, and it's connected to English history. Some people don't like this, comparing him to Enoch Powell. True, he writes about the kind of history which doesn't get taught in schools any longer (NB: Clavics is dedicated to former OFSTED HMI Chris Woodhead and his wife, Christine, who were critical of contentless curriculum), but there's nothing in his work at all to suggest that he opposes immigration. To compare him to Powell is liking comparing CB Cox to Ezra Pound. Hill feels he has a mission to record England's past which 'rides rich on loss'; he does so from a perspective which was not initially metropolitan. Born in 1930's Worcestershire, the Tory he most resembles is Stanley Baldwin. But he doesn't sound like any sort of politician. Rather his disgust is a sophisticated version of the disgust with public life and values felt by most people in Bitain today and not understood at all by the city-based elites that dominate politics and the media, two of his favourite targets.

But I'm wandering off the point! I've read Clavics about four times so far. I shall read it many more times and get loads more out of it. I hope you read it too.