21. (Geoffrey Hill)

Excess curries parody. The late Hill has not been one to shun excesses: in output, in rhetorical posturing, in allusiveness, in crabbed, barbed reactionary vehemence, in puns and quibbles, in self-aware asides. As if excess, shifted to a higher gear than we knew existed, might speed away from parody (and self-parody) yet—all the while savoring the guttural roar at its heels. Come closer, Hill’s late verse hums (though a hum is one of the sounds we’d least expect from Hill’s verse-machine); and he offers parody daylight, only to outwit it by grander reverberations of self-abuses, or else offers it opportunities to pounce, only to close upon it, with a game master’s sense of timing, the trap carefully laid; the parody of self admitted to be denied. (With apologies for changing metaphors, mid-course; but we remain with the province of games and gaming.)

Hill has, and has for some time had, many of the best critics around working on him, or for him, or from him—the prepositions falter in the case of a poet who does not want to be reconciled in any of these relationships, exactly, with even the devoted critics who have found he has given them new life.  Among them: Eleanor Cook, from that idiosyncratic and distinctly Canadian clan of Frye. Cook writes of Hill in her bundle of essays, Against Coercion: Games Poets Play, a collection that takes seriously what it is to think of poems as games; though she does not extend the metaphor to include Big Game. That she writes on Hill at all is a surprise and a strength, since her preferred poets, those to whom she is predisposed, are, for instance, Bishop, Merrill, Stevens, Heaney; the Vendler crew. Nothing wrong with any of these (though there is probably something wrong with my calling them a crew), but these are not poets who, despite Heaney’s moiled farm-words, are usually treated by critics as if they write Big Game verse. They are not thought to launch those hyper-masculine ambushes on the blood-mawed skirmishers of the night. But Cook recognizes that their games are Games with more than superficial resemblances to those Hill plays (a generosity of vision unlike that of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s asinine portrayal of manly imbecility: on Proust and James: “I don’t understand them…to me, that’s not literature.”): If we read, say, James Merrill’s prose or Marianne Moore’s or Seamus Heaney’s, we apprehend a little of what Geoffrey Hill means by “a self-castigating craftsman’s faculty.” Only those ignorant of art suppose formal questions to be peripheral or morally neutral.

But Cook insists on art as a game, on poetry as a game, as serio ludere. It may be that Merrill, Hecht, and Bishop call out for the aesthete’s touch as Vendler offers it; but Cook at least balances it against something else, maybe owing to Frye’s concern with essential human categories.

The late Hill, dour and recalcitrant and rebarbative as he wishes to seem, is often playful with how dour and recalcitrant and rebarbative he might seem to some, who either do not detect the performance or else would rather that he performed in another guise. A serious game, but also a game of seriousness. There is a long-learned cricksal move; and this is itself the sort of an aside, the self-castigating mockery, perhaps lacerating with laughter at what ceases to amuse, that Hill can deploy stunningly. (My sample is but the crayola wax to the genuine Sienna brick in late-afternoon light).  But it is a game of seriousness, and a serious game of seriousness, because it admits that poetry, as much as it would effect, can often only affect power: that the words will fall on dear ears, dumb minds, stupid mouths (mine included, yours included), that it is valued as an intrinsic attempt at setting right, for a moment, what will collapse: Jenga!


I checkmate with my own moves

      to cope with a quatrain

      of metre uncertain

and rhyme claiming as proven what art disproves.

What art disproves and rhyme claims? The atunement of sounds; the atonement of order; the satisfaction of utterance locked in place, like the click of a box; the contingencies of language suddenly mastered and redeemed.  But art—more failing than not, more registering the failures, and valued, sought after, craved for its faith in the end that it will not attain, but in which we could have no faith were it not for the art—disproves these, against the success of the rhyme.

So the visually rich rhyme that Hill launches several sections, or stanzas, or poems (that last numbered 46, this numbered 59) later:

Allegory’s always cold when you awake

          in the small hours

    everything fallen away

         from the high stake

             and you pay


    for those soul-making tours

         weathered to anecdote

         not wholly invalid

as the confessions of an invalid

            of note.

Hill is, because he presents himself as old, as frail, is an invalid of note and fame; also an invalid of musical note; the invalid note of rhyme is struck here between “invalid” and “invalid”; but the rhyme gets at a haunting question behind the poetry, too: not only as an old poet (Hill repeatedly addresses himself, “senex”), but as a poet, and as a human, Hill is an invalid: weakened, vitiated, not irredeemably, but without the likewise weakened, vitiated resources of the language, which is invalid for some of the most pressing of tasks, and of needs. The pleasure of play, the gravity of play; but also play sequestered as play because it is invalid; poetry a distillation and recognition of the limitations of our words even in those realms of life and action where we would believe, and do believe, that they are efficacious and valid.

T.S. Eliot in his late poetry sought after validity too: the fourth of the Four Quartets titled for the seventeenth-century community of religious devotion, founded by Herbert’s literary executor, Nicholas Ferrar, “Little Gidding.” That was, for Eliot, a place “where prayer had been valid.” Hill’s unease with the late Eliot is perhaps because he is also diseased by the late Eliot: diagnosing in himself, and in his words, a similar strand of malignant infection, incurable but by something given from beyond our world: “The intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings.”  But Hill objects because Eliot, complaining of the wrestle, has been defeated; the defeat coming in the flabby tone of lines such as: “With shabby equipment always deteriorating | In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.”  Donald Davie reflecting on his initial attempt at salvaging another part of Eliot’s poem, “The Dry Salvages,” from the savaging to which he had subjected it, decides that the rescue-work was deluded from the start: “We were meant to notice (so my argument went) that the tone had gone wrong, and to ask ourselves why the poet had engineered such wrongness. All this part of my essay now seems quite implausible.”  Davie does not complain of the lines from “East Coker” that I’ve just quoted, but these seem to be defensible chiefly if we tolerate them as embodying the deterioration that Eliot bemoans; but deterioration is deterioration, and only careful ‘placing,’ absent from the Eliot, can justify it; these final prosaic wastes of each poem in the Quartets, beautiful as wastes might be, are also capable, in certain moods and minds, of seeming monotonous marshes.

It’s the way that Eliot wrestles that bothers Hill, especially when he finds himself in the same ring (wrestling: another sport, another game, though there’s skin in this one). Hill accuses the late Eliot of settling for, and leaning on, “tone,” a word that we find in Davie’s criticism, and a word that Hill pitches against his preferred “pitch,” where “pitch” has precision, a refusal to casually, lazily delegate to a common reading public the poet’s duty to determining the scope and objects of the connotation and denotation of the poems words. Late Eliot, says Hill, absconds from the reign (or at least influential counsel) over words to which poets ought to aspire. He contrasts the late with the early Eliot, the Eliot of “Gerontion” and “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” and even “Marina.”  The language of these poems is jolted by the violence inseparable from power; Hill takes as his example Eliot’s pronouns. (Hill’s opinions on Eliot are to be found in the Collected Critical Writings). But I think Hill also sees in the early Eliot’s poetry a way out, or around, the parody that he courts.

This morning I finished reading through one of the new collections in Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. It was the first new collection I’ve read in its entirety; the first collection by Hill I’ve read in some time. It’s title: Ludo: Epigraphs and Colophons to “The Daybooks”.  I’ve already quoted from two sections of it (the whole of 59 is quoted).

One of the young Eliot’s innovations was the adoption and adaptation of the irony of Laforgue, whose dandified self-consciousness, naivety tinctured by cosmopolitan worldliness and self-awareness, offered Eliot a means for setting his poems at conscious but poised exclusion from the world, and for adopting the imposition of words with the sad resignation and occasional tic of discomfort that one would associate with a bemused and sensitive neurotic (Buster Keaton in a talkie) in society’s fashions. The alternations of detachment from and involvement with language and the social circles from which the language was passed along gave the opportunity for pressure. Hill does not strike quite this figure in Ludo; he could not, since he has has the weight of his career behind him, a formidable reputation, ingrained habits not only of writing, but of self and self-presentation; adopting a persona so foreign to that self would be ludicrous, rather than ludic.

And it’s the ludic that Hill achieves in this strange collection-that-is-not-a-collection: the ludic self, an evasion of the parodic self, because finding play within the habits of age, within the excesses of Hill’s late style, does not represent a parody of excess or even an evasion of excess, but a refashioning of those excesses in a poetry of novel pitch. The pitch of Pierrot, the clown of French comedy, a figure for Laforgue, and for Eliot after him, exiled by Eliot to London, and exiled once more to Hill’s verses in this book:

One ma have stitched too much off a sow’s ear.

Steer enlclichéd pierrot towards peer riot.

Hill steers Pierrot away from his native grounds. But the exile, the feeling that this is a figure too clumsy to mesh, is of the essence to his usefulness for the poets. We can recognize that this play is alien to Hill’s normal play, that the costume he wears, the clothes of Eliot’s early poetry, and the postures, at times whimsical, at times wistful, are not of a piece with the terms and concerns and rhetoric that Hill prefers in his late verse. Adopting the manner and mannerism of early Eliot, Hill affords himself detachment from his self-inheritance, the burden of his own sense of urgency; Hill often registers his self-alienation, and his alienation from the terms of his poetry; but the Eliotic Pierrot affords even a detachment from the pain of alienation.  The influence is heard, in section 35:

Let it be spoken that a cosmic spring

has broken, spilling to anarchy

untroubling to the consuls or the grand.

Why should the obvious go underground,

or have recourse to the absurd’s far cry,

or take just measure with odd bits of string?

Why is this not an abnegation of responsibility of a different sort from that Hill finds repugnant in late Eliot? Because Ludo is not a surrender, or even a turning away; it is a continuation of Hill’s scrutiny of his own complaints and terms, albeit in a new mode, one that plays with and within the crates of stuff that Hill carries with him, not disrespecting what is found there, or presenting itself as a distorted mockery of Hill, but instead giving things a new turn. Hills clowns himself, and we might think of a clown asking for a member of an audience, or for an object from the audience, and turning that object over to new purposes, comical because unexpected, but returning it intact, if slightly damp. Such play is an alternative to parody; it plays with, rather than against or upon. It allows Hill to reinvigorate some of the more predictable terms of the verse—he has written so much, and, like all poets, returns so often to the same grounds, that they are bound to become gnarled, dog-eared (“due season” is only one of the phrases that I see on the page, with an unignorable provenance in the poetry that precedes it in the collection)—and to laugh within them, without the sardonic bite to close the chuckle. And being a book that stands as a collection of epigrams and colophons, it establishes a relationship between the comic and the tragic that is not used only for ends of bitter self-dismissal, invective, satire, or farce: it admits that Hill’s terms may be a source of amusement without parody, that Hill’s language can be a source of levity without being lightened of its weight or relieved of its intents.

The collection opens:

We who are lovers through a grace of days

in diverse ways; who to variant clays

are self-adherent; and heirs apparent

to parent fears and fears recurrent:

how this preamble must resemble

tossed-out arrears,

and shail and wamble

and tossers’ tremble,

fertile pessimism, one that yet waylays

generation and the jolly ramble of years.


Hill has found the note of Feste and of Stevens, of Marvell and perhaps of Pope: poets whose revel in play, playfully, with a breezy performance of chumminess and nonchalance, whose rhymes and tropes seem to fall into place with the happiness of trouvailles, and whose poetry delights in the possibility that this can happen at all, even if it must come crashing down, even if must prove inadequate or invalid; it remains valid as play, and that is something, because in play so many values are found. Hill approvingly quotes Christopher Ricks’ reversal of Pound’s epigram–“all of our values ultimately go into our judicial sentences” (Pound had written that they come from those sentences). Hill is more often than note the stern high judge; but all of our values also go into our play, and so getting play right is an acknowledgment of those values, even if we accept that it is just play.

But these poets also belong together for excelling in a common virtue. Eliot knew it, possessed it himself, and wrote of it as nobody else had before or has since: Jonson never wrote anything purer than Marvell’s Horatian Ode; this ode has that same quality of wit which was diffused over the whole Elizabethan product…Dryden was great in wit, as Milton in magniloquence; but the former, by isolating this quality and making it by itself into great poetry, and the latter, by coming to dispense with it altogether, may perhaps have injured the language. In Dryden, wit becomes almost fun, and thereby loses some contact with reality; becomes pure fun, which French wit almost never is.

With our eye still on Marvell, we can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible…

This seems to me a fitting description—if unexpected—of what we find not only in Marvell but in Feste, in Stevens, in Pope, and also, though I do not mean that the quality or magnitude of achievement is comparable, in the ludic Hill. The erudition threatens to stifle; the toughness might be mistook for cynicism—and it is different from what we find in these other poets because the experience that it works upon is not generations, but a single life, and body of work, that has spanned generations; it is the recognition that the realities, the threats and grievances and events that Hill confronts, might have been experienced in quite another way, even within some of Hill’s terms, by another poet, and that this would not have represented a failure of the poet’s task or duty. The effect is quite the opposite of parody: rather than to consign Hill into the narrow prison of caricature, it suggests that what drives and sustains Hill’s creative energies is not at all limited to Hill, that these same may have driven and sustained another, albeit in other fashion.

Section 61:

The mortifications are the fortifications.

A jingle; a reduction; but also nothing that could appear in a parody of Hill because so foreign to Hill’s natural pitch and way of wording. Yet, like a parody, it depends on Hill’s entire body of work, it somehow smacks of Hill, and is even a smack at Hill, but it is a self-administered smack; the clown stumbling over his shoes, but needing them still.






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