One-Minute Book Reviews

July 4, 2007

Are You Smart Enough to Understand Geoffrey Hill?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
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A man often called “England’s best living poet” returns with a collection that includes appreciations of Cesare Pavese, Hart Crane and Jimi Hendrix

Without Title. By Geoffrey Hill. Yale University Press, 96 pp., $26, cloth; $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Many people call Geoffrey Hill “England’s best living poet.” Donald Hall, the U.S. poet laureate, says he may be “the greatest English poet since George Herbert.”

Then why is Hill less famous than other poets of his vanishing generation, including Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin? One answer is that, in some ways, he makes more demands on you. His poems are so dense and full of pentimento effects that he has more in common with T.S. Eliot than with Hughes or Larkin. Hill may have made fewer concessions to popular tastes than any living writer. And the pattern holds in Without Title. The rhymes of his earlier books have all but disappeared, though not his use of iambic meter and classical forms (which include, in this book, Pindaric odes). He acknowledges his reluctance to dumb-down his poems in “Discourse: For Stanley Rosen”:

I tell myself
don’t wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense —

Yet, in the same poem, he suggests that even high standards may not be enough:

So few of us absolved when what we write
sets us to rights on some scale of justice.

Hill sets the tone of Without Title in its first poem, “Improvisation on ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’” (“O world, I must leave you”), a meditation on the tune that inspired a Bach chorale. The first word of that poem – and the book — is German (traurig or “sorrowful”). Then he’s off to the races, salting his book with words or phrases from at least a half dozen languages — German, French, Italian, Latin, Greek and Hebrew – and references drawn from more than a thousand years of literary history. His English is similarly high-altitude. Without Title teems with words like “atrorubent,” “barathea,” “Pasiphaean,” “haruspex,” ”pleach-toned” and “shotten.”

At the core of the book lies a deep awareness of the weight of mortality – Hill’s and others’ – suggested by that “O world, I must leave you.” Nearly a third of it consists of dialogues with two poets who committed suicide, Cesare Pavese and Hart Crane. And it has a three-page elegy for Jimi Hendrix whose death – although not officially ruled a suicide – involved some ambiguity on that count.

Yet these poems are too firmly entwined with Hill’s Christian roots to deny all hope. If they are at times sorrowful, they not cynical. One of the best poems, “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints,” begins:

The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery’s toys.

This quatrain is fresh and memorable partly because inverts the traditional image: The wise men who once brought gifts to the Christ Child are themselves “borne as gifts.” And if they are “vulnerable,” they are not shattered or absent. A more dogmatic or conventionally religious poet might have gone on to try to persuade us that mystery can survive in an age that reduces it to toys. But in the last line of the poem, Hill surprises us again. He tells us: “The night air sings a colder spell to come.”

Best line: From “Insert Here”: “Let me be, says the dying man, let me fall / upwards toward my roots.”

Worst line: Hill verges on bathos in an elegy for Jimi Hendrix, a user of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), that casts the guitarist’s life as a Greek tragedy with hallocinogens. The word lysergic, Hill tells is, “also is made up Greek.”

Consider reading instead: Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems: 1952-1992 (Mariner, 2000) would make a better introduction to Hill’s work for most readers, partly because it is stylistically and thematically broader.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: In the context of this collection, Without Title may refer to an honorific, the name of a literary work or a property title (perhaps the most fitting sense of the phrase, given that many poems deal with losing a purchase on life). It may also refer to the title of Britain’s poet laureate, which Hill has never held.

Published: April 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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