So – Croker, Macsikker, O’Shem – I ask you
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry
– From The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill
I was shocked when I found out about Geoffrey Hill’s death. I had just come across this quote early in the morning that day:
I’m a fan of the work done over at Interesting Literature, and this quote about the glory of the art of expressiveness is spot on, but what was that 2016 doing there?
I rushed over to the poet’s Wikipedia article right away, but it was too early, so the page remained unchanged. That gave me a moment to tell myself it was a mistake.
But then I came across this message from his wife:
I first thought of his poem, “Tenebrae.” I’m partial to works that explore the intersection of poetry and liturgy, and this Good Friday poem is one of my favorites. Looking at it again, I was struck by how his words to the crucified Christ can be a reader’s response to a poet:
And you, who with your soft but searching voicedrew me out of the sleep where I was lost,who held me near your heart that I might restconfiding in the darkness of your choice
But we might not all have this response to Geoffrey Hill’s poetry with its obscure allusions and sometimes abrasive voice. A crucifixion poem is one thing and might be a bit more accessible, but this is a poem about a particular ritual in a particular church rather than about the original event itself.
I’ve written before here on how difficult poetry is a sign, according to Hill, that the poet respects the reader, but we may still wonder where to begin with this kind of poet.
Here are a few places to start in community with readers who have already built a relationship with the poet.
Over at Image Journal, Gregory Wolfe has this great piece on the poet. He considers how to read a poet described as “angry and difficult.”
If you’re new to a poet, then the Poetry Foundation biography is always a great place to start. From there you can then peruse a selection of his poetry, check out the further readings, or maybe listen to a couple of podcasts.
The medievalist, Steffen Hope, links some of Hill’s early poems with pictures of York. There’s still an allusion to the Greek city Cumae, but these poems can be read for their descriptions in light of Hope’s photos.
Get more of a feel of the poet with this interview. My favorite part is the way Hill links difficult poems with the mystery of being human:
Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves; we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when, if such simplifications were applied to our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes.
But to really give a feel for the poet, I’d like to leave you with this wonderful outburst from one of his poetry readings:
Poetry is a strange angel and has very little to do with enjoyment actually. Great deal to do with joy, not with enjoyment. “Enjoyment” is patronizing and possessive like the old archaic euphemism of a man sexually enjoying a woman’s body. So when you “enjoy” a poem you say, “You are mine, and you please me in my current mood.” And the angel of poetry says, “Sod off. Sod off!”
You know, I hadn’t read any of Geoffrey Hill’s poetry until now. Thanks for all the links! I’ll definitely be giving those a look later.
I would highly suggest the podcast linked as a start. Looking back, I wish I had showcased it more. Curtis Fox talks about Hill with the poet David Yezzi. In it you can hear Hill say the quote I end with, and the way he says it is so much better. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audio/detail/90026
You’re right: it’s a marvelous quote, but Hill’s way of speaking makes it all the more marvelous.
Thank you so much for your blogpost and interesting links, I had never read the part from the poetry reading you quoted… I was incredibly sad when he passed away; it felt like one of the finest spirits breathing had passed. I made an elegy for him (or, as he put it in September song, “for myself”), but it falls short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqooV6YsFx0
Was he crying to the end: “I have not finished?”
Thank you for sharing your elegy for him. Starting with “Funeral Music” and moving to “September Song” is very fitting. I wonder if he did cry “I have not finished” only to answer himself with “This is plenty. This is more than enough” like your elegy does.