Via Patrick Kurp I find this interview with English poet Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a very, very serious poet, and this makes him very, very funny. The highlight of the interview is this magnificently Enderby-ish declaration:
The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.
I am reminded of an exchange with Nige on Thought Experiments. Nige accused Simon Armitage of being ‘no poet’, by which he meant: a poet, but not a real one. That is, not a great one. That is, not like Hill. Hill would call Armitage a mediocre poet. Armitage must, by Hill’s definition, be a mediocre poet because he is not completely isolated. Admittedly, Armitage doesn’t exactly sell like JK Rowling, but no doubt he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public.
Nige and Hill fall, I feel, into a category error. ‘Poet’ is not a category akin to ‘footballer’, where Hill is Stevie Gerrard and Armitage is a Sunday League hoofer. ‘Poet’ is more like ‘sportsman’. Armitage is Stevie Gerrard and Hill is a top polo player. It is the fault of neither Hill nor Armitage that lots of people like football while polo is an esoteric sport beloved by a vanishing few.
Do I sneer at Hill? Am I a Reverse Art Snob? Do I think him a fraud? I do not. He is an undoubted poetic genius. But he operates in a world that, for some reason, I find screamingly funny. Not in a nasty, cynical way. It just tickles me; I can't help it.
A reviewer of Enderby once complained: "It would be helpful if Mr Burgess could indicate somewhere whether these poems are meant to be good or bad". Burgess called this "a fine instance of critical paralysis".
Many of the things I love operate in a strange place that sits somewhere between profound seriousness and taking the piss. So many of the artworks that have really sung to me come from this place: Enderby, Ulysses, Mervyn Peake, Bob Dylan, the many novels of J P Donleavy (I read them voraciously, one after the other, in my late teens), the films of Wes Anderson.
This is a good example:
Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
Is Wallace Stevens trying to be serious or funny? Is it meant to be good or bad? There is no answer. The question is meaningless. Criticism is meaningless; it misses the point. I like this place; I am comfortable here. This is where I think of England.