Friday, January 23, 2009

A stroll up Geoffrey Hill

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.

Poor 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,
Catches tigers
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.


elberry said...

i was watching The Life Aquatic last night and reflected on how English Wes Andersen seems.

Peter Burnet said...

We all think of England when we're in that place.

jonathan law said...

Hill is at his best a very, very good poet but one that people tend to like for the wrong reasons, I suspect. A certain kind of reader is flattered by the famous difficulty of the poems, by their obvious ambition and seriousness, and by Hill's self-tormenting fastidiousness about what can and can't be said about human suffering and the atrocities of history etc. There's a political side to this too, no doubt, with some at least of Hill's readers adoring his work because they find in it a strain of rarefied, reactionary gloom not much evident in contemporary English poetry.(This may not have much to do with Hill's actual politics --- I think I read somewhere that he’s a Labour voter.) And then, of course, the public image, if that term is at all appropriate --- the weird haughtiness in interviews, a sort of glowering intransigence that comes through even in photos (I suppose he must smile sometimes, but no one will ever mistake G. Hill for the Laughing Policeman). It's almost as if Hill wants to deter people from reading his stuff --- which would be an immense pity as there are marvellous things in Tenebrae, in the Mercian Hymns, in the long poem about Peguy. One of the great English landscapists, apart from anything else.

Brit said...

Thanks for deepening the Hill discussion, Jonathan.

In a way I love the Hillian approach - ie. the creator's utter disregard for the audience in his search for artistic Truth. The aesthetic landscape would be a flatter place without the Hills, if you like.

I don't for a minute doubt his integrity and intellectual honesty. I do find it funny though.

Also, I find absurd Hill's belief that his strict 'platitude'-avoidance is the only way to the Truth. Like claiming the only way to get to the finishing line in the London Marathon is by crawling while wearing a suit of armour.

geoffist! said...
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geoffist! said...
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Anonymous said...

Hill and Armitage are friends.

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