Sunday 10 July 2016

On Geoffrey Hill

Rutland Water

One of this week's passings - as marked by Radio 4's Last Word - was the famously-difficult-to-understand poet Sir Geoffrey Hill - long known, with good reason, as Britain's "most difficult poet". 

Last Word noted that GH was proud to call himself "English working class", and featured his widow Alice Goodman  - the librettist for John Adams's notoriously controversial, antisemitism-accused opera The Death of Klinghoffer. 

I remember former BBC Two late night reviewer Tom Paulin (remember him?) raging against Geoffrey Hill as a fascist and a racist. There was far too much talk of England in GH's poems for ol' Tom 'It's absolutely appalin' Paulin. 

Alice Goodman recalled his "pink fuzzy socks" and his "really elaborate comb-over". 

I knew nothing about AG being GH's wife though when, on an impulse, I bought the poet's' mammoth collection of poems Broken Hierarchies  (nearly a thousand pages) a couple of years ago, 

I can honestly say that I've barely managed to understand even one of his myriad poems in full, but I like many of them nonetheless. They are part-fiendish cryptic crossword, part-TS Eliot multiplied by a factor of ten.

Here's a late, rather more lyrical example - and it rhymes too!:
From lead to mercury the sky; bare trees,
Refined archaic leaf-patterns of slate
Against the sky-tone, veins to arteries:
Mid-November, correctile, intricate,
Under strange genial suns; at least two.
Mute acoustics of light to bring aligned.
Why should Rutland Water, unsung, not glow;
Undulant midland shires, the many-faned?
They have been too long reflective, I grant,
In a bent mirror of longing not theirs
At all; concave to convex or mere slant,
Staggering hermeneutics of arrears,
Barely wrought to fixed legacy. Finish
So; finish with this or that absurd grief
In resolution; fields under varnish
Of new-sliced red earth held cunningly stiff.
Shall call this Bacchanal for over-pre-
pared Piano; nothing original;
Girt evanescent England, its display,
Whichever way I play it, not final.
Though I don't really understand the meaning of the allusion, I do at least recognise what the allusion in the final stanza relates too (he says, smugly). It's to this early, Indonesian gamelan-inspired piece by John Cage (long before he went all silent on us for 4 minutes and 33 seconds)

Trust me. From lead to mercury the sky is about as easy as Geoffrey Hill gets. It's almost Pam Ayres by his standards. (And I'm not being rude about the delightful, funny and very clever Pam there.)

Barely comprehensible? Maybe. Beautiful though. And very English.

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