Longreads 2012: Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill on Carol Anne Duffy’s statement “the poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text:”
What Professor Duffy desires to do I believe – and if so it is a most laudable ambition – is to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism…
My first response [to Duffy’s poem “Death of a Teacher”] is this is democratic English pared to its barest bean and I would not myself have the moral courage to write so. My simultaneous incompatible response is this is not democratic English but cast-off bits of oligarchical commodity English such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon and by celebrity critics appearing on A Good Read or the Andrew Marr show.
On difficult poetry:
[Difficult poems are] the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings… So much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.
“Carol Ann Duffy is ‘Wrong’ About Poetry, Says Geoffrey Hill,” by Alison Flood (The Guardian).
“Geoffrey Hill’s Measured Words,” by Paul Batchelor (The Times Literary Supplement):
The suggestive phrase “intrinsic value” comes from John Ruskin, who defined it, with deliberate vagueness, as the “absolute power of anything to support life”, whether it be a virtuous individual, a sheaf of wheat or a work of art. Although Hill admits that the concept of inherent, non-market value may be a metaphysical wraith, a “semantic relic to ward off the evil eye of commodity”, he nevertheless finds it useful when he comes to apply value theory to poetry, in particular elegiac poetry. Hill is concerned with the extent to which the ethical and technical value of commemorative poetry can “support life” by repudiating what he sees as a culture of commodity, ahistoricism and pseudo-egalitarian complacency. Clavics and Odi Barbare, his two most recent books of poems, continue the close engagement with Hobbes’s and Ruskin’s terms and arguments. Like Leviathan, both books are concerned with man’s fallen nature and the state of the nation, and both take the loss of an exemplary individual as their starting point.
A prophet of doom who knows he will be ignored is an elegist before the fact, and it is as tragic elegies that Hill’s new work is best read. Hill declares that the poems in Odi Barbare require “intelligent patience” and that there is “no / Time now for patience”. This sentiment has a pre-echo in Clavics: “Worst of our age: no time here for patience”. The academic attention that Hill’s work has received does not alter his opinion that the faculty of intelligent patience has vanished from the civic sphere; and Hill finds this intolerable. In his most recent Oxford lecture, he quotes the Renaissance scholar Francis Oakley approvingly: “The theory and practice of poetry is a part of the civil constitution”. If Hill’s recent poetry constitutes a tragic elegy for intrinsic value – or, to put this another way, an elegy for the faculty of intelligent patience the reader would require to understand it – then we should expect it to be paradoxical: an elegy is always an assertion of value, so Odi Barbare must exhibit and demand the very faculty it mourns. Again, cross-reference with Hill’s prose is helpful, for Hill has already scrutinized Leviathan in similar terms: “If Hobbes is seriously of the opinion that intrinsic value in the English commonweal perished when Godolphin was killed, how does he read his own elegiac tribute to his dead friend?”. Having spelled out the paradox in prose, Hill enacts it in poetry.