A stand against the fake and self-serving
POETRY: Oraclau/OraclesBy Geoffrey Hill Clutag Press, 48pp. £15
IN A NOTE to his 1985 Collected Poems the English poet and newly elected Oxford professor of poetry, Geoffrey Hill, stated that the “earliest of the poems, Genesis, dates from 1952”. In 1952 Hill would have been 20 years old; when in 1959 his first collection, For the Unfallen, in which Genesis appeared, was published he would have been in his late 20s. This is how the poem begins:
Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God.
It was an astonishingly assured debut that would lead on to the sensual music of King Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978)and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983),a powerful meditation on the life of the relatively little-known French intellectual who had died on the first day of the first Battle of the Marne, in September 1914, leaving behind a controversial legacy.
After what appears to have been a lull, Hill’s books from the late 1990s on are, in anyone’s book, remarkable: a Yeatsian resurgence of self-belief and imaginative willpower the likes of which is, as we say today, truly amazing. Canaan(1996) was followed by The Triumph of Love, and then, in roughly two-year stretches from 2000, by Speech! Speech!, The Orchards of Syron, Scenes from Comus, Without Title,and A Treatise of Civil Power, along with the magisterial Collected Critical Writings (2008).
It is a phenomenal achievement by any standards; placed beside Hill’s duties when he was a professor of literature and religion at British and North American universities, the scale and scope of his work are only now becoming crystal clear and, more significantly, receiving much wider acknowledgment and appreciation outside the poetry constituency.
For those who come to Hill without prior notice a perfect place to start is with the Penguin Selected Poems;for those who know the Hill Country the announcement that his Collected Poems1952-2012 will appear from Oxford University Press in 2013, marking his 80th year and 60 years of making poetry, is timely good news indeed.
Under the generic title of T he Daybooks, Hill has also published (or in due course will have) a cluster of five volumes of which Oraclau/Oraclesis the latest to appear; this in a fine hardback edition, under the imprint of Clutag Press.
Hill has been a force of, and forceful presence for, poetry, reminding the contemporary world of poetry’s capacity to function as poetry; an art form that stands up for itself against the fake and the culturally self-serving. In a perhaps ironic sense Hill’s very authority, based on his poetry’s assumption of the continuing pressure of certain “big” issues – religious meaning and faith in a secularised society, the question of morality and community, the structure of history and the play of memory – may no longer register today. With shifting generational and popular expectations of poetry moving ever closer to an instantaneous responsiveness and emotional availability, an interior decoration equal in value to other forms of expression and adornment, Hill’s demonstration that poetry can invoke and evoke greater demands upon the reader might be simply a thing of the past. While there are those who challenge the criteria on which Hill’s own poems stand – cerebral, austerely introverted, politically retrospective and lost in an irretrievable time of England’s imagined past – one can only say how much is unheard or unseen in such a reading. For Hill’s poems are teeming with his present, and the cinematic vision of his writing shoots images on the mind’s eye with spectacular video effect (he wrote Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix, after all).
In Oraclau/Oracles Hill explores the newly uncovered Welsh inheritance of his family background as the autobiographical finds its way in and out of local and imagined landscapes drawn from his life and reading: “A gale from out of Ireland ploughs up rough / Cardigan Bay: a following splendid rain / Beats us indoors.”
And though the elegiac note of lament for those dead, such as BS Johnson, is never too far away, Oracles – shaped, it looks like, upon the template of John Donne’s A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, though extended into 144 stanzas – has all the dramatic beat of one man talking – to himself, to his love, in this time and place, but tracking back to his imaginative beginnings: “I who have swum in love-words shore to shore!”
A great poet of vision, Hill is obsessed with the lasting possibility of seeing things in the light of what is best in our cultural past and our understanding of what such a problematical term should mean, or once meant to a man such as Hill. From the oracular bequest of the young poet in Genesis, a lifetime ago, to the latest fashioning of how and where Hill sees his self and the remaking of the world about him, “love-words” says it all: “Distant rain-draped slate flanks gleam like late snow / At high summer as the sun parades them, / Cloud intermittently shades them, / As our eyes interpret shadow.”
Gerald Dawe teaches at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent collections include Lake Geneva and Points West. Conversations: On Poets Poetry will appear next year