Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Hill’

Weekend roundup: John Lennon, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Hill, Danilo Kiš, and Dana Gioia

Sunday, December 8th, 2013
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Yoko Ono: Passages for Light

Yoko and me in 2009 (Photo: Toni Gauthier)

Today is the somber anniversary of John Lennon‘s assassination in 1980. In tribute, my sister, an indefatigable Beatles fan, posted my photo with his widow Yoko Ono on my Facebook page. I’ll do the same for the Book Haven – at left.

Meanwhile, a few articles culled from the weekend:

In The Telegraph today here, Alexander McCall Smith, author of What W.H. Auden Can Do for You (I know, I know…a utilitarian approach to the poet) picks out his five favorite W.H. Auden poems.  He has excellent taste. In fact, it coincides largely with my own.

mccall-smith-auden“In Praise of Limestone” and “Lullaby,” two personal favorites, are on his list. He calls the latter “one of the finest love poems in the English language.” I couldn’t agree more. As for the latter, “Who would have thought that there was so much to say about limestone and its merits?” Actually, I find his endorsement of limestone somewhat ambiguous. See what you think in the video below. In any case, I love the lines “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,/Having nothing to hide.”  Joseph Brodsky shuffled over this line with one of his odd smiles, where the ends of his mouth went up while the center stayed down in a sort of suppressed chuckle.  ”Tautological,” as I recall he said.

geoffrey-hillGeoffrey Hill isn’t a difficult poet, he is “one nut to crack among many,” according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, reviewing the poet’s latest volume, Broken Hierarchies, over here at The Sunday Times, if you can crack the paywall.  I can’t.

kisThis isn’t a new article, but one I finally got ’round to reading, to my profit: Adam Thirlwell considers the staggering neglect of Danilo Kiš, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, which is “morally and aesthetically, a scandal. It’s also, I think, some kind of literary koan or mystery. The optimist might try to analyse the possible pragmatic reasons for his obscurity – such as that comical bird perching on the final letter of his name; or his reckless savagery towards every ideology, menacing both the Right and the Left; or his political bad luck, to die shortly before the wars in Yugoslavia made the lands of his birth briefly famous, albeit for the wrong reasons. But none of these seems adequate. Or this optimist might then urbanely lament Kiš’s own lack of urbanity, his legendary irritable boredom with the world of social appearances.” One redress is Mark Thompson‘s inventive and erudite new biography-of-sorts, Birth Certificate.  Read about it at the Times Literary Supplement here.

DanaGioiaDana Gioia has always been upfront about his roots: “I think that being proud of your religion, your culture, and your ethnicity is the beginning of revival for Catholic artistic culture. As an individual, I refuse to be ashamed of my faith, my culture, or my family background.” Even more so now:  he’s written about the decline of Catholic culture in an essay entitled “The Catholic Writer Today.”  The article (here) was trapped behind a paywall several weeks ago, but has been officially liberated, and so was picked up this weekend by Andrew Sullivan today here, and has also been picked up here and here and here and here.  Dana has never shied away from controversy – his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” is still a gold standard for controversy, generating a record avalanche of mail after it was published in The Atlantic Monthly.  Looks like he’s about to do it again.

 

“The best writer alive, in verse or in prose”: Sir Geoffrey Hill turns 80 today

Monday, June 18th, 2012
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Difficult? Who says so?

It’s Sir Geoffrey Hill‘s 80th birthday today.  How shall we celebrate?

At first I noticed two appearances in the day’s newspapers – well, in fact, both were in The Telegraph.  In the first, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove hails Hill as “our greatest living poet” in the Commons. “Our” being… the U.K.?  Or the English-speaking world?  A.N. Wilson went further, calling him “the best writer alive, in verse or in prose.” That takes geography out of it.

The second is an article of dire prognostication,  “Dithering Europe is heading for the democratic dark ages”:  “However complacent we may be,” in the words of the poet Geoffrey Hill, “Tragedy has us under regard”.

Well, not much to celebrate there.

I turned instead to the Paris Review interview of a dozen years ago, conducted by one of his former students at Boston University, Carl Phillips, which begins with a description of the poet’s outwardly unassuming home in Brookline, Massachusetts:

To step into it, though, was to enter a number of seemingly disparate worlds: one part literal menagerie (two dogs, along with seven cats of varying degrees of forwardness); one part a kind of gallery—in the form of photographs on sideboards, walls, and mantles—of what is clearly central to Hill: family, ancestry, the need for the relationship between the living and the dead to be an active and ongoing one. Hill gave me a tour through them, now pointing out an infant cousin circa 1917, now his own parents, now his wife Alice Goodman, and their daughter Alberta, and now a friend riding her tractor through the Lancashire village streets.

When I first arrived, I was greeted by Alice (herself an intriguing mixture: the librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, a translator of The Magic Flute for the Glyndebourne Opera, and a soon-to-be ordained Anglican priest). She led me into the living room where Hill arrived shortly, seating himself beside a life-sized dollhouse. We met in front of the fireplace, over whose mantle hung an amusing wedding gift: a copy of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet. No way to explain it, exactly: I knew all would go well.

The sensual Milton

Then Phillips asked the inevitably question:  “What comes up often in reviews of your work is the idea of an overly intellectual bent; in recent reviews of The Triumph of Love, often the word difficult comes up. People mention that it’s worth going through or it isn’t worth going through.”

Hill replied:

Like a Victorian wedding night, yes. Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification. This thought does not originate with me, it’s been far better expressed by others. I think immediately of the German classicist and Kierkegaardian scholar Theodor Haecker, who went into what was called “inner exile” in the Nazi period, and kept a very fine notebook throughout that period, which miraculously survived, though his house was destroyed by Allied bombing. Haecker argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence. Maybe an intelligence under threat, maybe an intelligence that is afraid of consequences, but nonetheless an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.

So much for difficulty. Now let’s take the other aspect—overintellectuality. I have said, almost to the point of boring myself and others, that I am as a poet simple, sensuous, and passionate. I’m quoting words of Milton, which were rediscovered and developed by Coleridge. Now, of course, in naming Milton and Coleridge, we were naming two interested parties, poets, thinkers, polemicists who are equally strong on sense and intellect. I would say confidently of Milton, slightly less confidently of Coleridge, that they recreate the sensuous intellect. The idea that the intellect is somehow alien to sensuousness, or vice versa, is one that I have never been able to connect with. I can accept that it is a prevalent belief, but it seems to me, nonetheless, a false notion. Ezra Pound defines logopaeia as “the dance of the intellect among words.” But elsewhere he changes intellect to intelligence. Logopaeia is the dance of the intelligence among words. I prefer intelligence to intellect here.  …

Read the whole magnificent thing here.  Or listen to Hill lecture on “Milton as Muse,” on the occasion of Milton’s 400th birthday,  here.  And pop open some champagne while you’re up.

“Evil is not good’s absence but gravity’s
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.” – Geoffrey Hill,  Canaan

Geoffrey Hill on camera: comic inspiration and “anarchical plutocracy”

Saturday, April 14th, 2012
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What is it that makes normal journalists go all of a doodah when they interview poets?  The most inane questions pop up, uttered with the utmost self-reverence.  But still, in these two interviews, you get Geoffrey Hill, one of the English language’s greatest living poets (there are several), so it can’t be all bad.

You have two choices here.  You can visit the Economist interview, interspersed with pretentious text explanations – like a silent movie that has to clue you in about what’s happening.  It’s here.  “Critics suggest the anxiety of an agnostic faith often plays an important role in his work,” according to one of the texts, which would come as a surprise to those who consider him to be fundamentally engaged with religious questions, and also given his admitted “anxiety about the fate of my own soul.”  Maybe it’s because, according to another caption text, his work has “often been criticised for its seeming difficulty.” Sheesh.

His inspiration

But the lighting is warm and intimate, and you get interesting ponderings like this:  “I never began a poem knowing how it will end, and I have never ended a poem knowing how it will begin.”  Also, he comments on living in an age of “anarchical plutocracy.”  Don Share‘s blog here has a longer quote from Hill on the subject:

Until very recently I thought that I had invented the term plutocratic anarchy, but it appears to have originated with William Morris… Morris’s term, to be precise, is “anarchical Plutocracy”. Anarchical Plutocracy destroys memory and dissipates attention; it is the enemy of everything that is summoned before us in Bishop Butler’s great pronouncement of 1729; “Everything is what it is, and not another thing”. Bad poetry, bad art, also dissipate the sense of things at once exactly and numinously understood. Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention; its frequently cited “music” must so be understood.

The whole Economist interview prompted an interesting post over Bebrowed’s Blog here.

In the second film clip, you must suffer the pretentious violin music in the background.  I include the entire BBC interview below. In the film, Hill says, “My reputation is that of a solemn, dry-as-dust intellectual – and really, I’m a brawling fantasist.”  Or was in brawny fantasist? I couldn’t tell.  He admits his work is inspired by comedians.

What did he hope to do with Oxford’s professorship of poetry?  “I welcome the opportunity to go over there once a term and perform one-thousandth as well as Ken Dodd,” he admitted.

Postscript on 4/15: And now we know why: “Freud’s theory was that when a joke opens a window and all those beasts and bogeymen fly out you get a marvellous sense of relief and elation. The trouble with Freud is that he never had to play the old Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night after Rangers and Celtic had both lost.”~ Ken Dodd

Internet-speak and “truncated text” – is it OTT?

Saturday, March 31st, 2012
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The curmudgeon is correct.

I find myself agreeing with Geoffrey Hill, taking what I fear is an unfashionable stand against the popular British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, when she said that that “the poem is a form of texting … it’s the original text”:

“It’s a perfecting of a feeling in language – it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is. We’ve got to realise that the Facebook generation is the future – and, oddly enough, poetry is the perfect form for them. It’s a kind of time capsule – it allows feelings and ideas to travel big distances in a very condensed form.”

Said the Hill, according to The Guardian:

“When the laureate speaks to the Guardian columnist to the tremendous potential for a vital new poetry to be drawn from the practice of texting she is policing her patch, and when I beg her with all due respect to her high office to consider that she might be wrong, I am policing mine,” said Hill … The Oxford professor of poetry has previously described difficult poems as “the most democratic because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings”, saying that “so much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools”.

Speaking in Oxford, he said that he “would not agree that texting is a saying of more with less, and that it in this respect works as a poem”. “As the laureate says, poetry is condensed. Text is not condensed, it is truncated,” said Hill. “What is more it is normally an affectation of brevity; to express to as 2 and you as u intensifies nothing. Texting is like the old ticker tape: highly dramatic and intense if it’s reporting the Wall Street Crash or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, not through any inherent virtue of the machine. Is the breaking news which runs at the foot of the screen on the BBC news channel condensed and consequently poetic? I fail to see how anyone could rationally claim that it is. Again texting is linear only. Poetry is lines in depth designed to be seen in relation or in deliberate disrelation to lines above and below.”

What, then, are we to do with the abbreviated, acronym-laced speech that is taking over today?  For many of my younger Facebook friends, “lol” has become a verbal tick.  On reading, it gives the impression that the speaker is  giving way hearty laughter for each banal, and often distinctly unfunny, thought or announcement.

A beleaguered mother wrote this on her blog:

My daughter is always laughing at my ineptitude.

“GBH & K!” she yells to me, running out the door. (Great big hugs and kisses)

I stand there, looking mystified, as I try to figure out the latest abbreviation.

“Oh! H&K, too!” I shout. But she’s already out of sight.

My daughter is so good at KPC. (Keeping parents clueless) Just when I think I’ve got it she throws a new one at me.

KWIM was her favorite for a long time. And she’d pronounce it, like it was a word. “Kwim?” she’d ask. (Know what I mean?)

Or “ADK!” she’d roll her eyes, exasperated with her little brother putting on his shoes. (Any day now)

FWIW (that’s “for what it’s worth,” to the unitiated), here are the newest text-speaks from the great unwashed who gave us the now-shopworn LOL, OMG, and ROTFLMAO – brought to you by Vikram Johri over at Frank Wilson‘s Books Inq.:

1.  HST
2. OUAT
3. ISOT
4. IIMO… (this is followed by a question)
5. ITNEFY
6. TWW (Hint: sentence beginner when referencing the past)
7. OTW
8. WTFO
9. WOTS
10. FTLT

Can’t possibly guess what they mean?  Flip down to the comments section, and I’ll give the answers.  Meanwhile, it’ll be something to puzzle over on a slow Saturday.

Blogger Danish Dog added a few of his own:

1. HST Having said that
2. OUAT Once upon a time
3. ISOT In search of truth
4. IIMO Is it my opinion
5. ITNEFY If this never even finds you
6. TWW This was when
7. OTW Otherwise
8. WTFO What the fuck? Over.
9. WOTS Word on the street
10. FTLT For the last time

On Geoffrey Hill: this rumor has the ring of truth

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012
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Geoffrey Hill: Intense

My internet connection in Paris has proven somewhat erratic, and right now I only have time to repeat a 15-year-old anecdote I heard at the American University of Paris’ Center for Writers and Translators.

I can’t promise it is true, but it certainly has the ring of authenticity.

After Geoffrey Hill gave a reading at Boston University, the usual Q&A followed.

Then, the question all poets detest – asked, perhaps by a journalist? “Where does your poetic inspiration come from?”

Only the question wasn’t that short.  Hill, apparently, became more and more intense as the question grew longer and longer and more flowery.  “Verbal adumbrations!” he kept insisting.  “Verbal adumbrations.”

Said the professor relaying the anecdote: “That phrase has stuck in my mind for 15 years.”

Now it’s sticking in mine.

More from Paris later.

 

Gwyneth Lewis on John Milton and The Twilight Saga

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012
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Gwyneth (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Who matches John Milton in modern letters today – at least in tracing the “drama of democracy right back to its first theological principles?” Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis nominates Stephanie Meyers, author of the Twilight Saga, and Philip Pullman. The Welsh poet Gwyneth finds the Saga to be “a profound meditation on incarnation and its hazards as well as a moving love story.”  A stretch, perhaps.  Can’t say I’ve watched the Twilight Saga, but I find it hard to believe it’s any kind of match for Milton, even in a moment of whimsy.

Gwyneth studied Milton with Geoffrey Hill, and the 17th-century bard became her hero, once she’d read his Paradise Lost: “No one ever lobbied more eloquently for permissiveness combined with the moral discipline not to be deceived by facsimiles of the good.” She marveled at the way he “melded theology with politics and human psychology.”

Her “Letter to Milton” was published in the online summer edition of the U.K.’s Poetry Review. While Milton is “not fashionable at the moment and neither is the epic,” she thinks he’d have much to say about political discourse today, and has a few questions to ask:

Would Milton turn over in his grave? And would that be entirely appropriate?

“You would be interested in the way religion has become a contentious issue at the centre of intellectual debate. I’d like to see your arguments contra Dawkins and, equally, against advocates of Intelligent Design. As Marilynne Robinson (a Calvinistic novelist) has written, ‘Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism.’ Your moral clarity on the pitfalls of loose thinking would be of great value to us now.

“So, you’re not forgotten. And if you could speak to us from the dead, I’d have one other question to ask, aside from guidance about contemporary attacks on religious faith, free speech and democracy.This one’s personal: you were married three times and, though an advocate of divorce, you were widowed twice. How does the wife thing work in the afterlife? I’d love to know.”

Read it all here.

Garrison Keillor, August Kleinzahler, and the perils of one-sided fisticuffs

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011
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A polished schtick (Photo: Andrew Harrer)

Sam Leith at the Guardian revisits August Kleinzahler‘s 2004 Poetry magazine “full-frontal assault” on Garrison Keillor’s “appalling taste”.

The occasion was the publication of Keillor’s anthology, Good Poems.

Kleinzahler wrote this:

Now, had Keillor not “strayed off the reservation” and kept to his Prairie Home Companion show with its Norwegian bachelor farmers and Lutheran bake sales (a sort of Spoon River Anthology as presented by the Hallmark Hall of Fame), comfort food for the philistines, a contemporary, bittersweet equivalent to the Lawrence Welk Show of years past, I’d have left him alone. But the indefatigable and determined purveyor of homespun wisdom has wandered into the realm of fire, and for his trespass must be burned.

Full disclosure: I was asked to review Keillor’s poetry anthology some years back (was it for the San Francisco Chronicle? I can’t remember) and I gave it a pass.  I’d seen nothing in the vaunted Prairie Home Companion to convince me that Keillor’s tastes would make his anthology worthwhile reading (and I gave the same pass, for the same reasons, when Camille Paglia‘s anthology came out).  So as far as aesthetics go, I’m probably more along the Kleinzahler end of the spectrum, except for the ire.  Of Kleinzahler’s long-ago review of Keillor, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” Leith writes:

I looked it up: a dismissive review that took two and a half thousand words in the dismissing. It’s been said that criticising P.G. Wodehouse is like “taking a spade to a souffle“. This was something similar; and if you hit a souffle with a spade, you get egg on your face.

Keillor’s taste in poetry may differ from Kleinzahler’s, and his understanding of what it’s for may differ – caricaturally, he thinks it does the soul good, and that makes Kleinzahler wince with embarrassment.  … But it strikes me as odd that the response is not indifference but active rage …

Leith continued:

The divide isn’t actually between people who want to stitch rhymed verse into samplers and sell it in tourist shops, and those so high-minded they think Basil Bunting was a sellout. It’s between people happy for both views to co-exist, and people for whom it isn’t enough to play in the Premier League – you have to be energetically affronted by the existence of Sunday league.

In a calmer moment (Photo: Poem Present)

It isn’t elitist to think that Four Quartets is chewier, profounder and more artful than If or The Song of Hiawatha: it is simply common sense. Indeed, it is so obviously common sense that to be shrill in asserting it makes you look . . . well, weird. Is poetry so sickly that Geoffrey Hill catches a cold when Pam Ayres sneezes? Is the whole project of making high art threatened by the existence of low art? Nobody sensible can think so.

So the Keillors – the live-and-let-live brigade – will always look bigger than the Kleinzahlers. They are in a position to extend what you might call repressive tolerance. As it happens, to view Keillor as a dim, benevolent sweetie-pie – a manatee ripe for harpooning – is to be naive in any case: it is to mistake him for his persona. Nobody who remembers his caustic review of Bernard-Henri Lévy‘s book about America in the New York Times could make the mistake: Keillor skewered Lévy as “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore”, and ended: “Thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

But for Kleinzahler, who swallows the persona in one gulp, Keillor is prepared to kill with kindness. His response, years after the attack, is one of superbly malevolent benignity: “I believe in vigorous free speech. Does no damage whatsoever that I can see. Bless his heart. I wish him well.”

I remember well Keillor’s scalding review of Bernard-Henri Lévy – “On the Road avec M. Lévy” – when I was briefly in the Frenchman’s thrall. It’s a classic.

Otherwise, however, I could never quite “get” the charm of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Too often I, too, have swallowed the schtick in one gulp  – though I shouldn’t have needed Leith to remind me.

The only part of Keillor I ever really enjoyed was the song below: