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Broken Hierarchies

Martyn Halsall

Poems 1952-2012

Geoffrey Hill (edited by Kenneth Haynes)
OUP, 973pp

The opening poem to this monumental collection, 'Genesis', announced Geoffrey Hill's talent and intention. He was 20, and a student at Keble College, Oxford: he was aiming to re-write the world. Everything is energetic; mobile. There is already ambiguity about who is the prime partner in this global creativity; how far God infuses Hill, or how far Hill voices God's intentions. There is considerable music, and attendant menace. The poem begins: 'Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God.' In initial, inhabited water 'The tough pig-headed salmon strove, / Ramming the ebb, in the tide's pull, / To reach the steady hills above.' Owl, ferret and hawk form a Hughesian alliance 'Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel, / Forever bent upon the kill'. Blood-letting is abroad, even before the Fall. The Age of Eden, like all that was to follow in Hill's poetry, was re-imagined.

Readers should make the most of 'Genesis', and other more 'accessible' poems in Broken Hierarchies. Hill is known for 'difficulty', for writing poetry that explores what poetry might be, not least through parables that baffle, even as they edge towards potential disclosure. He appears to define poetry through writing that seems often elusive. The policeman's son who became a Cambridge don sees difficulty as inherent in democracy, 'because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing they are intelligent human beings'. At its most obscure, his work might exhibit the 'transparent bale-fire of vanities' he ascribes to Justice in Speech! Speech! (2000), that is 'massive, shimmering through incoherence'. Possibly talking to himself, as he did as a solitary adolescent, he writes in The Orchards of Syon (2002): 'You have a knack, way / with broken speech, a singular welcome / for rough concurrence. After a time it's all / resolved, in part, through a high formal keening. / And need to work on that and to go higher.'

Hill's ascension opens a further debate, about his poetry's theology. Some label him 'a Christian poet'; others detect metaphysical temperature changes within his work; search; an inability to reach a verdict. Within two sections of Tenebrae (1978) he celebrates the 'resurrection' inherent in the Mass, then writes of 'Christ the deceiver' who 'took all I had / his darkness ever / my fair reward'. At other times Christ bursts into Hill's poetry like sunlight firing a stained-glass window, and as triumphantly inevitable. 'The risen Christ! Once more / faith is upon us, a jubilant brief keening / without respite:' Hill writes in Canaan (1996), his often coruscating 'state of the nation' analysis launched onto the ebb-tide of Thatcherism.

Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove in 1932. He taught in the universities of Leeds, Cambridge and Boston. In 2010 he was elected the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. His erudition, like this collection, calls for intense reader concentration, preferably augmented by a research team. Almost 1,000 pages, replete in word-play, intellectual gymnastics and argument, bring together 21 books that Hill has written over 60 years, including four not previously printed. As Hill has aged his work has accelerated. Nine years (1959 to 1968) separate his first two collections, For the Unfallen and King Log. Pressure of academic work, and depression, left little time or mental energy for new work. Cambridge brought him critical encouragement, and time in the USA the medical expertise to transform periods of depression into renewed creativity. Almost 800 pages of the poetry here was published since 1996. He is married to Alice Goodman, an Anglican priest and librettist.

Self-examination and geographical and historical pedigrees mingle in the 30 prose poems (Hill prefers 'versets') of Mercian Hymns, his third collection, published in 1971. These open with the eighth-century King Offa approving a list of laudatory titles, not just 'King of the perennial holly groves... the friend of Charlemagne', but equally the post-modern 'overlord of the M5' and 'contractor to the desirable new estates'. Time, and memory are equally fluid. A glimpse of Hill's grandmother shows her making nails, in a cottage industry that 'reeked stale mineral sweat'. Hill's memory emerges in a more rarefied intellectual context, while he is 'brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera'. Such cross-cultural references season many poems. Whatever the levels of understanding individual readers will gain from his texts, Hill's potential for cosmic themes, explored from sonnet to slang, make him a poet of fierce engagement, and often exciting music. As a boy he watched German bombers grinding over to blitz Coventry, and he recalls other blood-letting, whether at the Battle of Towton, or in Biafra. For linguistic potential, he adopts campanology: 'verse is change- / ringing in tone-stung stinging stone towers' (Ludo: 2011). Within the linguistic Olympic Games that is Speech! Speech!, ethics jostles for attention with rap trickery: 'Re evil---/ relive, revile, revalue self- / revelation. EASY NOW, SOUL-BROTHER!' Ninety-two stanzas in, we encounter RAPMASTER who may, or may not, be a linguistic deity, but is open to challenge: 'Hopefully RAPMASTER, I can take stock how best to out-rap you.' But prefacing all the linguistic bravado are three very Hillean concerns: 'Erudition. Pain. Light'.

Some have detected a conflict in Hill's work between the lyrical and the demotic, but his work defies containment, or compartmentalisation. Faced with the Holocaust, he can debate its metaphysical implications ('Ovid in the Third Reich'), or movingly remember a 10 year-old victim, born the same year as himself ('September Song'). His work is unlimited by conventions of time, theme or conventional acceptance. Kenneth Haynes, the US professor who edited Broken Hierarchies could helpfully have provided an introduction, a clue to some of the mysteries, but perhaps he was forbidden? Hill prefers the enigmatic to exercise its freedom: 'I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith keeping vigil / at the site'.