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Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 Reviewed at the Guardian

By Harriet Staff

Geoffrey Hill

Today at the Guardian, Nicholas Lezard reviews the latest (and gargantuan) collection of poetical works by Geoffrey Hill. Lezard begins by reflecting on the fact that in 1985 no one would have expected such a prolific output by Hill late in his career:

The 1985 edition of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Poems was, by comparison with this, a very slender thing. We had reason, then, to assume that there would not be much more: he had been ill, and depressed; and what is the productive life span of a poet anyway, especially one whose subject, so often, is “the tongue’s atrocities”, the culpability of words and the responsibility to use them with immense and utmost care, if at all? The next 13 years of silence, apart from lectures, would have encouraged such pessimism. And then, from Canaan (1996) onwards, the dam burst; there were nine collections after that. By the time the 1985 collection ends in this volume, we have a further 800-odd pages to go. If there is a paperback or second edition of his Collected Poems next year, will it be a third as long again as this one? (Remember Hill’s epigraph to “Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres” – “As Henry Adams observed at Chartres, the twin powers of the modern world are inertia and velocity” – and note that inertia makes things hard to stop, as well as hard to start.)

And, as with all assessments and reviews of Hill’s work, the obligatory turn toward his “difficulty” is made:

From the word go, Hill gave some of his readers problems with his style, which, to use the most boring word about it, is “difficult”, and there was some small, perplexed part of me that hoped one of the reasons this book is so big is that the answers are printed in the back. The editor of the 1960 Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, Kenneth Allott, in argument with Hill about which of his poems to include (Hill apparently objected to the inclusion of “In Memoriam Jane Frazer” on the grounds of its “coy last stanza”, and of “The White Ship” because of its “shaky technique”), said of the poem finally chosen: “I understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversation, ie they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice, but without help I cannot construe it.” Hill did give help in that collection, of a kind he has been reluctant to provide in public ever since, and although his gloss is not what we might call conventionally explanatory, it provided his readers, almost from the start, with something approaching a key to how to read him.

But ultimately, Lezard returns to the other subject so often discussed in Hill criticism: his greatness.

Words have not failed Hill; but the long silences between his collections up to 1996 suggest that he knows what it’s like when they do. Now, it seems, he can make them do what he wants, and if the phrase “greatest living poet in the English language” has any meaning, we should use it now.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, November 20th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.