On Reading Crowds and Power


Cloven, we are incorporate, our wounds
simple but mysterious. We have
some wherewithal to bide our time on earth.
Endurance is fantastic; ambulances
battling at intersections, the city
intolerably en fête. My reflexes
are words themselves rather than standard
flexures of civil power. In all of this
Cassiopeia's a blessing
as is steady Orion beloved of poets.
Quotidian natures ours for the time being
I do not know
how we should be absolved or what is fate.


Fame is not fastidious about the lips
which spread it. So long as there are mouths
to reiterate the one name it does not
matter whose they are.
The fact that to the seeker after fame
they are indistinguishable from each other
and are all counted as equal shows that this
passion has its origin in the experience
of crowd manipulation. Names collect
their own crowds. They are greedy, live their own
separate lives, hardly at all connected
with the real natures of the men who bear them.


But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man.

Source: Poetry (March 2007)

Writing Ideas

  1. Write a “reading” poem. That is, take a book you’ve read recently that has intrigued or unsettled you. Write a poem that both relies on and departs from the central themes or arguments of the book. Like Hill, quote language from whatever work you’ve chosen.
  2. In her poem guide, Ange Mlinko notes that Hill’s poem resembles choral rather than lyric poetry: “In contrast to lyric poetry, which is sung by a single poet with his cithara, choral poetry is chanted by a crowd for a crowd and was accompanied by lockstep movements east to west, then west to east.” Try writing a choral poem, a poem meant for performance by many people to many people. What changes about your style? Subject matter? If you’re ambitious, try writing in the strophe-antistrophe-epode form that Mlinko details.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you see each of Hill’s three sections working, both individually and in dialogue with one another? Can each section be paraphrased in a few sentences? Does paraphrasing here, in a poem that revolves around philosophical inquiry and debate, help you make sense of the questions Hill is posing?
  2. As Mlinko notes, the poem’s second section is made up entirely of language from Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power. What is the effect of this second “voice” (and second kind of typography) on the poem? Think about the experience of interruption, qualification, and even castigation that such a second voice might cue.

Teaching Tips

  1. Ange Mlinko’s guide introduces a great debate with which to frame your students’ experience of Hill’s poem. Have them read the first few paragraphs and discuss the merits of both Duffy’s and Hill’s points of view. Should poems be accessible to an “average” reader? Or do poets have a duty to make language meaningful beyond its ordinary, workaday use—even if that means writing “difficult” poems? After a preliminary debate, have students track down the poems and prose statements of the figures Mlinko mentions: Carol Ann Duffy, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Hill. Does having a fuller context adjust their initial ideas or positions? If possible, have students read and compare a poem by Duffy to Hill’s “On Reading Crowds and Power.” What does each poem ask of its readers? Finally, have students read Mlinko’s guide in full. Pose her final questions to the class: “what is a poem’s power, and does the writer or the reader own it?” Put students into small groups and ask them to answer that question in some creative way—by composing a poem in the manner of Hill or Duffy, or writing a manifesto à la the avant-garde groups frequently associated with Mallarmé.
  2. “On Reading Crowds and Power” takes seriously the implications of fame, and yearning for fame. Have students free-write on what they think Hill is saying about fame, about a culture that encourages fame seeking, and how it corrupts or skewers the poetry and the poet’s “traditional” task. After reading Mlinko’s guide to the poem, ask students to conduct their own research on questions of fame and culture. Ask them to research other texts—poems, songs (rappers have much to say about fame), books, magazine articles, TV shows—that deal with the pleasures and perils of celebrity. Ask them to critically engage whatever document they’ve chosen: what view of fame does it assert? How does it connect with Hill or Canetti? How does it alter or confirm their intuitions? Have them compose poems that, like Hill’s, use language from other sources while proposing their own views on the issues.
More Poems by Geoffrey Hill