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  2. On Reading Crowds and Power by Geoffrey Hill
  • 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.
On Reading Crowds and Power

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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)

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

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Geoffrey Hill: “On Reading Crowds and Power” 

Poem Guide

A poet’s poet investigates the power of his readers.

Geoffrey Hill’s 2007 poem “On Reading Crowds and Power” isn’t an easy, one-dimensional poem. It doesn’t ask us to pay attention to its aural patterning or unpack a central metaphor—though those elements contribute to its art. It is a poem that points outside itself; it asks the reader to acquaint herself with a whole matrix of ideas. What those ideas are, and why Hill uses them, are important to understanding the poem’s content, context, and form.

It might be helpful to start with a literary kerfuffle that made British headlines: on November 29, 2011, Hill gave what would become a controversial lecture at Oxford University. Responding to an interview that the poet laureate of England, Carol Ann Duffy, had given in the Guardian earlier that year, Hill took issue with Duffy’s claim that a poem “is a form of texting … it’s a way of saying more with less, just as texting is.” No, objected Hill: where poetry is condensed, texting is merely “truncated” (abbreviated or curtailed). Moreover, “[w]hat Professor Duffy desires to do I believe—and if so it is a most laudable ambition—is to humanise the linguistic semantic detritus of our particular phase of oligarchical consumerism.” But, laudable ambition aside, he concluded that she was wrong, and her views led her to write bad poems such as “Death of a Teacher,” whose simple, sentimental language “could easily be mistaken for a first effort by one of the young people whom she wishes to encourage.”

The British newspapers got a whiff of Hill’s polemic. It seemed like a ready-made controversy, neatly divided between the demotic-democratic poet laureate, charged with raising the profile of poets in the schools by making poetry seem accessible and pleasurable; and the obscurantist Oxford professor, whose job was to pooh-pooh progress and fashion Latinate phrases such as “semantic detritus” or “oligarchical consumerism.” Hill already had a reputation for poetic “difficulty.” From his first book, For the Unfallen (1959), his poetry had engaged with historical subjects of great moral gravitas, from British kings to Christian martyrs to Holocaust victims, in a high style harking back to T.S. Eliot.

Of course Geoffrey Hill is not the first poet to stake the language of art in opposition to mainstream political and social uses of language—what he calls “oligarchical commodity English.” A century earlier, the Symboliste Stéphane Mallarmé remarked: “I become obscure, of course! if one makes a mistake and thinks one is opening a newspaper.” The Symbolistes, heirs of Charles Baudelaire (who coined the term modernité, “modernity”), produced in turn the countercultural poetries of surrealism and dadaism—all of which shunned conventional speech in one form or another. Accustomed as we are to celebrating the vernacular in 20th-century poetry, we forget that for some Modernists, the vernacular represented not the language of the street, but the homogenized language of newspapers, government spokesmen, and corporate shills. These entities—who represent a small and powerful elite or, in Hill’s word, oligarchy—use a basic (or debased) language to persuade the masses to vote a certain way, to acquiesce to authority, and to buy things. Such language—what we commonly call “propaganda” or “advertising slogans”—is not intended to foster debate, though it may feign objectivity. Elias Canetti (1905–1994), the Nobel Prize–winning author of Crowds and Power, traced the root of the word “slogan” to the Celtic sluagh-ghairm (“the battle-cry of the dead”). Hence, “the expression we use for the battle-cries of our modern crowds derives from the Highland hosts of the dead.” The language of slogans turns us all into a disembodied throng of violent impulses.

A disapproval of sluagh-ghairms surely motivated Hill’s comments at Oxford, and it haunts “On Reading Crowds and Power.” Crowds and Power, the 1960 treatise on crowd symbols and functions, was one of Canetti’s best-known works. Though a German-language writer, Canetti was a quintessential European cosmopolite: a descendant of Sephardic Jews exiled from Spain around the Spanish Inquisition, he was born in Bulgaria and later lived in Vienna, Frankfurt, London, and Zurich. Canetti’s experiences in World War II profoundly influenced his writing; although Hill, born in 1932, belongs to a generation of writers too young to have grasped the sweep of events that led to World War II, he too has spent his adulthood grappling with its ghosts.

Intellectuals such as Canetti provided important postmortems on the events of the early 20th century—and no one who has seen footage of the Nuremberg rallies can fail to understand why Crowds and Power held such sway when it first appeared. Yet Adolf Hitler figures nowhere in it. It is commonly described as a “poetic” book of sociology. Canetti’s refusal to draw stark lines between his study and the topical events of the time provides a model for Hill’s refusal to sacrifice poetic resonance for purposeful “clarity,” a buzzword for those who speak for and to crowds.

Of course, it depends on what one means by “clarity.” Hill’s poem “On Reading Crowds and Power” is, sentence by sentence, fairly clear and grammatical. But taken together, the sentences add up to an utterance that sounds like a set of “notes to self”; it is a performance of a person meditating on philosophical questions, not a standard lyric poem as defined by song (with regular meter and other musical qualities) or narrative (with a beginning, middle, and end). Most of all, it is a poem dependent on the context of Hill’s abiding obsessions with historical horrors, and within the context of Canetti’s theories. It is an allusive poem: it points outside itself and asks the reader to be acquainted with a host of subjects ranging from politics to etymology. The fact that it relies on the frames of reference given to it by a knowledgeable reader is both a weakness and a ploy. Like many other difficult poems, it is designed to leave you dissatisfied; in response you may go rooting around for source texts and commentary. These types of poems raise a philosophical question: what is a poem’s power, and does the writer or the reader own it?

Hill’s poem begins with an outburst of testimonial language:

Cloven, we are incorporate, our wounds
simple but mysterious.

Strong word, cloven—it conjures the cloven foot of Biblical swine (the Devil is Legion, and Legion is one kind of crowd). It also conjures Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its “cloven pine,” where Ariel—the purest of spirits—was imprisoned by the mother of her creaturely complement, Caliban. Cloven—a word meaning split or divided in two, as with a cleaver—we are both spirit and body. We are “incorporate,” which is also a way of saying we are a body, and a way of bringing the sinister modern “corporation” into the purview of the poem. Hill, an Anglican poet, is deliberately swerving away from the word “incarnate” with its ecclesiastical resonance, yet “incorporate” is also cognate with the Christian corpus christi. (A corpus is also, of course, a poet’s body of work.) This deliberate commingling of cloven things marks Hill as a poet beset by ambivalence and conflict; much as “biding” and “endurance” are virtuous, he cannot help but see “ambulances / battling at intersections” and the city’s gaiety as intolerable. In fact, “intolerably en fête” expresses an anguish that rhymes with the section’s last line, “I do not know / how we should be absolved or what is fate.” Again the lexicon alludes to important Christian words (“bide our time on earth”; “absolved”). When he says his “reflexes” are words rather than “standard flexures of civil power,” he is contrasting the poet’s ghostly power (associated with myth—Cassiopeia, Orion, the starry firmament) with the power of governments to make words into law.

The second strophe of the poem is borrowed word for word from Canetti—indicated by the use of italics—and it serves in Hill’s poem as a self-indictment (in keeping with the theme of being “cloven”) against the fame-seeking poetess: “Fame is not fastidious about the lips / which spread it,” argue the opening lines. Fame here is likened to any old rumor, recalling the idioms “loose-lipped” or “flapping your lips.” The word “spread” also recalls rumor—and disease. The implication is clear: one spreads fame the way one spreads a disease. “So long as there are mouths / to reiterate the one name it does not / matter whose they are.” Just as fame reduces participants to a pair of any old “lips,” it brings glory to the celebrity only by diminishing your own identity. Canetti’s language, and Hill’s lineation, continues:

                                          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.

This is in fact an idea that goes back to the Greeks: in Euripides’s Helen, the real Helen is a prisoner of her eidolon (“image”), which sparks the Trojan War. Euripides would have recognized the cloven truth that Hill highlights: our fame and our selves are not identical. We might recall shades of the sluagh-ghairm here: the spirit-multitude that wreaks violence among the living.

And in fact, the tripartite structure of Hill’s poem recalls the classical ode pioneered by Stesichorus, the Greek poet whose most famous poem also revolved around Helen of Troy. His strophe-antistrophe-epode innovation (paralleling the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of classical logic) became the standard for choral 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. Hill was surely heightening the contradictions of his “notes-to-self” poem by invoking the choral ode with and against the lyricism of his lonely voice.

Meanwhile, Hill’s third section—signaling, like the epode, an attempt to synthesize the previous two sections—consists of a series of claims and caveats that he seems to be directing at himself and fellow poets; curiously, those claims also seem to rouse and console him as he arrives at fundamental principles. In fact, these principles arrive as if by epiphany, not logic: they are revelations (“that which is difficult preserves democracy”), and they arise from the invocation of poetic history itself. It’s as if the classical choral ode itself spoke to Hill through a set of associations with the idea of crowds, fame, and patterns of order. “Some tyrants make great patrons,” for instance, reminds us that Stesichorus’s poetic heirs in ancient Greek city-states were indeed nurtured well by tyrants, but the poet still represented the enormous poetic authority granted to a common man. What is difficult, like the metrics of the choral ode, “pay[s] respect / to the intelligence of the citizen.” Whatever makes high demands of us becomes a kind of practice for mass self-governance and “preserves democracy.” In an interview in Paris Review, Hill elaborates: “I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.”

Back to the question: what is a poem’s power, and does the writer or the reader own it? Hill’s argument with Duffy hangs on differing views of this power: she thinks she is empowering young people to think of themselves as poets, by comparing poems to something they know (texts). But Hill, as “On Reading Crowds and Power” makes clear, believes that being a poet isn't just about becoming empowered to speak, but entails a responsibility to speak with knowledge and understanding. What is the good of any power, even poetic power, if we do not debate its use? And what good is the power of the reader, or a crowd of readers, if they do not want to challenge or be challenged by poems?

“On Reading Crowds and Power” will never be considered a perfect or a spellbinding poem. Its critique of power rests on its refusal of form, of unity, or of the enchantment of lush language. Though we still seek enchantment in most poetry, as most poets still seek fame, Hill asks us to consider what that means, and whether it’s good for us.

On Reading Crowds and Power

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