Reading Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill is one of the best poets currently writing in English. Since the fifties he has produced a body of work that is both inspired and inspiring yet many readers are deterred from reading his work because of his reputation for difficulty.
This reputation stems from Hill's references to fairly obscure people and equally obscure texts and from the fact that Hill is highly intelligent and assumes that the rest of us will keep up with him.
To read Hill is an enervating and infuriating process. He uses a variety of forms and styles to say the most astonishing things, commenting on everything from the nature of grace to Jimi Hendrix.His poetry is complex because he has complex things to say.
Writing verse has always been a struggle for Hill and readers need to participate in that struggle with him to get the most from his work. Those who do this will find it impossible not to feel some affection for Geoffrey Hill. The infuriation comes from the almost casual aside that, when investigated, throws up a whole range of issues that can distract from the core of the work. 'Triumph of Love' refers twice to Thomas Bradwardine and this turns out to be an intricate argument about the 'New Pelagian' controversy in the 14th century. The reader then has to decide how far to pursue this rather than just reading the poem. 'The Orchards of Sion' contains several references to 'Atemwende' by Paul Celan or the use Celan made of this term in his 'Meridian' address. Either way, this does feel more than a little gratuitous.
Hill's religious beliefs (very High Anglican) and political views (he has described himself as a 'hierarchical Tory') are idiosyncratic but you don't need to share these in order to get a lot from his work, his poetry is immensely varied in form and subject matter (he is also our most accomplished nature poet).
Hill is very, very serious about poetry but this cannot be separated from his faith. He has written that the poet should look to create a shock of semantic and ethical recognition at the same time. To his credit, most of Hill's work achieves this difficult task.
It is a mistake to be drawn into the early/late Hill debate. This is supposedly characterised by a drop in quality after Hill sought treatment for a mental health problem. This is not the case, there are successful poems on either side of the chronological fence just as there are poems that don't 'work' quite as well.
However, some of us are concerned that a recent increase in 'productivity' has resulted in a drop in quality. It is reasonable to suggest that 'Oraclau', 'Clavics' and 'Ode Brabare' aren't (by Hill's standards) very good at all although I would argue that 'Clavics' is much more successful than the other two.
Hill's references to obscure figures can be daunting but is usually resolved by use of the web to track down meaning and context. It is not usuallly neccessary to become completely familiar with the the work or person but some insight is helpful.
Where to start with Hill's work.
I started with 'Scenes from Comus' and became intrigued because it's a serious and dense sequence that made me smile a lot. It is often overlooked but it is written with enormous flair and confidence by a poet at the height of his powers.
Another starting point is the brilliant 'Mercian Hymns' which is ostensibly about Offa (king of Mercia during the early Middle Ages) but also encompasses Englishness and considerations of political power and authority. It's also eminently readable.
'Triumph of Love' is probably Hill's most experimental work which examines the horrors of the twentieth century and asks questions about cultural surival, the nature of morality and the workings of grace, to name but a few of the many themes. Hill throws himself into this sequence and recounts aspects of his childhood and also includes reasonably abusive responses to three of his critics. It is also the only work that I know of that manages to include Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault in (almost) the same breath.