Ludo; Sir Geoffrey Hill at Play.

One of the new sequences contained in Broken Hierarchies is Ludo which I've just started to pay attention to. This is a collection of 64 short poems sub-titled Epigrams and Colophons to the Day Books. These are the six books dated 2007-12 which I've found thus far to be very 'mixed' in quality. I have to confess that I didn't know exactly what a colophon is so I've checked the OED gives: "The inscription or device, sometimes pictorial or emblematic, formerly placed at the end of a book or manuscript, and containing the title, the scribe's or printer's name, date and place of printing, etc. Hence, from title-page to colophon." So, I'm taking it that these are meant to 'frame' the Day Books but, typically, Hill has declined to identify which type any of the poems fit into. Epigrams are slippery creatures, I've always found it a bit tricky to work out what most of these are intended to achieve: Are they brief encapsualtions of what the work says or are they motifs expressing the guiding spirit of the poem or are they indicators of the inspiration behind the work, or are they trying to be all three?

I've also discovered that Ludo is Latin for I play, I flirt, I sport, I romp and to a lesser extent I philander, I frolic, I dally and I gambol. Now I'm trying very hard to get the image of a gambolling Sir Geoffrey out of my head and concentrate on the playful, flirtatious poet. Playing about is one of the many things that Hill does very well indeed. Many of his earlier fans expressed distate for what they saw as his frivolous treatment of serious and sombre matters in The Triumph of Love but I'm of the view that this playing serves to heighten the very important things that Triumph has to say.

One of the main threads running through the sequence is the nature of rhyme. I am one of those who have complained about the use of rhyme in the Dat Books, especially in Oraclau even though in one of his poems Hill does state that he is deliberately making his readers 'wince'. As one of those wincers, I still don't think this justifies the sheer badness of some of the Oraclau poems. I am therefore delighted to report that the use of rhyme in Ludo is far from wince inducing and in part serves as a riposte to those doubters. The other thing to note is that the jokes remain as unfunny as ever.

So, a pleasure to read, a work of confidence and skill from a poet who continues to produce work that stands head and shoulders over the rest. I'd like to try and demonstrate this with three examples. This is Poem 9:

    The old man composed his pools: sestinas
    of cudgelled numbers. He won ten shillings,
    I recall, but never those bright shiners
    that would have gained us, briefly, top billings
    in the Brummagen rags, with posh dinners.
    Scripture decrees all to their callings:
    kickings, brayings of Hegemony's ass
    through the region of Balaam that is and
                that ever was.

For those younger readers and for those from other countries, I should explain that 'his pools' refers to a specific football-related competiton whereby punters would try to guess the outcome of soccer games in advance. For the middle few decades of the last century this was a cornerstone of working class culture, the hope that one day you would win a big prize and your life would change forever. From my childhood I seem to recall that the more you paid the more guesses you got and the occasional small win kept you going in the hope of the bigger prize. Big winners were encouraged to reveal their identities to the media, hence the 'top billings' in the Birmingham press (Hill hails from the West Midlands). Of course, some of us would argue that holding out this illusory hope serves to ameliorate the working class and thus helps to keep the working man in his place, given the generally hopeless condition of his life. I'd like to think that the end of the poem is a reference to this early victory in the struggle for social and cultural domination that has now been won by capital. In the Old Testament, Balaams ass can see an angel blocking their progress when Balaam can't. 'Hegemony' is capitalised which perhaps provides a further indicator that this is what might be being said. As I seem to recall, Hill's father was a policeman and thus not mired in poverty but our poet does express anger throughout his work about the fate of his grandparents who were.

So, more personal than playful, some rhymes that don't come off but nevertheless something personal and poignant. As perhaps we should expect, Hill's childhood does seem to play a bigger part in most of his late work. And, isn't 'cudgelled numbers' wonderful

This is Poem 64, the last in the series, which appears to be a fitting colophon for the colophons:

    We who are lovers for so short a time
                and climbers and divers
                for whom clamours 
                consummation of rhyme:
    Fear was first to make gods. Display
                             your wits
    in a testudo of iron odds. Can't say 
                  things interlodged, it's
                  right to put away

I'm currently reading Lucretius' On the Nature of Things and I didn't recognise the above quote which is a paraphrase of Epicurus' view that men only turn to religion from the fear of things that they don't understand, especially our mortality, instead of taking note of what science has to teach us- "when we exist death is not present: when death is present we do not exist". Needless to say, this is not a position that Hill adheres to, much of his work is taken up with the nature of Grace and the fate of the soul (especially his) after death. The other stumbling block for most of us will be 'testudo', I've reverted to the OED and found this definition amongst others: " A shelter formed by a body of troops locking their shields together above their heads" this seems more appropriate that 'siege engine' because it gives a better sense of blinkered, awkward and somewhat cowed claustrophobia. This would therefore appear to be a sarcastic attack on those like me who gently point out that, as far as we can tell, the odds on the existence of God and an afterlife are very long indeed.

The first four lines only become a bit more sensible when you realise that another meaning of 'consummation' is the action of making something perfect or the perfect thing itself. Once you've got your brain around the typically skewed word order, this, at the end of the Day Books' almost relentless engagement with rhyme is cack-handedly brilliant.

There are those that would argue that the quote and the choice of words is unduly elitist, demanding an education and knowledge base that very few of us have. Prior to the age of the interweb, this may well have been the case because only access to a half-way decent library and the time to rummage about could have helped with Lucretius and his context. Even so, I think I would argue that there's sufficient in the quote, which is marked out by italics, for us to get hold of the thrust of what's been said.

In the context of playfyul refutation, Poem 27 is both straightforward and delightful:

    I cannot comprehend the situation
               as I describe it;
               let verse enrobe it
    With lively fantasy of time and motion.

    As to what finally might merit diction
                I shall not here say,
                to ensure privacy
    for the sordid act of begetting fiction;

    conceding as I do some self-contusion - 
                ah, the weak endings,
                mute misunderstandings
    forlorn pacts between compaction, diffusion.

Of course I had to look up 'contusion' (the action of bruising) just to make sure and will now work (for some time) on this half-gambolling response to the doubts that some of us might have expressed. At this stage, however, I think there's a difference between week endings and wince inducing bad endings. To bruise / hurt oneself is a bit more troubling and might need careful pondering in the light of Hill's history of mental illness. I speak as a fellow sufferer and this particular impulse is never far from my surface..... even when I'm very well indeed.

To conclude, Broken Hierarchies a very big and heavy book and it costs 30 ish quid. It does however contain hundreds of pages of new work and more than a few alterations and extensions to material that's already been published. It also provides us with most of the best English poetry of the last fifty years.