Mind-altering verse II: Mercian Hymns and The Maximus Poems (for example).

The first of these related a cognitive shift leading to a different way of reading. This is about what I'm thinking of as a perceptual shift in that it's about the way we think about time. This alteration in my head is an ongoing process that started with either, I can't remember which came first, with Borges' The Aleph or Rushdies' Midnight's Children, both of which were concerned with simultaneity as opposed to the 'standard' b-follows-a linearity. Now, this was a slight alteration which raised for me whether or not our conventional concept is the only one and whether it is correct. In retrospect this should have prompted some further investigation but didn't (other things to do, a living to make et al). Still, the questions lingered faintly in the background but mostly as a creative possibility. I think I was probably trying to write prose in the manner of Robert Coover at the time.

The later chronology becomes much clearer because it's more recent and altering. It starts with Maximus which I read in a misguided attempt to 'get into' Prynne. For those not familiar with the work, it's very big and centred on the town of Gloucester on the US Eastern Seaboard. Its themes are many and reasonably diverse but not at all like Prynne. One of Olson's main underpinnings was Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality which is in part concerned with the nature of time.

Prior to paying some attention to Maximus, I'd decided that our various notions of time were far too trickily nuanced for my small brain to think about and certainly weren't an appropriate subject for the Poem. I then became absorbed in Olson's monster which makes use of a couple of ingredients that have always held much fascination for me:

  1. documentary historical material quoted verbatim, especially the use of financial accounts to give context to Gloucester's 'story';
  2. illustrations of and thoughts about the nature of place within wider global settings and the local.

I also have to confess that this was the first 20th century long poem that I'd ever read to the end and this was because it was clearly doing complex, difficult things in a way that appeared effortless and without apparent artifice. So, Not Like Prynne but fascinating, thought provoking and more than paying back the attention I was giving. One of the thoughts thus provoked was an altered perspective on the aforesaid tricky phenomenon:

                  So small the areas are
the distances are 2500 feet from Kinnicum's
to Wm Smallmans, and 1000 feet from Widow
Davis's (1741) to James Marsh  /in 1727
the North road is characterized by Joshua
Elwell's house, between the Davis home and
- what the record says - the way leading by
Joshua Elwell's to, the wood lots, divided
1721. my problem is how to make you believe
these persons, who lived here then, and from these roads
went off to fish or bought their goods 1 mile and a half
further north, at George Dennison's store, or were
mariner - sailors - and a few farmers (though farming
was pasturing, and actually the older generation's 
use of Dogtown before these younger person's chose
to live there) so far as some of them went one, John Adams
was the name he took - actually born Alexander Smith
on the Backroad, was with Christian mate when sd crew
busted Bligh and sd Smith of Dogtown's people
now breed in New Hebrides - 
                            but this is romantic
stuff I promised never to leave life riding on,
as Pegasus poetry was when Hector was not yet seen
to be cut from under muthos, lovely lying muthos
we breed again right out of our cunt-loving cock-sucking mouths
who breed now when species has replaced man
and nature's gone away to furnaces men shoot
bodies into, and our love is for ourselves alone
I walk you paths of lives I'd share with 
you simply to make evident the world
is an eternal event and this epoch solely
the decline of fishes, such a decline Bayliss,
my son calls her his first teacher, suggested
to her husband Gorton's have an aquarium
to show what fish look like - or it was already said 
it won't be long, with fish sticks, pictures
will be necessary on the covers of tv dinners
to let children know that mackerel is a different
looking thing than herrings

I've quoted this at length because a shorter excerpt wouldn't adequately demonstrate the mind-altering effect on my small brain. I have to confess that this didn't fully strike home on the first reading. The George Butterick edition runs out at quite a daunting 635 pages but I soon became completely absorbed in that the whole thing took up most of my waking hours until it was finished and then I started again. This is very unusual here at arduity, the standard consumption of verse is done by means of flitting from one open book to another but Maximus seems to demand being gulped (technical verb) down whole, as one piece even though it was written over many years. The mind altering aspect in this and several other places is the statement of rationale as in:

I walk you paths of lives I'd share with 
you simply to make evident the world
is an eternal event....

On the second reading I began to notice these bits which referred to events and processes rather than things. At this stage I began to make a tenuous and provisional link with what little I knew via David Harvey (increasingly famous leftie) about Whitehead which was more about spatial relationships between things than it was about time. I clocked (deliberately chosen but awful pun) that the first few lines here were a technically perfect, a term I don't often use, demonstration of this radical and complex way of thinking with reflections on things economic mingled in - 1000, 2500, 1727, 1741, the divided wood lots. One of few things that the Poem is very good at is a compression of language whilst intensifying the precision of what's being expressed. Down the centuries our best poets have been very good at this but only a handful have managed the art, in all its senses, of making this appear effortlessly casual, to have a conversational informal quality. Olson had this and, I would argue, the only contemporary poet with the same ability is John Matthias. One of the main arduity criteria for seriously good work is whether or not, as poetry fumbler, I could write anything in a similar vein. I immediately realised that I could never get close to this level because my 'ear' for language isn't adequate and I don't understand how it's done.

The above isn't just about the past, it brings us up to date with Gloucester's now moribund fishing-based economy and the loss of knowledge together with a sneer at the rising popularity of what were once called 'tv dinners'. This combination of past and present is developed further by the above statement of the central importance of event rather than things. On the second reading I recognised this as something 'deep' and pointing towards a profundity that I didn't quite grasp my thinking about place was certainly given a kick in a new direction, so much so that I had a look at Whitehead's seminal Process and Reality.

Now, this is a challenging tome both for its ambition and its use of new terms. I'm impressed by what it appears to say but still, after about six years, haven't been able to work through it all, in fact I feel as I've only just scratched the surface. One of the things that I have found useful is the list of Twenty-seven Categories of Explanation which are a kind of brief and reasonably accessible introduction to what follows. This is the first:

That the actual world is a process, and that the process is the becoming of actual entities. Thus actual entities are creatures; they are also termed 'actual occasions.

For my purposes here I want to skip to the ninth which is:

That how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its 'being' is constituted by its 'becoming.' This is the 'principle of process. (emphasis in the original)

So, it is suggested that things (actual entities) are in some way secondary to processes on the way to 'becoming'. I'm not entirely convinced by this, despite its many attractions but Olson's demonstration(s) became more concrete and more mind altering.

Turning to Sir Geoffrey, it can be argued, and I will, that all of his work is 'about' England in the widest possible sense which is only secondary, theme-wise, to God and the workings of grace and redemption. He has indicated that his 'theology' of poetry is centred on the memorialisation of the dead which can be seen as a combination of both.

The Mercian Hymns sequence of of thirty short poems would appear to tell the story of Offa, the powerful eighth-century king of Mercia and much of the rest of Southern England but it mixes this tale with 20th century things and events as in these:


Gasholders, russet among fields. Milldams, marlpools that
  lay unstirring. Eel-storms. Coagulation of frogs: once,
  with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful;
  then sidled away from the stillness and silence.

Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the 
  day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and
  irreplaceable, two inches of snub silver. Ceolred let
  it spin through a hole in the classroom floorboards,
  softly, into the rat droppings and coins.

After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with 
  fright, down to the old quarries, and flayed him. Then,
  leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone,
  in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.


The mad are predators. Too often lately they harbour
  against us. A novel heresy exculpates all maimed souls.
  Abjure it! I am the King of Mercia and I know.

Threatened by phone-calls at midnight, venomous letters,
  forewarned I have thwarted their imminent devices.

Today I name them; tomorrow I shall express the new law.
  I dedicate my awakening to this matter.

Until the last year or so I had been remarkably ignorant of all things Anglo-Saxon which is more than remiss of someone who claims to be interested in things historical. Prior to reading the Hymns I had very little idea about who Offa might be other than the Coins and the Dyke. So, I gathered here that he was, powerful, violent and more than a little paranoid. His power base was in Mercia and this kingdom contained what is now Hill's family home so, as well as this mix of biplanes and flaying there is also material referring to our poet's childhood. Despite my ignorance of the eighth century, my mind was altered by this extended and brilliant exploration of time together with the many elements operating around the same (for the want of a better noun) 'axis'. Of course there's nothing explicit here like Olson's statement about the eternal event but the past is firmly in the present and vice versa.

I think that at this stage we need to get the racism controversy out of the way. Part of the narrative here relates to Offa driving in his car (on a pilgrimage or otherwise) to Rome. In Poem XVII he stops off in Pavia to see the imprisoned Pavia and then resumes his journey, these are the last two lines:

  He set in motion the furtherance of his journey. To 
  watch the Tiber foam out much blood.

For those of us of a Certain Age, the image of rivers flowing with blood is one coined by Enoch Powell in his incendiary, to say the very least, 1968 speech about the dangers of immigration into this country. Tom Paulin ( critic and poet that's usually more sensible than most) and others have seized on this as proof of Hill's inherent racism. Now I'm the first to admit that Hill's politics are odd in the extreme, he has described himself as a 'hierarchical Tory' and sees some relationship between political action and mysticism. I'm just as keen on ideology and anti-racism the any armchair anarcho-radical but I do think that the right-on 'critique' of ideologically dodgy verse is more than a little shrill. In Hill's case, if this is a reference to Powell's speech then it doesn't appear from this distance that it's an endorsement but, and this is my point, it's only a poem, it's not a manifesto nor is it intended to be anything other. Poets are really bad at politics and less than brilliant at Things Other than the Poem. I may, for example, take some interest in the political invention of the deserving poor but I wouldn't expect to find a detailed and comprehensive study in a poem.

Returning to the altered mind, Mercian Hymns opened up for me a less rigid way of thinking about Big Things and what I'm still thinking of as apparent disparity or the gathering together a rag bag of incongruous and dissimilar things to make something cogent and Exceptionally Good. If I were to be asked what I thought the sequence is about then I would say 'England' and that this is expressed in an oblique but beautiful way by means of history, power, violence, landscapes and a couple of boyhoods. If I was being enigmatic I would also say that all these things occur at once on the page.

Encouraged by both these pieces of brilliance, I keep trying to finish Process and Reality without success (dense, long, tricky) but one of the other bits I've managed to glean relates to potentials that are the fundamental ingredient of the 'becomings' referred to above. I like to think that the Hymns hold such force because they concern a number of these processes (boyhood as carrying the potential towards manhood, Mercia holding the beginnings of our nation state, the changing landscape etc). Of course, it is Very Likely Indeed that this is much more about my readerly predilections than Hill's poetic intent.

To conclude, this is one of the biggest mental alterations of my adult life and it's being sustained by this two magnificences. For me, only poetry is capable of having such a deep and lasting effect.