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On not liking Geoffrey Hill's Speech! Speech! very much.

This might be tricky. I've been a fan of, and cheerleader for, the work of Sir Geoffrey for the past decade. I've defended him against the usual charges thrown up by critics who should know better and I've taken enormous delight in most of the work. I recognise that some of the output isn't very good, that some of it is patchy and that Oraclau is dire from beginning to end. I ought to like Speech!, at least in part because it's got that mix of the playful and profound, as advertised in the blurb, that it's the 'companion piece' to The Triumph of Love which I'm especially fond of and it's Quite Long, always a virtue here on the arduity flight deck.

However, I wouldn't read this sequence for pleasure because:

All of these lead me to be more annoyed than pleased but not annoyed enough to through the book across the room and stride away. Here's some specifics:

The Affectations

These are: block capitals; vertical lines; accents over letters that don't need them and the use of stage directions. These are put to use throughout the sequence but here's on of the more glaring examples:


Strange working of the body; how it knows
its ówn time. Thát after all | and more - 
seventy years near enough - the resin-knurled
damson tree, crookt at black gable-end,
stands in the sight of him departing. LÓRD |
THOÚ HAST BEEN OUR DWELLING PLÁCE - FROM ONE
GENERÁTION | TO ANÓTHER (lento). So barely
out of step | bow and return. Charles Ives's
Ninetieth Psalm found late, as grief's thánksgiving;
at full tide with ebb tide, the one in the other,
slow-settling bell arpeggios. Time, here renewed
ás time, hów it páces and salútes ús | in its wáys.

The vertical lines are slightly raised so there's a gap at the bottom that I'm not clever enough to render in HTML. The accents are however replications of the print that I am clever enough to do.

Now, I'm normally keen on innovation and on paying close attention to serious work but I cannot be bothered to work out what these accents and lines might signify. I'm taking it that they are used in linguistics to indicate how words should be pronounced and where the pauses between the phrases should occur but the spellings should indicate this perfectly adequately. If they don't then there's something seriously wrong going on. I'm not intrigued enough to check this hunch re linguistics / phonetics because these are, for this reader at least, unnecessary affectations which only serve to distract from what's been said.

The LORD THOU.... OUR DWELLING PLACE device is the beginning of the ninetieth psalm but, in the standard ways of the English language, this is usually done by the use of italics, a practice Hill follows in the rest of his work. As with Oraclau,I'm trying hard to work out whether I'm more disappointed than annoyed by these affectations. I accept that Hill is one of the very few, Prynne is the only other that springs to mind, producing high quality serious work and should therefore be forgiven for the occasional slip but these really aren't worthy of him.

As for voice/tone, Hill throws himself into his verse so that we get a developing self-portrait from High Church Englander through self-chastising doubter to lover of variety shows. We get a clear sense of a man in the flesh with doubts and aspirations, just like the rest of us. Most of the time I find this endearing, especially given his reputation for ferocity, on this occasion however I don't like him.

This is one of the poems that invoke this unpleasant reaction:


As pellitory, among other common
signatories of the wall, stands to old faith - 
step back a step, even if expected - 
the fieldstone, intricately veined and seamed;
moss, lichen, dobbed with the white crust of birds;
Credo (car radio) | even as i muse
through tactics, passive aggressions, wound-up
laughter from the claques. HAS BEEN | EDITED.
NOT CLEARED FOR PUBLICATION. Don't bleep shop.
Accept contingencies. Honour
the duende. Revoke a late
vocation to silence. THÁT'S ALRÍGHT THEN.

As a former social worker, I think I need to have a small digression around the passively aggressive. I'm not entirely sure that it can be described as a 'tactic' because my experience of dealing with it leads me to believe that it's a psychological trait which permits or encourages this particular form of aggression on others. Being on the receiving end of this behaviour is particularly unpleasant and thus alienates potential friends. It is, more often than not, effective in getting your own way

This tone feels like an undertow throughout the sequence and I think it's this that I find manipulative and controlling. To confess it in the sequence doesn't really help If it's intended as some kind of expiation then it simply doesn't work. Hill also does this in the Day Books where he acknowledges that he's creating bad rhyme to make his readers 'wince' which doesn't work either.

With regard to the patience reuired to the better poems, I don't intend to provide a bad-to-good ratio but I experience a huge sense of relief when one appears out of the general winceable (technical term) mediocrity. The combination of the playful and the profound works in The Triumph of Love but it doesn't work here. The playful elements are insufficiently playful and ineptly / clunkily placed within the profound to give another impression of style over substance.

I'm normally quite keen on the use of obscure words but some of these seem to me to be on the extreme end of the spectrum. The patented arduity obscurity meter for words relies on the number of citations in the OED and 'haruspicate' gets one whilst 'claque' gets two which means that both are very obscure indeed and other words may have done just as well, I don't buy the argument that obscurity always brings greater precision.

So, an entirely personal but honest response to a sequence that I should like but don't. Oh, and the blurb speaks about "poetry as a violent truth" and "the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana", both of which are complete bollocks.