Geoffrey Hill on Poetry

From Hill's notes to section 1 of 'The Annunciations' (1959)

"The Word (line 1) is the impulse that makes and comprehends. Poetry before the poetry-banquet. The Word is an Explorer (c.f. Four Quartets passim). By using an emotive cliche like 'The Word' I try to believe in an idea that I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be. What I say in the section is, I think, that I don't believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words."

From 'Language, Suffering, and Silence' in 'Collected Critical Writings'2008.

"I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition and this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorialising, a memorialising of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of 'solidarity with the poor and the oppressed'....Hopkins, with Victorian aesthetics at his fingertips, sometime pupil of Walter Pater, leans away from the aesthetic equation, takes the weight of the more awkward stresses of a world which, in justice, contains aesthetics as a good, but is not either ruled or saved by them."

From 'A Postscript on Modernist Poetics' in 'Collected Critical Writings'2008.

"I would name Simone Weil's - also late - L'Enracinement, as an uncondescending attempt to reduce ('reduce', at least in her case, is not reductive) the intractable nature of poetry to a position of moral influence; to be able to say of it; 'it has connected': "Simultaneous composition on several planes at once is the law of artistic creation, and wherein, in fact, lies its difficulty. A poet in the arrangement of words and the choice of each word, must simultaneously bear in mind matters on at least five or six planes of composition....Politics in their turn form an art governed by composition on a multiple plane."

From 'The Triumph of Love' sequence (1998):

So - Croker, Macsikker, O'Shem - I ask you what are poems for? They are to console us with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch. Let us commit that to our dust. What ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad and angry consolation.What is the poem? What figures? Say, a sad and angry consolation. That's beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry consolation."

What this Might Mean.

The first and by far the oldest quote above would appear to suggest that Hill shares the arduity view that there is little special or privileged about poetic language, although he concedes that he would like this to be the case. The second of these is an unusually clear statement of a means of doing poetry- the means by which semantic shocks are constructed and the way in which these coincide with an ethical 'recognition'. This isn't that far away from what Prynne has to say about the power of the poem to startle and thus take ther reader's breath away. It is the qualification in the following sentence that needs some real attention- such a poem is a minor but not trivial act of grace. This is the most explicit statement that I've read about what might be going on in the poetry, the almost forensic interest in the workings of grace, the adulatory tones of the 'martyr' poems and the rejection of what is seen as crass consumerism. The Triumph of Love contains a detaled discussion of what Bradwardine said about the spirtual fate of babies who die before they are christened. There are many martyr poems throughout Hill's writing career and the unifying factor here, other than dying for one's faith, is the Christian belief that martyrs are guaranteed a place in heaven. Both of these would seem to affirm Hill's view that all his work stems from some anxiety about the fate of his soul. I'm not theologically qualified to speculate as to how grace may be activated in this way but the idea of a poem as such an action is itself does seem reasonably far-fetched. Memorialisation is, on the other hand, a mainstream function of poetry since the Greeks although I do wonder why Hill chooses to mention declaring solidarity with the poor as another possible function.

As is reasonably well-known, Hill has had issues with his mental health and there does seem to be more thant the usual elements of anger and sadness in his work and I'm guessing that this is what he's referring to in the above. What does require some thought is the idea of the poem as consolation. Is it the reader or the poet who is being consoled? What is this person being consoled about? How does this consolation work and should all types of poem aim to provide this kind of comfort? As the above might suggest, the phrase may be beautiful but it also might not mean very much.