Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Hopefully, regular readers will accept that I am Very Opinionated Indeed about many things poetry. I don't have a problem with this but it has recently been pointed out by a friend that these are my opinions and not absolute truths. This has given the arduity control panel some pause for thought. I usually qualify my reading of a particular poem by stressing the tenuous and provisional nature therein plus claiming the right to Change my Mind. I do have strong views about the Poem in General which are probably full of bias and prejudice but for which I like to think I can make a case. Geoffrey Hill is another example of someone with a passion for the Poem and equally trenchant views, most of which I happen to agree with and intend now to expand on several subjects where this odd congruence occurs.

What the Poem might be for.

Hill's views here are slightly more specific than mine but he has this from his essay Language, Suffering and Silence:

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 that 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 memorializing, as much as, or even more than, expressions 'of solidarity with the poor and oppressed'

I'm a diluted atheist and thus don't share the application of 'grace' and I worry about any kind of theology but I do share this emphasis on the semantic and co-existent ethical shock which, for me at least, gets to the essence of what the Poem is for. I read this as a radical use of language that undermines the conventions of language in order to effect the opportunity for a reconsideration of our values. The inherent action of grace or of anything else doesn't seem to be an essential component of how these two components might work together.

Hill's work throughout contains much memorializing most of which springs from his admiration of martyrs. I'm equivocal on this because I don't share this enthusiasm to anything like the same extent. What I do share is the ethical duty that we have to bear witness to both lives and events. The best work of the 20th century does this, Celan on the Holocaust, Prynne on Abu Ghraib, Charles Olson on Gloucester, David Jones on the first 6 months of 1915, this could be a very long list. My point, is that our best poets, working in whatever tendency, recognise that the Poem performs this act very well indeed, perhaps better than any other means of expression. It's not for nothing that poems are read at funerals.

I'm now a little bit troubled by the use of 'duty' in the above, mostly because it's heavy with notions of debt and obligation that I'd rather avoid. I think my intention here is to indicate that makers of the serious poem are to some extent throwing their talent away (see below) if the disregard this function.

We now come to these shocks. The value of this aspect of the Poem seems to be shared by J H Prynne who says this:

If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of "hot spot" that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrases which break the rules for local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.

I like to think, mostly because I share both perspectives, that these two are saying more or less the same thing although Hill develops this as leading to ethics whereas Prynne talks about the effects of this device on the reader. Prynne is writing here about 'difficult' late modern work but I'm assuming that both are making this claim for the Poem in general.

The Teaching of Something Called Creative Writing.

Both Sir Geoffrey and I are at one with this. We're against it, in fact we're very against it. The reason for this is both structural and ideological. The structural argument is:

The ideological reason is more an attitude than an analysis. It goes- poetry is a specific skill that needs to be understood and developed by each individual in his or her own way. The key components of this process are reading, re-reading and reflection. The other component is writing material and trying it out in the world. Neither of these have much to do with attending classes and the taking of the note.

One of the reasons I started arduity is my concern as to the way in which the Poem is becoming increasingly colonised by these academic structures who seem to encourage conversations poetry-wise in increasingly abstruse terms. I'm thus less than pleased about the above process even though Sir Geoffrey's syntax and the occasionally vague nature of his 'point' is guilty of this particular sin.

The Religious Poem.

Hill's critical writing and his poetry have led me to realise the centrality of this element in Western culture. As a devotee of the work of Paul Celan and R S Thomas, I was aware thet worth relating to faith is important but it was Hill who, together with David Jones, crystallized this into a much deeper appreciation. For a Very Long Time humanity has been concerned with the afterlife and a number of Christian devices have been developed to indicate how This Might Work. Primary amongst these is the action (a hopelessly inadequate noun but it probably serves my purpose) of grace. An argument about this ripped apart Europe for most of the 16th century and has been a defining element of our ideas of self for the last two thousand years.

So, grace is in our mental and emotional dna, whether we like it or not. It therefore follows that the Poem must, if even by stealth, must attend to it.

Modernizing Old Stuff.

We both seem to be in agreement that, as a rule of thumb, the updating of a text inevitably does damage to that text. Of course, there are those of us who want to read Beowulf but don't have the time to gain some familiarity with Old English and others who want to read Gawain but don't want to delve into the glories of Middle English.

There's also the problem of motive with some editions especially the desire to produce the work in a way more accessible to the students and readers of the 21st century. Hill has penned a less than sympathetic essay on the Yale edition of the Tyndale bible which worries about both of these issues in a typically curmudgeonly manner. Here are a couple of extracts:

When the concessions to common sense have been made (for example, the amount of editorial discretion in the old 'verbatim' editions which even purists are willing to accept; the current availability of exact photographic reproductions of black-letter texts), it here that one's case rests against this modern-spelling edition of Tyndale finally rests. A tractable 'English' project ('accessible Tyndale') has insinuated itself into Tyndale's intractable purpose (to make the New and Old testaments accessible, in English to the 'laye' people'). This is not so much transmission as a kind of contamination.


To make Tyndale's New Testament of 1534 'accessible' to 'today's reader' is not to discover it as the modern book it once was. The modern book it once was remains in the sufficiency and jeopardy of 'its difficult early- sixteenth-century spelling';....

I think the general point here is the bogus claims of the modernisers. The distant past is a remarkably strange and unfamiliar place, the readers of the 16th century had completely different expectations and practices from those of today. Tyndale made his bible for them and not for readers of the 21st century of whom he had no knowledge whatsoever. I'd have a lot more time for the Yale edition if it was made clear that this was prepared with students in mind to give a general impression rather than to make it into something with universal application.

Of course, this isn't to suggest that modernized texts are a Wholly Bad Thing, just as translations are essential to my monoglot reading. It does nevertheless insist on a recognition that these transpositions might reflect more of the transposer than she or he would acknowledge. I'm aware that there may well be a charge of elitism here but I'm less and less bothered by this because it seems reasonable to question some of the more fatuous claims made by the modernisers.

On a personal level, I accept that every translation and modernizing produces a new poem but I am outraged that some of these do irreparable damage to the original. David R Slavitt's verse translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso is an example of a new Very Bad Poem that manages to obliterate this important poem under the guise of accessibility.

A final note on this particular prejudice: I'm trying to teach myself Middle English (for all kind of reasons) and am currently paying attention to the marvel that is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I started with J A Burrow's 1972 edition primarily because of his expertise in All Things ME. Before getting very far, I moved on to Andrew and Waldron's The Poems of The Pearl Manuscript. The main noticeable difference is that the latter retains the original spelling whereas the Burrow's blurb has "The aim of this addition has been to remove unnecessary impediments while retaining the integrity of the original". This justification is lazy in the extreme, especially given Burrow's prominence and scholarship. Using 'was' instead of 'watz' is a kind of contamination in that it destroys the way the word sounds for the sake of modernizing something that is already clear enough. I don't understand the use of 'integrity' in this context because that's the very thing that is lost from the beginning.

The curmudgeonly view of the OED

The second edition of the above, especially in online form, is essential for most readers and writers of serious work. It is the standard point of reference for the English language and I never cease to be amazed how this project has been put together and maintained over the years. There are however gaps and inaccuracies as with any large work of reference and Hill has gone to some length, as has Prynne, to point some of these out.

These trenchant observations are from Hill's essay Common Weal, Common Woe:

In the entry on dexterity ('2. Mental adroitness or skill....cleverness, address, ready tact') the reader is appraised that sense 2 occurs 'sometimes in abad sense: cleverness in taking an advantage, sharpness'. The citation from Clarendon's History of the Rebellion ('The dexterity that is universally practised in those parts') is ambivalently placed and, in its brief citation, elusive in tone. Read in context (towards the end of Book Eight) the phrase still holds a good deal in reserve. Clarendon is alluding to the manners and morale of Antrim's Irish and Montrose's Scottish highlanders, from whose ranks it was planned to raise an army 'that was not to depend on any supplies of money, or arms, or victual, but what they could easily supply for themselves, by the dexterity that is universally practised in those parts'. How far, iof at all, does Clarendon's sense of his word confirm to the editorial definition? This is not a case to be explained by 'sometimes in a bad sense'. Whatever is happening to the 'good' and 'bad' connotations is happening within the space of eighteen words, where what is 'good' is determined by the necessities of the 'good' cause and what is 'bad' by the unexplored hinterland of 'what they could easily provide for themselves'.

and this on Hopkin's use of 'disremember':

On the other hand they make a public exhibition of the contributors', or editors', inability, over half a century, to recognize the one usage which significantly changes the pitch of the word ('qØite ! Disremembering, disrembering all now') The Second Edition heads its entry 'v. Chiefly dial. dísmémbering ấll now') The Second Edition heads its entry 'v chiefly dial. [f. DIS 6 + REMEMBER v.] To fail to remember; to forget. (trans and absol.)'. If this may be thought sufficient for the nine other citations, it patently fails to register the metamorphic power of Hopkin's context. 'Disremebering' in 'Spelt from Sybil's Leaves', is not, as the Dictionary presumes, 'failing to remember, 'forgetting' it is 'dismembering the memory'.

Now, it can be argued that both of these are mere quibbles and of no greater importance than one individual's nit-picking. This would be entirely reasonable were it not for the fact that Hill knew a Very Great Deal about both the 17th century and the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins and therefore his observations would seem to be worthy of serious attention.

I'm an Eng. Lang. obsessive and am firmly of the view that it's important to get this stuff as 'right' as possbile. I make extensive use of the OED as do many others to make sure that a) we get a better understanding of what we read and b} we ensure we make appropriate use of the words that we write. I've encountered entries over the years where the definitions seem to be partial or insufficiently nuanced. Obviously I don't have Sir Geoffrey's learning and am thus unable to qualify the doubts that I have but it is a worry that our sole point of reference would appear to contain quite a few flaws.

In conclusion, it may seem that all of the above fits with Hill's reputation as an angry purist but I like to think that it's more about being passionately involved with the Poem and having keenly held views about what it does and the various things that get in the way. I'm also of the view that there is nothing at all wrong with being opinionated provided the position expressed, as with Hill, can be supported by facts.