There's a marvellously catty footnote to one of Hill's essays where he
refers to Larkin as having been afforded in later life almost
unlimited credit at the bank of Opinion (or words to that effect). I
do wonder whether some similar glamour isn't in effect with the late
Hill: since he's known to be "difficult", to be a champion of
difficulty even, every line he sets down is taken to vibrate with
manifold theologico-etymological co-implications. Even the duff lines,
only some of which are deliberately duff.
In a way, I like that he'll write a duff line, squint at it, make a
feeble joke about its duffness and move briskly on - inasmuch as
that's part of the performance - but there is a point beyond which the
meta-clowning of a Frankie Howerd - oh, please yourselves! - ceases to
make up for the direness of the actual material.
There's lots in Odi Barbare that I really like, and the overall sway
of the poem is (for me) pretty compelling, but that's more down to the
rhythm than anything else. Three times I went into the Waterstones
near work and nearly bought Clavics, and three times I found myself
looking over the contents, going "nah..." and walking out
empty-handed. In the end, I picked up a copy at Hill's reading at the
Southbank Centre, and stood in line for him to sign it. It's not all
bad. But, my God, some of it really *is* bad.
An editor competent to sift through Hill and separate the
worth-keeping from the not-worth-keeping would be hard to find,
though. His late verse seems designed to run athwart of the
conventional literary competencies with which one might approach it.
Some of that is - mischievously confessed - misdirection, the
manipulation of prestige. I used to play chess against a boy who made
all kinds of bad moves, real howlers, in a way that befuddled normal
tactical thinking (I remember hearing that an element of Bobby
Fischer's genius was his willingness to surrender advantages that a
nonplussed opponent would be too intimidated to exploit); at the same
time, he often seemed to manage to manoeuvre his knights into
positions where they could skewer you in unpleasant ways if you
weren't careful. Late Hill seems to me to be playing in a similar
style: you're never quite sure when he's being a patzer. All of which
reminds me of the epigraph to one of Prynne's more frustratingly
opaque collections: "Anyone who takes up this book will, we expect,
have done so because at the back of his mind he has a half-formed
belief that there is something in it."