A review John REdmond wrote for the Guardian...
The eternal struggle/John Redmond
Geoffrey Hill, Canaan, 72pp, Penguin, L7.99.
Atavistic to the point of defiance, sonorous to the sound of camp, Geoffrey
Hill's style is a subject which usually divides readers along the lines of
age. Whereas older, more conservative critics like George Steiner and
Christopher Ricks are delighted by his stern appeals to modernism and the
history of the West, younger ones like Tom Paulin find his work almost
Certainly the titles in his latest book `Canaan', are a fair indication
that Hill takes himself quite seriously: `Mysticism and Democracy';
`Whether the Virtues are Emotions'; `That Man as a Rational Animal Desires
the Knowledge Which is His Perfection'. Given that he writes religious
poetry in an age which favours sceptics and grandiose poems in an age which
favours wits, it is not surprising that his reputation is so unsettled.
The most influential poetry on both sides of the Atlantic --- Muldoon over
here, Ashbery over there --- is written in a laconic, `throwaway' style,
a style which, it could be argued, was developed precisely against the kind
of poetry Hill writes.
`Mercian Hyms', easily one of the best books of the seventies, remains the
most appropriate point to start reading him. While it retains the concious
gravity of his other work, it is, at the same time, more humorous, more
various and makes greater concessions to the modern world. It is probably
to the book's advantage that, in adopting prose-poetry, it escapes the
classical line Hill normally favours.
Although betraying the influence of another religious poet, David Jones,
the prose-poetry of `Mercian Hymns' also allowed Hill to allay his most
persistent influence W.B.Yeats. This point is heavily underscored by
`Canaan', which in its diction, compression, its use of zeugma and ellipsis,
its rhetorical repitition of compounds, and its suspensions, is almost
totally Yeatsian. Hill throughout his career has adopted Yeats's
constellation of key words: `song', `arrogance', `passion', `lofty',
`possession', `bestial', `mire'. And his use of heightened dramatic speech
clearly owes much to the Irishman.
The sudden shifts of reference, which the reader encounters in `Canaan',
are akin to the long-established shorthand used by old friends in
conversation. Such conversations in the book are aimed at establishing
our good opinion of Hill with respect to the (very venerable) company he
keeps. So many of the poems --- like `To William Cobbett: In Absentia' and
`To John Constable: In Absentia' are figured as cross-dimensional chats
between the poet and some worthy name from the past, as if Hill, chuckling
into his mead, were swapping aphorisms at some improbable Great Man's Club
in the Sky.
Even Hill's status as a religious poet must be carefully qualified. In
`Canaan' it only amounts to oblique discussions about emotions, like pity
and shame, which also have significance as religious categories, often
working them into the restatement of well-known paradoxes. Hill doesn't
really provide us with anything like a coherent vision of his own. Most
of the poems are more or less entertaining variations on some important,
but nevertheless hackneyed, philosophical themes, like the difference
between the one and the many, freedom and determinism, stasis and flux:
`Even now, one is amazed/ by transience: how it /outlasts us all.'
It is both too easy to dismiss Hill's writing as pastiche and too dangerous
to dismiss the feeling that it is. Nevertheless, Hill encourages us to judge
his poetry beside the masters, beside the major figures, and when he does so,
when he is judged beside the company into which he insinuates himself, it is
clear that he is not a major poet. Compared with Auden's `Look, Stranger' or
Yeats' `The Tower', `Canaan' is not a major book. Richard Poirier once
wrote that any act of reading consists of a struggle between what the book
wants to make of the reader and what the reader wants to make of the book.
In this sense, and in other senses, Hill's poetry `is' a struggle. It may
be that its value is that it makes us conscious how much poetry is reliant
on pure technique and also how little strong poetry relies on it.
typed without permission from The Guardian, Thursday 10 October.