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This item is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.Letters from Paul McLoughlin, Denis Donoghue, Nicholas Murray
In the penultimate sentence of his review of Geoffrey Hill's Without Title (PNR 170), John Lyon is surely right to insist that fêted poets can 'settle into celebrity and sentimentality'. Clearly for him this is not true of Hill even if I wonder how a single word like 'appetite' can be jointly ascribed to Shakespeare and Hart Crane (however much Hill may admire them both) when it's difficult to imagine anyone who hasn't used the word? Nevertheless, the 'acute and unsparing self-risking self-consciousness' for which Hill is praised is a critically interesting observation and one that makes us look again at the poems. A critic can do no more. The review's earlier argument that we should do well to avoid regarding Hill as a narrowly English poet is also worthy of note. None of this, however, prepares us for a final sentence which apparently claims (I have to allow for misunderstanding here can the man possibly have intended such truculence?) that anyone who does not respond admiringly to or who fails to understand Hill's poetry is tone-deaf or inattentive?
But, heaven help us, Hill is difficult, or, if you prefer Michael Schmidt's generous locution, 'sometimes resistant'. I have all of Hill's books (so at least I help to keep the great man fed and watered) and I have returned again and again to the work. There is (of course!) much to admire and I have, like others, been helped by those critics who have attempted to demonstrate what is good in Hill by close reference to particular examples, or at least helped in revealing sources and references that may have escaped us. It is hard and demanding work. I warmed to the critic who acknowledged that he always sits down to read Hill surrounded by reference books (including, one supposes, a sturdy etymological dictionary).
But there are times when I find Hill just not worth the trouble. One can emerge from the lengthy appraisal of a single quatrain with the frustrating feeling of 'Is that all?' His Christian imagery can be clichéd, his unquestionably serious approach self-regarding (though Lyon may move me on from this view), and his desire to praise sometimes banal. I think, for example, that the juxtaposition of the high-flown and the demotic in his homage to Jimi Hendrix in Without Title leads to the inadvertently laughable. In setting out on a mission to 'out-rap' the rapper (vide Speech! Speech!, 2000), Hill is venturing into worlds he knows nothing of. Are we not to be allowed to voice such misgivings without being bullied?
Quite contrary to their writers' claims, many (I am tempted to say 'most') reviews of Hill's work are written by critics who idolise him, and who then proceed to dismantle the arguments of an imagined opposition who, for the most part, have cautiously left him alone. These outrageous others must be either tone- (or pitch-) deaf, or unwilling, because lazy or not up to the task, to do the work required properly to grasp the wonders before them. It is this kind of haughty nonsense that creates the very kind of orthodoxy it would decry. Or are such critics still smarting from Tom Paulin's withering accusation of 'stupified awe'?
Hill is probably right in claiming that difficulty is properly democratic because it does not insult its audience. Would that the same might be said of John Lyon's review.
I must spell David Rollow's name correctly, in return for his misspelling mine, twice. As he says: always check.
His article, 'Without Copula' (PNR 170) is fine, but it fails to discover a source for 'juxtaposition without copula' other than the one I long ago referred to, H.M. McLuhan's 'Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry'. The fact that McLuhan put the phrase in italics without quotation marks seems to me to indicate that he made it up and thought it too good to be wasted: he wanted people to take note of it. He may have got the notion of juxtaposition without copula from Pound's essay on the Chinese Written Character though I doubt it, I think he got it from landscape painting but he didn't find the phrase there (or in the Biographia Literaria).
I'm pleased that David Rollow's search, even if it failed by his lights, gave him a good summer's reading.
Readers who enjoyed Richard Price's 'Lute Variations' based on a poem of Louise Labé in PNR 171 may be interested to know that a pamphlet of that name containing two further sets of variations by Richard Price on two other poems of Labé is published by the Rack Press (email@example.com) at £4.
This item is taken from PN Review 172, Volume 33 Number 2, November - December 2006.