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This article is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

Dense Settling: Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies Marcus Waithe
geoffrey hill, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012, ed. by Kenneth Haynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

At an Oxford poetry event in 2006, Geoffrey Hill dryly remarked that when Mercian Hymns (1971) was anthologised in an ‘American college magazine’, King Offa’s second appellation, ‘overlord of the M5’, was explained at the bottom of the page as ‘Head of the British Secret Service’ (CD recording, Clutag Press, 2006). Notwithstanding the audience’s relieved laughter, this anecdote had a serious side. For all its unwitting incongruity – indeed, because of it – the magazine’s comically false gloss perpetuates the poem’s confusion of mundane infrastructure with deeper wells of intelligence, and re-signals the proliferation of forms whereby a culture adverts to a taboo subject (deathless king or spymaster) without naming it directly. It prompts, too, the question of annotation: the appropriate bounds of our trust in it, and the uncertain basis of Hill’s notorious ‘difficulty’, given that a minor cultural displacement may so readily convert transport lexicon into arcana.

According to the publisher’s blurb, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012 ‘collects twenty-one books of poems by Geoffrey Hill, written over sixty years, and presents them in their definitive form’. It includes four new books (Ludo, Expostulations on the Volcano, Liber Illustrium Virorum, and Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti) that have not appeared in print before, while three older sequences have been ‘greatly revised and expanded’ (Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics). Thus the last clause of the blurb troubles the meaning of the verb ...

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