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Editorial from PN Review 168

Editorial from PN Review 168

When Michael Hamburger described T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as ‘Americans at odds with the pluralism of their own native culture’, he got it quite wrong. It was the drab assimilativeness of that ‘melting pot’ that they were at odds with and from which they absented themselves. Multicultural Modernism, from the anthropological adventures of Lawrence and Joyce to the deliberately non-assimilative strategies of Pound and Eliot, their fascination with otherness and their refusal to ‘translate’ that otherness, to apply familiar templates, to tame or domesticate it, are a manifest of an informed cultural pluralism which was, and again by some today is, despised. Its respect, for the works to which it refers, for the readers it addresses, is decried as a form of elitism. Those chunks of Greek, Chinese, Italian, Sanskrit, the differentiated speech of Jefferson and the Black GI and Old Possum and Edmund Waller… ‘I ask you, have we time for such stuff?’

In The New Poetic (1964) C.K. Stead quotes some of the dismissive early critics of Modernism. Arthur Waugh in 1915 in the Quarterly Review could not abide Prufrock, the work of a delinquent whose motto was ‘I knew my father well and he was a fool’, or a ‘drunken slave’, Prufrock himself. I felt indignant on Eliot’s behalf until my tutor reminded me that had we been alive in 1915 our response might have been as vehement as Waugh’s. No matter how deeply rooted in its time and culture, a work that affronts the settled conventions of the age is best dismissed.

Lawrence Rainey, in Revisiting The Waste Land (Yale), reflects not only on the composition of the poem but also on the culture of reception, communicating something of its original force and mystery. Like a Poirot laying false trails and teasing our grey matter, he examines typewriters and typewriter ribbons, the female genus ‘typist’, thousands of letters in manuscript and typescript, editorial processes, art collecting and readerly reception. He demonstrates how deliberately publication was orchestrated and how profitable it was to the poet. Ezra Pound proved a masterly cheerleader: on publication the poem was an immediate focus of attention, and remained so. There is more than a hint of conspiracy, the avant garde choosing its moment and its texts (UlyssesThe Waste Land), taking the high ground. Rainey underlines a powerful irony: the editors who bid for the work had not read it. They published on the strength of the advocacy of il miglior fabbro.

Rainey’s concluding chapter examines the responses of four early readers, how they got the goodness of it hot, then blew on their spoons, as it were, to make it less scalding. John Peale Bishop’s two letters to Edmund Wilson, first published in this book, are eloquent: the first full of astonishment at something so ‘immense, magnificent, terrible’; the second (Bishop had dined with Pound, who identified the voices for him) content that he has a handle on it, he is in control of the text.

In dealing with the poem’s fragmentariness, we might have expected Rainey to dwell on the organising principle of the poem, for it is ‘histrionic’ in a specific way, not only orchestrating fragments but differentiating them by accent, pace and diction, making specific voices, giving them mouths, faces and bodies. Still, Rainey’s ‘revisiting’ restores to the poem some of the oxygen that conventional academic readings suck out of it.

Shortly after reading Rainey’s book I read Geoffrey Hill’s new collection Without Title (Penguin). It too is ‘histrionic’, and as usual Hill finds music in the English language which is new, unexpected, right and instantly memorable. Poems such as Broken Hierarchies are straightforward in language and construction and gorgeous in effect; there are personal landscapes, too, more vivid even than those in Mercian Hymns, in particular of childhood in the three Worcestershire poems In Ispley Church Lane, and in The Jumping Boy. From its dedication to the Italian poet Eugenio Montale to its impassioned dialogue with the novelist, publisher and poet Cesare Pavese, who committed suicide in 1950, there is a fascinating erotic current. And the book is marked by Hill’s peculiar brand of humour, Old Testament and merciless and true, not least when he reflects on himself.

This poetry uses every stop and pedal on the organ, it is music assured and resonant; when he wants to he can make the building shake. And music is everywhere, the references to hymns that top and tail the book, titles such as Tunes and Improvisations, liturgical tones, and Jimi Hendrix. Hill embodies his lacerating humour in the person of a sad clown, performer and temporiser, trying to align multiple elements in a dispersed identity: ‘I’m to show beholden.’ The clown’s task is less to juggle words than to catch the one word that his many meanings share.

The poems touch harshly on themes of carnal and romantic love, revisiting a recurrent theme, that of the lost, or missed, first love, the one that might have made the difference, whose absence remains a fact, provoking jealousy, rage, desolation, everything but hope. This romantic zero is at the heart of Hill’s work just as much as Beatrice’s dix points is at the heart of Dante’s. Randall Jarrell’s line occurs to us: ‘And yet the ways we miss our lives are life.’ These missed lives, these paths not taken, are social, spiritual, political, libidinal, and they relate to one another.

Geoffrey Hill’s acute displeasure affects us as we grow alert to how he is doing what he does. The language is paced in such a way that we cannot misread or mishear, though our understanding may lag behind. No matter, it catches up. Take three lines at the end of ‘Chromatic Tunes’:

Further I cannot judge
whether to go, or stay; or tell how one
might stay, another go, far flung, bereft.

Their beauty depends upon context, but they can almost stand alone; the poetry has an aphoristic quality, it is friable, as though shored up out of fragments. Some of the poems are fragments, for example ‘Insert here’, consisting of four precise and homeless passages. His eloquence has to do with the poems’ finish sentence by sentence: he does not build to what Larkin called ‘lift-off’. There is no single sense, no single effect.

‘The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them’; ‘Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone’: he could rest on such vision, ‘But that’s lyricism,’ he says, quoting the modern theologian Romano Guardini, whose devotion to truth for its own sake strikes a strong chord with the poet. Lyricism is not enough. As in his earlier work there is the attributed speech, the sense of debate inside, outside, the excessive statement ironised and brought down to the proportions of truth: not diminished, but correctly sized.

The book is in three parts. The first brings us closest to Hill’s roots, the interplay of his lived youth with later complications, the innocent and hopeful overlaid by history and biography. The boy rises up and jumps off the fractured board. He flies, is free. He falls. The Pindarics of the second part, twenty-one twenty-five line poems improvising on short passages from Pavese’s diaries, are among Hill’s most sustained meditations, intimate with his subject whose obsession with suicide (the ‘absurd vice’) fascinates Hill, and whose early failed love has resonances for him. Pavese is ‘made up of too many parts that do not make a whole’, like Hill.

Other spirits hover around this sequence. There is Ezra Pound, whose presence in Italy and involvement in politics during Pavese’s life are pertinent; and Allen Tate whose example and practice are crucial in the formation of Hill’s own approach to poetry. The final section of the book is marked by elegies, poems of evening. The span of the book is from elegy for youth to elegy for the passing of life itself, and at its heart, the harsh, beautiful, discordant dialogue with Pavese.

This remarkable book of poems, though more widely reviewed than his last, was neglected by the Poetry Book Society and overlooked by the judges of the main poetry prizes. One judge declared that Hill put himself beyond the pale when he dedicated a poem to Princess Diana. Such are the decorums now in force, now enforced, a drab assimilativeness which may have been one reason for Hill’s long exile in America. It makes one nostalgic for the days of Arthur Waugh, whose aversion to modernism was cultural. ‘In a political world,’ wrote Thomas Mann, ‘art would undergo the same fate as morality. Art would be made inferior to an ideology.’ And so it has been.

-- Michael Schmidt (01/03/2006)

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