Books: Sadness and anger in injury time

The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill Penguin pounds 8.99

Had the position of Poet Laureate become vacant at the beginning of the 1990s, Geoffrey Hill would surely have been one of the front runners. Thanks to the acclaim for collections such as Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae, and the advocacy of Christopher Ricks and Harold Bloom, he was one of the great triumvirate - Larkin, Hughes, Hill - and widely taught in colleges and schools. Across the Atlantic, these three (with Charles Tomlinson just behind) are still the only post-1945 British poets that readers seem to know.

Why then is Hill rarely mentioned as a potential Laureate? Age doesn't rule him out (he is in his 60s), and though he moved to North America 10 years ago it would be wrong if US residency were held against him (or against that other poet exile, Thom Gunn). Moreover, as well as being deeply sensitive to English history and landscape, Hill has the distinction, rare among modern poets, of having voluntarily written about a royal: Mercian Hymns (1971), still his best book, commemorates King Offa, who reigned over Mercia between 757 and 796 but whom Hill sees as "the presiding genius of the West Midlands, his dominion enduring from the middle of the eighth century until the middle of the 20th".

Being the solemn, private man he is, Hill won't be sorry not to figure in the Laureate gossip. But the omission does suggest how unfashionable his work has become now that poetry's supposed to be smart, chatty, the new stand-up comedy or rock 'n' roll. His last collection, Canaan, was barely noticed when it came out in 1996. Hill's gravely erudite music, his Latinate cadences and what Seamus Heaney has called his "morose linguistic delectation" have lost their resonance, it seems. Is that his fault, for losing the tune? Or ours, for acquiring cloth ears?

Hill himself raises the question in his new book, when he imagines how an aggressively unimpressed younger reader will respond to it:

"Rancorous, narcissistic old sod - what

makes him go on? We thought, hoped rather,

he might be dead. Too bad. So how

much more does he have of injury time?"

The Triumph of Love, at its most eloquent when cataloguing time's injuries, is Hill's answer to such opposition. It wouldn't be right to say that he has bounced back ("bounce" being the last word you'd use in relation to him). But this sequence of 150 poems is, by his severe standards, almost jauntily intimate. Looking back across 60 years, it's also a kind of apologia - a search to justify poetry and exculpate himself. Hill has long been tormented by the idea that poetry is indecent, hubristic, even at times complicit with atrocity - and that silence may be preferable. Against that pessimism, here he explores the possibility of finding "a noble vernacular", where shaping and voicing become a type of "civic action".

what are poems for? They are to console us

with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.

Let us commit that to our dust. What

ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad

and angry consolation.

Sadness and anger pervade the book, which begins on a rain-scarp in Hill's native Worcestershire and with the memory of guilts incurred in that place. Hill was a child during the Second World War, and though he has written before about the horrors of Auschwitz, this book alludes to many other aspects of the war as well: Chamberlain's "compliant vanity"; the bombing of nearby Coventry ("huge silent whumphs / of flame-shadow"); the British walking wounded, like "bunched final stragglers in a three- legged / marathon"; Polish cryptanalysts and the "Bletchley magi" doing their bit for Allied intelligence; Gracie Fields; D-Day and VE Day. Hill writes about the Holocaust with erudite rage and appalled incomprehension, the old newsreel footage forever looping in his head. But the war child's formative experiences are not all traumatic - this is also the world of Dandy, Beano, the "flawless shambles" of Laurel and Hardy, and for "six days / a week - Saturdays off - the sustained, / inattentive, absorbing of King James' English".

Hill has long considered himself a maker, rather than a poet of anecdote and reminiscence. Even here, his memories of the war years serve a purpose beyond confession or the recreation of a particular time and place. For Hill, England has become "a nation / with so many memorials but no memory", an "England at once too weepy and too cold". The citizens of Cool Britannia enrage him with their hedonism ("Enjoy. Open another vein") and "desolation of learning". We forget. We don't pay due attention. We've allowed "the cherished stock" to be "hacked into ransom and ruin". He would like to wring from us "a daily acknowledgment / of what is owed the dead".

Since The Triumph of Love is more colloquy than monologue, those whom Hill berates are given the opportunity to answer back. And though nothing they say is as fierce as his own self-excoriation, their insults rumble and grumble in the background: "Obnoxious chthonic old fart", "He's become obsessed", "Scab-picking old scab: why should we be salted / with the scurf of his sores?" Other voices break in, too, one issuing commands ("Now move to the next section"), another (an editor's) offering corrections to and explications of Hill's text. In the best of these pedantic inserts, a sardonic wit breaks through. At worst, the humour is feeble, the tone that of Mr Grumpy.

Hill is not a poet overburdened with levity. But there are some beautifully light glimpses of the English landscape: "The barely recognised / beauty of the potato vine in its places / of lowly flowering", "flood-water, hunched, shouldering at the weir", "a road slicked in its dressing of lime pollen", the "all-gathering general English light, / in which each separate bead / of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands / as revelation". Where Hill is moved like this, he earns the title of his collection. Even his hate can be a fine thing.

But The Triumph of Love remains cryptic and forbidding to read. Alongside Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, its lack of narrative drive and exteriority are woefully apparent. Having read it four times, I still find large portions of it difficult to decipher, and anyone new to Hill will find it hard not to feel oppressed by his erudition. What remains is the painful integrity - the "wounded and wounding introspection". Paradoxically, that integrity best expresses itself in fragments, where his struggle to find faith, meaning, solace and atonement is briefly, provisionally fulfilled.

"I cannot / forgive myself" Hill writes at the outset. "I find it hard / to forgive myself" he ends. It might seem like a small step to the rest of us, but it's a giant leap for him. His poetry has always been what he calls here the "high craft of fret", and though this book is no triumph artistically, you do feel (just as important, perhaps) that with its completion some private burden has at last been lifted.

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