Clavics by Geoffrey Hill

Discords and distractions

Geoffrey Hill divides readers more than most poets, and in two different ways. His admirers point to his learning, his scrupulously careful language, his sense of history and his Europeanness. His detractors assert that he is unnecessarily obscure, over-sensitive about criticism and excessively self-regarding in making too much in public of his conscience.

A further division separates those who admire all his work and those who think that he went off from Canaan (1997) on. Beginning then, Hill has produced a startlingly large body of work in a new style. He has addressed major subjects - our corrupted constitution, for instance - with a voice that keeps shifting perspective and identity in very disconcerting ways. From parsimony he has moved into uncheckable abundance.

Clavics, indeed, is one of five books to be published over the next two years. It is made up of 32 parts; the first section of each looks like a modified version of George Herbert's "The Altar", the second of Herbert's "Easter Wings". Herbert, however, was a master of apparent clarity masking complexity. What we find in Clavics is very different. The epigraph gives us a spoof OED entry for "clavics" as "The science or alchemy of keys".

"Keys", of course, can be literal, explanatory or musical. Hill begins "Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise,/ Numerology also makes much sense", / O Astraea!" Hill's "brand new" poem will light up (or burn) the Cabbalah, here a set of mystical explanations. Numerology, little used in English poetry after the 17th century, will also help us (I was never able to see how, in this book). Astraea is the goddess of justice, who fled the earth after the Bronze Age and will one day return. She is also a figure for Elizabeth I, so perhaps by extension for the present monarch. The syntax is, as is increasingly the case with Hill, very hard to follow.

Hill continues:

Watch us conform

To the immense

Lore, hypertense

Attaching to the swarm-

Ing mass, the dense

Fluctuations of the materia

Out from which I shall be lucky to twitch

Creative fire.

"Lucky" indeed. Paradise Lost tells us what it's about more quickly. "Us" is presumably Hill, who will "conform" to the learning of the past. It is presumably "us" who are "hypertense", though the word doesn't seem to have its usual connection with blood pressure. "The "swarm-/ Ing mass" (it's careless to have to break a word for rhyme, to so little effect, so early in proceedings) is the "materia" (the alchemist's unformed "materia prima") before Hill's creation, as though his poem echoed the Big Bang.

And so it goes on. The blurb tells us that the court musician William Lawes, killed at Chester in 1645, is the poem's true subject. Lawes does appear occasionally, but is important more as a model. Lawes's music is often startlingly dissonant and can swerve suddenly in direction; just so Hill. This book, all as easy on ear and mind as its opening, is really the sheerest twaddle. Hill has the courtesy to tell us at the outset that if "Distressed attire", his uneven style, "Be mere affect of clef", showing off in a strange key (I paraphrase), we should "Dump my clavic books in the mire/ And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff." The archly modified cliché feels stilted and invites our accord. Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.

Lachlan Mackinnon's latest collection is 'Small Hours' (Faber & Faber)