Enitharmon Press, £12, 42pp £10.80 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Clavics by Geoffrey Hill
Discords and distractions
Friday 03 June 2011
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.
Watch us conform
To the immense
Attaching to the swarm-
Ing mass, the dense
Fluctuations of the materia
Out from which I shall be lucky to twitch
"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)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Bruce Jenner's 'Interview of the year': Suicidal thoughts, rejection by family members and new wardrobe
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Everyday People project: Photographer Pablo Conejo placed an ad on Gumtree - and kickstarted a series of interesting encounters
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election