Without Title, by Geoffrey Hill

O Hendrix, player of neumes

Tim Martin
Sunday 05 February 2006 01:00
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Without Title, his new collection, combines the force and freedom of Hill's narrative verse with a renewed faith in his masterly talents for form and wordplay. The result is alarmingly good; a collection of lyrics on the difficulties of ageing, the problems of belief and the vagaries of language bracketing a sequence of pindarics in which Hill, ostensibly responding to thoughts of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese, meditates at length on both their lives and considers the place of a poet in the world. Throughout, thoughts of the most exalted erudition are expressed in a verse forged to the precise temper of their expression.

"More than ever I see through painters' eyes," states Hill. Always the most visual of poets, and with 50 years' practice behind him, he now writes about England and the English countryside with a poise and vigour that would be enough by itself to set him among the great poets of the modern age. For example, there is the eerie compound-eye clarity of "In the Valley of the Arrow":

... the singing iron footbridges, tight weirs
pebble-dashed with bright water, a shivey blackthorn's
clouded white glass that's darker veined or seamed,
crack willow foliage, pale as a new fern,
silver-plated ivy in the sun's angle - .

Complex at best, this poetry can still be dauntingly impenetrable at worst. An initial skim through parts of Without Title can prompt a reader to the uncharitable suspicion that the book should really be bundled with dictionaries in three or four major European languages, as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew lexicons and copies of Pascal, Eugenio Montale and Michelangelo's poems. But the research is lighter than it seems, and the poetry pays dividends that warrant the study; except, perhaps, in the case of the poem about Jimi Hendrix ("Stand in for Pasiphaean bull, / exquisite player of neumes!").

In taking the trouble to think through Hill's poetry, the reader joins the poet in his work of thought and reasoning. It is neither a kind of coded thesis nor a set of metaphysical crossword clues; but it is a poetry that requires study, that expands in meaning on reflection. "Why do music and poetry have to address us in simplified terms," Hill has asked in interview, "when if such simplifications were applied to a description of our inner selves we would find it demeaning?"

Why indeed? We should be grateful that someone tackles words in this way, and that this poet seems now, at the age of 73, to be at the height of his powers. In one of the poems in Without Title, Hill speaks of language in terms that one would like to co-opt in celebration of his own marvellous and wilful verse:

its loops and extraordinary progressions;
its mere conundrums forms and rites of discourse;
its bleak littoral swept by bursts of sunlight;
its earthen genius auditing the stars.

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