Without Title, by Geoffrey Hill

Lament for lost love from a bard of bleak beauty

Michael Schmidt
Friday 17 February 2006 01:00
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For readers new to Geoffrey Hill's work, Without Title is a good point of entry. Poems such as "Broken Hierarchies" are straightforward in language and construction and gorgeous in effect; there are personal landscapes, too, in particular those 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 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 makes few concessions, it uses every stop and pedal on the organ, and it is musically assured and resonant. When he wants to, he can make the building shake. And music is everywhere, in the references to hymns that top and tail the book, in titles such as "Tunes" and "Improvisations", in liturgical tones, and in Jimi Hendrix.

Hill embodies his lacerating humour in the person of a sad clown, performer and temporiser, trying to bring together the multiple elements in a dispersed identity: "I'm to show beholden." And parts of speech, too, play many roles, like the German word traurig that recurs. The clown's task is less to juggle words than to catch the one word that his many meanings share.

The poems touch directly, and harshly, on themes of carnal and romantic love, and revisit a recurrent theme: that of the lost, or missed, first love. 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: "And yet the ways we miss our life are life." These missed lives are social, spiritual, libidinal, political, and they all relate to one another.

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 board. He flies, is free. He falls. The Pindarics of the second part, 21 25-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 fascinates Hill, and whose early failed love parallels his own.

Other spirits hover around this sequence. There is Ezra Pound, whose presence in Italy and involvement in politics have a pertinence; and Allen Tate, the great neglected American poet whose example has been crucial in the formation of Hill's own approach. The final section of the book is marked by elegies. 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.

Michael Schmidt's 'The Lives of the Poets' is published by Phoenix

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