This Canon Fires
To my great surprise, Geoffrey Hill is one of the most highly acclaimed poets of our time, but this surprise is due almost entirely to my own ignorance. I’d heard his name a few times, as well as an interesting-sounding description or two of his work, but never sought it out; then come to find out through a press release, he is variously described by four different critics as “the finest British poet of our time,” “the most powerful living poet,” “indisputably the best living poet in English and perhaps in the world,” and “probably the best writer alive.” Those are some very serious claims and so I was immediately suspicious, considering a) any such hype is to be flatly uh-huhed, b) one of the critics was the too-prescriptive-for-this-sailor’s-taste Harold Bloom, while others were also highly, rather than deeply, established, and c) perhaps the only other poet who received such praise during his life was Robert Frost, who wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of two truly great poems. But I tell ya: with the right tool or two to read Hill with, definitely lean towards believing the hype.
The title of Geoffrey Hill’s Speech! Speech! is simultaneously a call for spontaneous, ceremonial oration, and a happy pointing-at the subject and medium of the book: language as an entity among us. Words seem to have always been this way, to one degree or another a shifty, shifting force that is and has undeniable effect on our lives but with the dizzying increase of “information” and the speed of its spread (yikes), with so much being published (literally meaning just “made public”) in one form or another, the highways are more backed up with shallow traffic, and part of Hill’s task is to use all of those vehicles, but skillfully, and have them actually be meaningful.
I can’t help likening Hill’s book to U2’s Zoo TV tour as a parody and critique of media sprawl, channel surfing, and a constant stream of consciousness-redirecting headlines, catch phrases, commercial declaratives, and general electrical static which we end up either letting wash over us and so succumb to the blue-glazed indifference of the altar-screen, or wake up to the middleman role of technological media, that it is in between viewers and a not-necessarily-far-away reality. Are we the drone’s drones?
It’s a dynamic, patience-testing book, full of dozens (formally and competitively) and dares, doublespeak, recurring characters (“PEOPLE”), voices and fragments, stage directions, allusion, illusion, luscious careening between high and low art, found language both desperate and hilarious, foreign languages, puns (“Go for baroque”), hybrids, quotations, splices of colloquialisms, metapoetic commentary (“Virtue is all in timing”), seeming non-sequitur, and gorgeous imagery combined with melancholy questioning (“A pale full sun, draining its winter light…is this vision enough unnamed, unknown/bird of immediate flight, of estuaries?”) a manic squall that will challenge a good many readers on the surface level alone, and understandably so. What’s most remarkable to me, however, is how much each of the section-poems can hold, how far the diction (and thus consciousness) can stretch and sweep in 12 lines, how wide the speech ranges. Here’s section 26:
No time at all really, a thousand years.
When are computers peerless, folk
festivals not health hazards? Why and how
in these orations do I twist my text?
APPLY FOR FAST RELIEF. Dystopia
on Internet: profiles of the new age;
great gifts unprized; craven audacity’s
shockers glow-in-the-dark geriatric
wigs from old candy-floss (cat-calls, cheers).
Starved fourteenth-century mystics write of LOVE.
When in doubt perform. Stick to the much-used
CHECKMATE condom (laughter, cries of ‘shame’).
This is one type of poetry I long to see more of these days: fully aware of the art’s history, yet departing into/coming with new territory with humor, energy, beauty, and a critical eye.
I managed to read it in one sitting, and some sections are nearly impenetrable, with too much hermeticism and too little resonance to relent and say “Yes, I’ll follow this nearly uncrackable kernel, for its contours are lovely enough.” Hill’s abrupt shifts of collaged narrative can also certainly wear thin on even the most Ashbery-loving readers of poetry at times it’s just plain monotonous. But for the most part the book has a kind of messy music, and such brilliant juxtapositions of language, that more than thrice I felt like Emily Dickinson, like the top of my head had just been taken off.
Although a mart-like (take your pick!) offering of Marx-like (take your pick) mischief, Speech! Speech! is far more serious than mere kitsch and crash, largely due to Hill’s alleged stature as “the best writer alive”, his seemingly fanatical language-collecting energy, and his technical ability. The obvious formal consistency of section-poems, with their 12 loosely iambic lines and bracket syllabics (usually 7-11 per line) is surface; as for substance, what he chooses to say next, how he arranges these startling bricks is what makes the thing stand. To my mind, the constant risks in diction shifts earn Hill the benefit of the doubt; after 15 or 20 sections, it’s like you’re swimming in a new river you simply get used to it, and even the winding tributaries are worthy of exploration, and are fulfilled, contextualized by the relentlessly non-linear narrative and vocal mosaic. Those constant risks become the book’s foundation, and it’s with a willingness to explore that a reader needs to begin, with dynamic patience.
T.S. Eliot was from St. Louis but desperately wanted to be British; Geoffrey Hill is British but Speech! Speech! seems to critique or at least adopt a particularly American consciousness. Aside from one man’s escapist desire and another’s brilliant railing against such desire, Eliot’s The Waste Land is probably the best referent for Hill’s book, with a more recent companion being Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History. Any of the three books might be called “a polyphonic symphony of utterance” (Forche’s phrase), but while Eliot’s seems to drearily shudder before its subject, and Forche’s violently testifies, Hill’s explodes 120 times in uniform doses which are to be admired for their ability to contain an astonishing array of language and still hold up as exciting, entertaining pieces of an ambitious and important poetic sequence. This is one Anglo-white-male-old-fart who holds his own, from whom both the edges and mainstream can take a cue.