Saturday, October 27, 2007

Geoffrey Hill at the Warwick Conference on Poetry & Philosophy

I went to a poetry reading last night at Warwick University, which is currently hosting a splendid Poetry & Philosophy Conference, to hear poets Jorie Graham (US), Robert Bringhurst (Canada) and Geoffrey Hill (GB).

I'm afraid I found it impossible to appreciate the first two poets, whose work passed me by. I am familiar with American poetry - even published some US poets in Blade during the nineties - but have never found much to admire in it, beyond some of Ashbery's wilder flights of fancy and Frank O'Hara's bitter lemons in imaginary trees. So you can imagine my boredom as I struggled to look interested and alert during their lengthy and often overly-complicated poems.

Bless 'em, but they do write long, these Americans and Canadians (the former rather more so than the latter). It's often one unrelenting note and it's held for some five or ten minutes, as though more must always be better. Which of course it isn't. Especially in poetry, home of the pithy and aphoristic, par excellence. Perhaps they didn't get the memo.

Yes, I know how terribly famous and important Graham and Bringhurst are. But there's no point in my pretending to understand or appreciate them, for all that. Luckily for me, no one's going to chop my head off for failing to 'see' the Emperor's New Clothes.

Robert Bringhurst reads in a comical dramatic monotone, growling his vowels into the floorboards until they're almost indecipherable. Though he was deliberately funny in places, which was a relief - that should be noted. I liked him as a person but found his work - well, most of it went over my head, and was probably intended to.

It particularly amused me that he disdains the need for titles, only using them because convention demands it. Poem 1 or 2 as a title is not unusual in transatlantic poetry, of course, following the example of Frank O'Hara & Co., but it's damned hard to refer accurately to an untitled poem. I also imagine that reading a collection of untitled poems must be like living in a house where all the doors are permanently left open.

Bringhurst's only redeeming feature, as regards my own interest in his work, is his taste for linguistics, and his interest in preserving the language and orally passed-down stories of the Navajo. But none of the poems he read seemed to communicate that to me with any effectiveness, sadly.

Jorie Graham, on the other hand, failed to interest me for other reasons. She intones her poems like a somnambulant reading from a shopping list. Her delivery seems utterly emotionless and without change of tone or register. Yet her high seriousness as a poet is beyond doubt.

She talked, both before and after her reading, at great length and with passion on the subject of how she writes poetry and what special techniques she uses in poems and why. One phrase, for instance, was like a 'cantilever' along the 'axis' of the poem. She thinks deeply about such things as politics and poetry as communication, she would like us to know.

As if to emphasise this point, the first poem she read was entitled 'Guantanamo Bay'. She described this poem beforehand as 'an exploded haiku'. It then seemed to go on for some four or five minutes. Clearly, she used too much semtex.

But then at last, ah joy. Some poetry I could sit up straight for and understand. The senior English poet Geoffrey Hill came to the podium - with the aid of a walking stick - and read with both a formidable energy and a political urgency that kept the room silent throughout.

Geoffrey Hill is now in his mid-seventies. He answered questions about his poetry after the reading with great mental acuity and an abrasiveness that sat well against Jorie Graham's homely anecdotes about reading poetry around the US after the tragedy of 9-11.

I found his poems hard, but never boring. I identified with them even when I didn't entirely understand them. I was left wanting to read them myself in private so that I could rectify that.

I particularly approved of how Geoffrey Hill anchors his apparently 'obscure' poetry in the stuff of everyday life - his family history, memories of home, landscapes, observed character, English history (poems about the English civil war, in particular, as well as his perhaps best-known sequence, 'Mercian Hymns'). The edges of his poems are hard and well-wrought, and they speak of his personality rather than any special technique which is too much on the surface.

I think perhaps that's where I found myself unable to listen to the other two poets with any attachment, not being able to fathom what I interpreted as a lack of personal engagement with their own poems. That is, they were engaged with them, but in a cerebral way, not a personal intimate way, and so I felt at a distance from them, and emotionally unengaged. I suppose that also explains why I felt politically unengaged.

Yet, during the Q&A session afterwards, Geoffrey Hill claimed not to write personal poems, or at least not to write poems that attempt to communicate anything. Frankly, I think that's a front of some kind. A defence. His poems do strive to communicate, even when written in code and hedged about with prickles - perhaps especially then. They communicate a vulnerability, I think, which is there to be understood if you are on the same wavelength. They also celebrate humanity, without that fact needing to be flagged up.

He did back down on that point later, following Jorie Graham's 'helpful' interruption about poems used in the aftermath of 9-11. But I would have liked to hear more about Geoffrey Hill's ideas on poetry and communication, especially as he had been about to expand on a quotation from Walt Whitman on that subject.


Ms Baroque said...

Jane, don't succumb to lazy thinking. How can you pronounce like that on a country 3,000 miles by 1,000 miles? England is, after all, smaller than New England.

It's true Jorie Graham is boring, and that's the least of it, but it's not because she's American.

Jane Holland said...

There are similar traits amongst contemporary American poets. It's odd to try to pretend there aren't when they clearly exist, and glancing through any collection of contemporary American poetry or any contemporary US poetry magazine would tell the simplest-minded person the same thing.

I think it's perfectly acceptable to say one particular country's poetry or art is like this or like that. Peruvian textiles, Japanese cinema, American poetry. What's the problem? Except that I said it bored me. These long discursive poems are too often like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And when they're not discursive they tend to be surreal, which is equally baffling for me.

However, I don't see that England's size in comparison to anywhere else in the world has any bearing on anything I said.

I also don't consider my thinking to be lazy so much as instinctual. There's a difference. I'd trust instinct over logic any day. Especially where poetry is concerned.

Jane Holland said...

Note to Ms Baroque. American academics (re poetry) have risen in my esteem after I met one today whose main interest is sixteenth and seventeenth century English poetry. Ah me. If only my husband would take an interest in such things ...

Ms Baroque said...

Jane, I agree, and of course it would be foolish to deny the bleeding obvious. I think Jorie Graham typifies a particular thing that I also find annoying. But, and here's why I mentioned size, it seems silly to wave the arm airily to one siede and say "American..." anything. There are poets writing tight lyrics in the USA there are poets writing all kinds of stuff. The MFA system over there does seem to encourage and favour (through the very nepotism Graham herself can't shake off accusations of) a kind of "fashionable" or "samey" aspect - but there will always be people who are not content to sit in the belly of the beast. (Nearly wrote the "beat" there, which would also be apt!)

Also, you know, I've seen you say elsewhere that you don't bother to read much if any US poetry because you aren't really interested in things that aren't English - or was it that your main interest is "Englishness" - whichever, it all comes over sounding a little dismissive! And this is why I called you on it and said it sounded lazy.

Your academic sounds fun. And I'd have LOVED to hear Geoffrey Hill read. I think he's amazing.

Jane Holland said...

Geoffrey Hill is a real showman. And he knows it, plays the game with great skill and a sense of mischief. I thought he was wonderful and now intend to be very deliberately and openly influenced by him. For as long as it suits me, that is.

I think you need to remember that when I talk of US poetry on the Poets on Fire forum, and admit to not bothering with it much, I'm talking about recent work. Poetry published in the past ten years, for instance. But I've read a large amount of nineteenth and twentieth-century American poetry across a fair range of poets - though admittedly most of them well-known - so I do have a reasonable idea of the background of US poetry against which new poets are writing. I have a particular acquaintance with the New York school and in the mid-90s owned - and partially read! - the Norton doorstop anthology. That was when I was publishing newer poets like Paul Violi and friends in Blade.

But I became disenchanted with various elements in the US poetry scene and finally decided that being too diffuse in my tastes - as Roddy is, for instance - was not actually such a great thing in terms of finding my own path in poetry. That specialising was the way to go. And my natural bent is towards home, and England.

Don't forget that I was born and brought up on the furthest edges of East London, then moved away to live for 23 years in the Isle of Man - practically another country! So my spiritual connection with England is perhaps stronger - from being separated for so long - and more mythical than it would be for someone who's always lived here and takes England for granted.

There you go. My take on England. You heard it here first!