Sunday, January 20, 2008
Charred prayers that spiral to a God
who in a thornbush nearly burned
must seem to Him extremely odd;
perhaps that’s why they’re mostly spurned,
for even when the heat created
by poetic thermals raise
esthetic standards, they are rated
by Him redundant as our praise.
William Logan reviews “A Treatise of Civil Power” by Geoffrey Hill (“Living with Ghosts, ” NYT Book Review, January 20,2008) :
Gloomy poets are rarely very good, and good poets rarely very gloomy. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, denizens of that funereal, willow-shadowed decade of the 1840s, a decade half in love with Keats and half in love with easeful death. Thomas Hardy had his black moods, but also his moments of sour levity. For more than 50 years, however, Geoffrey Hill has written a pinch-mouthed, grave-digger’s poetry so rich and allusive his books are normally greeted by gouts of praise from critics and the bewilderment of readers who might have been happier with a tract on the mating rituals of the earwig. Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him. Indeed, he believes that sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse; with a withering pride he has refused, time and again, to stoop to such betrayals. This has made him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved. His poetry has been composed of harsh musics, the alarums of battle and the death struggles under the reading lamp — it takes to contemplation the way some men take to religion (Hill’s relation to Christianity has been famously cryptic) …. It’s dangerous for a poet to believe that gloom is the precondition for seriousness. If poetry for Hill is a “mode of moral life” (“charred prayers / spiralling godwards on intense thermals”) , the evidence here lies more in design than example — the morals are in lieu of, not on behalf. Poetry provides a moral life the way that standing on a pillar in the desert provides salvation — fine if you have a pillar, and a desert, and a terrific sense of balance; and if not, not.