Phil And Hill - Poem by gershon hepner
Unpopularity won’t darken
most reputations, though it will
be little help for Philip Larkin,
regarded as mere run-of-mill
in criticism of Geoff Hill,
who thinks a poet should not be
accessible. Ideas I spill
on my rare readers help them see
with ease inside my head, but Geoff
regards it to be wrong when Phil
does this, most definitely deaf
to words that ease the ears they thrill.
Though popularity is still
the goal I seek in vain, perhaps
I ought to aim to have the skill
of both these champion poet chaps.
In The New Criterion, December 2008, Paul Dean reviews Collected Critical Works of Geoffrey Hill, edited by Kenneth Haynes:
Geoffrey Hill’s prose shares with his verse an uncompromising strenuousness and denseness of allusion; his train of thought halts at all stations. Collected Critical Writings is not a book which will win over those who have decided that Hill is aloof and inaccessible. I suspect this would not worry him unduly, given his impatience, in the course of a diagnosis of the flabbiness of contemporary religious language, with the view that readers should be protected “from the jeopardy of cultural embarrassment or the faintest possibility of mental or emotional strain.”…
Above all, Hill is fixated on the life, decay, death, use, and abuse of the individual word. He avows a “critical bias” (which we can see is also a creative one) in favor of “the alien and alienating formal word-pattern before everything.” “Alien and alienating” invoke a key concept for him, akin to Eliot’s “impersonality.” “In the act of creation, ” Hill writes in the last essay in this volume, “A Postscript on Modernist Poetics” (2005) , “we alienate ourselves from that which we have created, or, conversely, the genius of language alienates us from itself.” Alienation is the price the artist has to pay, not only personally but socially too if necessary; Hill admires intransigence, is drawn to recusants, and has nothing but contempt for poets who court popularity. Tucked away in the footnotes is a stunningly vituperative attack on Larkin, in which anger sandblasts through the usual mandarin suavity: “During his lifetime Larkin was granted endless credit by the bank of Opinion…. The notion of accessibility of his work acknowledged the ease with which readers could overlay it with transparencies of their own preference.” Even Christopher Ricks, an early champion and later colleague of Hill’s, stands rebuked for being “pleased to be numbered among Larkin’s advocates.” Larkin, one may venture, was everything that Hill is not and has no wish to be—and that includes being a poet communicating to a mass audience in terms they find immediately intelligible.
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