Dielectric material

Hier levitiert
der Schwerste.

Poetry is the intellects fun, wrote Scaliger. People often say that it is difficult. This is true: some poems are difficult, as are some novels and some experiences. With this I have no problem. But when people suggest that a poem’s difficulty is like an elaborate cloak hung to conceal a simple frame, I am disconcerted. Daniel Mallory in his review* of Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings quotes a film historian: ‘Perhaps [Bob Dylan’s] genius is to take simple ideas and make them impenetrable’, and one of his suggestions is that perhaps this is, in the critical writings at least, Geoffrey Hill’s. Robert Webb in The Sunday Times is less ready to conclude: ‘At A-level, we studied Geoffrey Hill, who nearly put me off poetry altogether. I found him totally and utterly impenetrable. I’m sure he’s doing something wonderful, but I still can’t see it or be bothered to expend the effort to find out what it is.’ We need to hear the ‘I’m sure’ to be sure it is a scoff. Nevertheless the admission of bother withheld and effort unexpended is to be praised. Note too his word is the same. The title of Mallory’s piece is ‘Geoffrey Hill: Impenetrable Critic’. So the man is difficult of penetration, to the point where many quit.

I agree that if you think there is a simple idea that difficult poets have wanted to express in difficult poetry, you’ll come away feeling thwarted. I agree that a sense of impenetrability is one major effect of Hill’s writing. Where I disagree is on the difficulty of gauging the value of the work and of its utterance. Only if we hold to a model of poetry as idea-bringing vehicle can we dismiss the impenetrability as a pseud’s disguise. (In the penetralia of the poem, there is some such idea as ‘Culture seeks to do away with classes’ lurking—or as ‘Poetry is the intellect
s fun’—and all one need do to grasp it in its simplicity is make a linear paraphrase of the statements of the poem: when this is not possible, the poem is empty, and bad.) The same is true of criticism: I feel that critic Mallory has lost the game, not having known that so vocally to withdraw was rather a concession than a neutral act. For of course Hill’s criticism is not criticism, it is critical writing — maximally charged with scholarship to do what scholarship doesn’t do. It is poetic. Its challenge is its operation on the reader, and its operation on the reader is to open up the way he reads the writers discussed, and any literature. Its impenetrability is its work.

But Mallory comes to the issue decided. His confidence in the possibility of knowing is great. ‘Criticism ought to be clear.’ Neither ambiguity nor poetry have places in it. I agree! Where a writer writes, though, in a genre offset, neither criticism nor poetry but ambiguously between, I cannot. I am glad that this critic was clear about what he thought he was dealing with. Coming to it bristling the defences of category and clarity, he misses what readier participation would have shown to be an utterance for which doubt and self-doubt are organs in a complex body of response. Assuming there can be complex ideas about literature, and that for such ideas to stay intact in utterance their faults and disjunctions should not be garbled into transitory completion but represented as they are, if Hill wants to be exact in doubt and in complexity he must accommodate as well the broken links as the lengths of chain: I argue that if one opens oneself to such possibilities, one finds the work of construing less the imposition of obscurantist bravado than a better way to learn, just as one finds the writing not to contain cellophaned a thesis that we accept or reject but to constitute an attempt at knowledge that we make as we interpret. The object of this impenetrability is not to be penetrated but to show what can be shown by the failure of that. It would be Mallory’s point, I suppose, that such is not a valid or worthwhile way to write. He could have argued this had he responded to the writing as though it were perplexed in good faith, not a cryptogram his failure to decipher which is evidence of ungenerous difficulty, where it was only evidence of his mistake: if you read a poem as though it were a crossword clue, you may well feel cheated, and especially if it is good.

Philistinism is always stubborn, said Geulincx. And I have distracted myself. I had meant to touch on value and its judgement. Hill’s poetry is sort of supposed to make you hate it. Hear the frustration in Webb’s remarks! Impenetrability is not a happy thing: perhaps you will return to the object of perplexity with a refuelled sureness, perhaps you will discard it with a plain man’s indifference or disgust. To say the perplexity is not genuine, though, one has to discount the effects it has even as unworked-at. The poetry has literary force beyond that attributable to a rhetorician; the effect is less in Hill’s prose but it exists; even Mallory admits to instances of power there. I would press the point in relation to Celan, too. This is a poet whom one cannot paraphrase but who is evidently not chuffing out nonsense, ornate and void. Could nonsense affect us so and drive us so to reread? By way of persuasion I offer these, written under
Celan’s spell (I use the word in acknowledgement of Paterson’s having recourse in his important ‘The Lyric Principle’ to its cousin, ‘magic’, to characterise that in poetry which we cannot make explicit). They are meaningless pretty much, and though the reader may experience them as impenetrable, he should not be agitated to the work of penetration: they will not win his love.**

The rampart hundredth
silence each proximate,
small selvage in the frost of a fog

Caveated frontispiece
with the thunderlane
lit beforehand four ways:

journeyman with the compound eye: hey:
study the trails. The raindense shambles
sing funereal the offices of parenthood.

In the snowmelt lido
the multistorey yawns.

Breaststroke, on the lift wheelhouse
I catch kick.

The cowlick cheddarorange
of her nod,
at the time
the Punch-puppet, greeting-parting, stood awake.

FACEDOWN, on the mall escalator:
below and above patrol
preoccupied sentries – that one
with the empty businesscard pocket
stretches and burns
his toolbelt, stretches and burns


Offwhite, the ovation felt,
you retreat into bloom.

Then gratitude, inaudible
as you sang, audible as you bow.

(7) AI
Intelligence – at the end of the graph –
Fooms unfriendly : like Voyager its line
Carrying Bach
Further and further to nothing;

Voyager accelerating still to void
With all humanity relics under sand.

(8) For Putnam

YOU, IN the stockroom, in the January sales,
muster together what you failed at,
muster it to hand ­–
hidden – on the hard-drive partition:

should the little dog search it,
find belief
after belief: revise the search terms.

(9) Gallerte

The architect of the supplyhouse
had as impetus the accumulation of bodyfat
the patients of plastic surgeons, attractive,
had paid to shed:

in surplusing heaps it sat,
till the architect’s fee could be raised;
and he celebrate over four courses,
over bonbons relax his belt.

* It turns out that Craig Raine, Areté editor, rewrote or cowrote the piece.
** Two addenda.

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