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Broken Hierarchies: Poems, 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill (Oxford University Press, 2013)

As part of the Poetry Library's 60th birthday celebrations, in October 2013, we looked at the work of Sir Geoffrey Hill, who publishes 60 years of work in November 2013 with his collected poems Broken Hierarchies: Poems, 1952-2012. The monumental winds in the early hours of the morning on the day of the Book Club (28th October 2013), set the tone for a poet described as one who "pushes the resources of English - etymology, music, multiplicity of meaning, rhetorical devices - further than other writers dare". (Patrick Kurp, Quarterly Conversation)

Biography of Geoffrey Hill:
Geoffrey (William) Hill was born on 16 June 1932 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. His father and paternal grandfather were policemen. In 1935 the family moved to the village of Fairfield, Bromsgrove, where his father was the local constable. At the age of 8 he witnessed the bombing of Coventry. Hill was an only child and in contrast to his parents, both of whom had left school at thirteen, Hill received a grammar school education at Bromsgrove County High, leaving in 1950 having gained a scholarship to read English Literature at Keble College, Oxford. It was as an undergraduate that Hill composed his first poems of note, contributing verse to the university's literary magazine Isis, and publishing a small collection of poems with Donald Hall's Fantasy Press. Graduating with a First in 1953, Hill spent a further year at Oxford studying for his MA, leaving to take up a lectureship at the University of Leeds. Aside from periods teaching in the United States and in Nigeria, Hill would spend the next twenty-six years in Leeds, where he met and in 1956 married his first wife, Nancy Whittaker, with whom he had four children.
In 1959 Hill published his first full collection For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, opening the collection with the celebrated 'Genesis'.  On the strength of this collection he received an Eric Gregory Award in 1961.  His collection King Log was published in 1968, Mercian Hymns a series of prose poems in 1971 and Tenebrae in 1978.

The 1980s was a period of considerable change in Hill's life. In 1980 he left Leeds to take up a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge; in 1983 his first marriage ended in divorce; and in 1987 he married opera librettist, and Anglican priest, Alice Goodman, with whom he has a daughter. The following year he and his wife left England when Hill became Boston University's Professor of Literature and Religion, and shortly after arriving in America he suffered a major heart attack. During recovery from this illness, Hill finally received treatment for the chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder that had plagued him throughout his adult life. These events led to an extended silence, and between 1983 and 1996 Hill published little.
However, since 1996 with the publication of Canaan, Hill has published on average a book every 2 years including the book length poem The Triumph of Love (1998), Speech! Speech! (2000) - a long poem, comprising 120 12-line stanzas and Without Title (2006).  Having retired from his post at Boston, Hill returned to Britain in 2006, where on 18 June 2010, his seventy-eighth birthday, he was elected Oxford University's Professor of Poetry.  His later years have seen him become even more prolific, publishing a book a year since 2010 as part of his "Daybooks" series.  Hill has said "I used to write seven poems a year, now I write seven poems a week. In the past, I would wait 20 years for a line, I can't do that any more." In 2012 he was knighted for Services to Literature.

Critical response to Geoffrey Hill:
"Critical responses to Hill's first volume For the Unfallen established a familiar pattern in the assessment of Hill's work, with opinion sharply divided between those who felt themselves to be in the presence of a singular talent, and those repulsed by 'impenetrable and uncommunicative' verse 'from which so much that is human [. . .] has been carefully erased' (Roy Fuller, London Magazine, 7:1:73, 1960). Certainly Hill's verse bore little resemblance to that of his British contemporaries: formal, obscure, spurning the immediate and personal for the historical and the abstract...?" (Chadwyck Healey)

Patrick Kurp, reviewing Hill's Selected poems for the Quarterly Conversation remarked that it was "odd to think that Hill, the bane of postmodern poets and critics, may be the most 'avant-garde' poet working today. He pushes the resources of English 'etymology, music, multiplicity of meaning, rhetorical devices' further than other writers dare. His poems can be as densely allusive, multi-voiced, polylingual, dissonant, and radically playful as Finnegans Wake. Many poets deploy surface difficulty (Guy Davenport called it 'false density') to mask essential emptiness; when Hill is difficult, he has something to say that cannot be said glibly, and he thus rewards attentive readers."

Hill has been described by The New Statesman as "our greatest living poet".

1. Genesis from "For the Unfallen: Poems, 1952-1958"
We began by looking at the opening poem of Hill's debut collection For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, published in 1959 when Hill was 27.  "Genesis" was first published on its own as a pamphlet by the Fantasy Press in 1953 when Hill was 21. Hill refers to this poem as being one of his "undergraduate poems". The Poetry Foundation has said this book contains: "dense poems of gnarled syntax and astonishing rhetorical power, Hill planted the seeds of style and concern that he has continued to cultivate over his long career. Hill's work is noted for its seriousness, its high moral tone, extreme allusiveness and dedication to history, theology and philosophy, themes that have seen few practitioners in recent years."

Hill can be heard reading this poem on the CD Poetry reading [compact disc] : Oxford : 1st February 2006 / Geoffrey Hill -- Published: Thame, Oxon. : Clutag Press, 2006.

1. Is this a young man's poem? Are you surprised by how violent the poem is?
2. When the poem was first published the third line in the third stanza began "Curbing" rather than "Ramming" but Hill changed it for his selected poems. How does the change in this word change the image of the salmon? Is it ok for poets to change their poems years later?
3. Alex Wylie writing in PN Review says that "The poem's ballad-rhythms suggest a meditative, religious harmony" that the poem's music and images undercut. Do the rhymes and rhythm of the poem jar with its violent imagery?
4. Alex Wylie also states that this poem is about "the power inherent in language." Do you agree that this poem could also be about the power of language, the power of poetry?
5. Is this poem about the Second World War?
6. Critics have said that says Hill's first volume was like nobody else's but this poem does remind me of Ted Hughes who's first volume The Hawk in the Rain was published in 1957. Does anyone else think this?

2. Mercian Hymns - Poem VI

Offa was a complicated ruler, who rose to the throne during a civil war, and invaded other areas of England until Mercia covered much of the south east. He beheaded the king of East Anglia, divided Canterbury into two (creating Lichfield) and was said to be so driven by a lust for power that the historian Simon Keyes claims that he left "a reputation, not a legacy" when he died.

Mercian Hymns is usually referred to as Hill's most accessible and open work. Although he occasionally uses Anglo-Saxon language (such "wergild" - money paid to the family of a murder victim, giving their life a set value) there are also modern references like the M5 and a focus on nature poetry, using a mix of fact, fiction, history and memory to place the story of a child growing up in the world into the context of England over time. Parallels are drawn between Hill and Offa, both of whom are "I" or "he" depending on the poem.

Questions on poem VI:
1. What are your overall impressions of the poem? Did it seem disjointed to you, or maybe like a stream of consciousness?
2. This poem uses the line "'A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers.' But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness." Later, in poem XXIX (the penultimate poem in the book), Hill says, "Not strangeness, but strange likeness. Obstinate, outclassed forefathers?  I am your child." Hill's work is said to be very self-conscious and highly achieved: do you think here he is saying that as a child he consciously tried to be strange, or to be more like Offa than his own father?
3. The boy in the third stanza seems to be running away. Does the poem strike you as lonely, or is there an enjoyment of nature (or history) that provides a warmer, more inclusive emotional state?
4. What is the effect of the children "boasting" their snot and scars? Is Hill passing a comment on the violence of the Anglo-Saxon time, and the way Offa stole land, calling it childish; or are the children simply young Offas in waiting?

3. The Triumph of Love
The Triumph of Love, published in 1998 is a book-length poem in 150 sections of varying lengths which looks back at the horrors of World War II, mingled with Hill's own childhood memories. It is a poem in which Hill asks, by way of religion, philosophy, poetry and personal memory: "what can usefully be said about war?"

The New York Times described it as "a book-length meditation on "the fire-targeted century'" now ending, an elegy for everyone who has burned ... a carnival of literary kinds: it incorporates schoolboy gags, theological excursuses, radiant landscape pictures, mock litanies, epigrams, London music-hall routines and seething political satire. Hill rapidly shifts from one mode to the next as he proceeds through the poem's 150 separate sections, some of which are as short as one line, some as long as a page and a half." (New York Times review, Jan 1999)

John Kinsella said that it is "both terrifyingly brilliant and depressingly self-absorbed and bitter."

We looked at the opening sections of the poem (I-VII), firstly without a guide to the references.
1. What do you make of these opening sections, without having any info about the people, works and places being referenced? How successful is each one in building an introduction to the poem? (perhaps using imagery as a way in)?
2. Bearing in mind the vivid image at the end of VII, can you look again at I and say what double-meanings there are in the language and whether you think they are effective?

We then looked at the opening seven sections again with a guide to the references:
3. Now look at the notes. What difference does having access to these notes make?
4. John Kinsella said "For Hill, no moment can be read alone ? it has a context." Do these contexts enhance or diminish your enjoyment of the text? (How do you feel about poems where you have to "look things up"?)

We only had time to look at the opening of the poem but other aspect of the poem you might want to look at are:

1. There are examples of humour employed by Hill throughout his works. What kind of humour is it and what effect does it have on you?
2. Anne Carson said recently that she regrets her lapses into humour, because comedy is shallow. Do you agree with this statement, in the context of Geoffrey Hill?

Section LI
1. How would you characterise this in comparison to the other sections we've looked at?
2. The title of the work The Triumph of Love refers to Italian Renaissance poet Petrach's "The Great Triumphs". In Petrach's poem, first Love triumphs; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity. How do you think this applies to Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love?

4. The Jumping Boy from "Without Title"
This poem is from the collection Without Title published in 2006.  William Logan in the New Criterion, has said the poems in this collection are "clearer and less frustrated than his ranting monologues".  Without Title is more of a conventional collection with a variety of poems on different subjects such as Jimi Hendrix, Hill's divorce and his childhood.

Again, Hill can be heard reading this poem on the CD Poetry reading [compact disc] : Oxford : 1st February 2006 / Geoffrey Hill -- Published: Thame, Oxon. : Clutag Press, 2006.

1. Who is the jumping boy?  (Who is in charge, is it the narrator or the jumping boy?)
2. Who is the girl?  (Does it matter if we're not really sure who she is?)
3. Has anyone heard of Lyonnesse? How does this lost, mythical land fit in the poem?
4. What effect do the 4 sections of the poem create?  (Get shorter, memory becoming more distant?).
5. Is the syntax of the poem grave or pompous? Does it make the poem funny?
6. Is the poem celebratory or is it sad?  In the final line when the boy "shouts go" is he telling the narrator to leave him alone or is he shouting "go" as in make a start?
7. I have read a review of this poem that said the last sentence in section 2 "He is winning / a momentous and just war / with gravity" could be a description of Hill's poetry.  Do you agree with this based on the poems we've already looked at?

5. "Clavics" - Poem 15
Clavics, published in 2011, is the fourth in a series of publications which Hill calls 'Daybooks'. These began in 2007 and also include Odi Barbare, Oracles and Broken Hierarchies, published by Hill at roughly yearly intervals, and forming a longer sequence.

Each of the Daybooks takes an existing structural form and works within it to create something new: Odi Barbare, for example, consists of 52 poems imitating a Greek and Latin form, where each stanza has three lines of eleven syllables and a concluding line of five. Clavics consists of 32 poems, each shaped and rhymed in a specific way and structurally based on a George Herbert poem. The first is based on Herbert's "The Altar", the second on his poem "Easter Wings". To this extent Clavics comprises 32 variations on Herbert, although it varies wildly: where the originals were concerned only with Christianity, Hill opens his first poem with references to Cabbalah, Astraea and numerology, suggesting a wider religious interest. The "easter wing" poem often references a writer from the past or a literary tradition - such as Ben Jonson, rhetoric, or Nabokov - and there are also references to mathematics and musical instruction.

1. Do you think the poem works well in its rhyme and set shape? Do you think it would work better, or not work as well, if it had been in free verse, or a different structure
2. What does it mean to you? Why do you think Hill is incorporating references to Chinese divination, English history, a Russian writer and his hobbies, and the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer? Is Hill wrestling with religion, or life and death?
3. Clavics is intended to be an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, a Royalist musician who was killed in the Battle of Chester in the early 7th century. Clavics means "the science of keys", referring to choral music. What about the poem suggests song to you, or history, or battle?

Concluding questions:

1. Is Geoffrey Hill inaccessible?
2. Is it wrong to read Geoffrey Hill without access to a computer or encyclopaedia where you can look references up?  Is it wrong of Geoffrey Hill to write poems that require an encyclopaedia?
3. Is Hill perhaps the perfect poet for the world we live in now?  (If you read him on your IPad you're able to look up all the references as you go along.)  Is he ahead of his time?
4. Has anyone read any other poems/books by Geoffrey Hill they really liked and would recommend to the group?

Three people who attended the book club were very familiar with Hill's work and recommended reading Tenebrae and King Log. One attendee explained that he really responds to some of Hill's books, and really struggles with others, and it's a matter of finding the poems of Hill that speak to you. Poetry Libary staff recommend Mercian Hymns as a good place to start if you are new to Hill's work, and our Poetry Librarian, Chris McCabe, recommends Speech! Speech!

Geoffrey Hill on being a "difficult" poet:
Geoffrey Hill has said that his supposed "difficulty" is not an attempt to alienate readers.  In his poem "On Reading Crowds and Power" he says:

"But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen."
Published in Poetry (March 2007)

In an interview Hill has also responded:
"We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most "intellectual" piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning?" Paris Review Spring 2000

Search the Poetry Library catalogue to see our holdings of material by, and relating to, Geoffrey Hill:

Mercian Hymns, published in 1971, is a series of 30 prose poems that juxtaposes Hill's memories of his childhood in Worcestershire with the life of Offa, a historical figure who was the king of Mercia during the second half of the eighth century. At the time, Mercia was a kingdom given to the region we now call the Midlands, where Hill himself was born.
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