Saturday, December 22, 2007

many memorials but no memory

Geoffrey Hill's For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 is published by Dufour Editions, a volume of 59 pages. Our library here has two copies, both stored away in Rare Books: first, the copy that Tom Lask, then the poetry editor at NYTBR, was sent by the press.

(The very fact that Penn's Lask collection has the book means that it was never assigned by Tom; it's a tellingly interesting collection for this very fact--it's a huge archive of poetry that NYTBR chose not to review, a kind of negative collection. And yet it's full of fantastic and important books! Valuable as an archive precisely because - at least in some cases - the Times didn't thing its contents, at the time of publication, were valuable.)

The other copy Penn has is signed by Hill.

Hill was born in Worcestershire in 1932. He taught at Leeds from 1954 until 1980. After that, some years at Cambridge. In '88 he moved to the U.S., to Boston University as a professor of literature and religion. In '06 he moved back to Cambridge.

Hill was not part of the "Movement" writers of the '50s and seems uninfluenced by his contemporaries down the years. Oddly parallel and un-part. In the later work especially his poems sometimes transcribe the idioms of public life - TV lingo, political slogans, what passes for wisdom in the media.

Three of his poems are among the most powerful responses to the Holocaust: "Two Formal Elegies for the Jews in Europe," "September Song," and "Ovid in the Third Reich."

He has defended poetic difficulty on grounds of political philosophy: what's difficut is democratic (a reversal of the charge often made against "difficult" verse).

In 1959-60 Hill taught on secondment in the U.S. - at the University of Michigan. At Leeds he and Jon Silken became friends (around this time) and a little later, in '64, Silken's Northern House press issued a pamphlet of eight Hill poems under the title Preghiere. Christopher Ricks, our Dylan critic-fan, championed Hill and is in large measure responsible for Hill's fame in England.

Hill is historical, formal (often rhyming), rhetorical, "difficult" (in the sense of dense) poet. Above all, for him, historical memory is crucial:

Still gets to me, the unfairness
and waste of survival; a nation
with so many memorials but no memory.

An online poetry book review site says of For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958: "Too formal, he only rarely breaks free here, and his language is also not as sledge-hammer precise as in his later work." Baffling phrase, sledge-hammer precise. But maybe it's apt after all. Here are a few lines of the finel section of "Genesis," a poem written in 1952 and published in The Unfallen in '60:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.