Poetry magazine has just published a new batch of Geoffrey Hill poems, always an event, of course. Hill has never been easy reading, but his work often repays close attention. However, these new ones are hard-going, even by his standards. Let’s have a go...
The title, Odi Barbare (Barbarian Odes), is a reference to a work of the same name by Giosuè Carducci, a 19th century Italian poet. More on Carducci here – it’s an online translation from the Italian, so reads strangely in places. One interesting thing I learned from this article is that Carducci’s ‘Odi Barbare’ was an attempt to marry Greek quantitative metre with the rhythms of Italian (which would have seemed ‘barbaric’ to many Italians at the time). Now, Hill’s poems are in Sapphic stanzas, a Greek metre. In English, Sapphics tend to work as three lines of trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee, followed by one line of dactyl trochee, but I imagine Hill is also trying to work in the Greek quantitative values with the accentual English feet. I don’t know if that’s what he is doing, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Some expert on this ought to check, if it hasn’t already been done.
The first of the poems, number xxiv, starts with an image of going back to a beginning. I like ‘moves unlike wildfire’. We’re going to take our time and start with this rustic image of a ploughman in line 3, which is also a reference to Micah 4:3 from the Bible – “they will hammer their swords into ploughshares”, an image of future peace and hope. But in Hill’s poem, the ploughman simply hammers his ploughshare. It’s brutal reality, hard toil. The ‘durum dentem’ in line 3 is another great phrase – the durum conveys hardness, but durum is also a kind of wheat. ‘Dentem’ I’m not sure about – is it some kind of enamel, something toothlike? In any case, it also gives a picture of the plough, the teeth it uses to break into the soil. And in the fourth line, we discover it’s digging not into ordinary soil after all, but into Virgil, presumably representative of classical literature, knowledge etc
Just to dip my toe into the second stanza – Hill might be referencing this poem, Heavensgate, by Christopher Okigbo, which is apparently the greatest Nigerian poem of the 20th century. I think this might be the case not only because of the mention of Idoto Mater (Okigbo’s poem begins, “Before you, Mother Idoto/ naked I stand” - Idoto being goddess of the oceans) but also because of the reference to Igboland, which is part of modern Nigeria. Exactly how this relates to Greek mythology ("the great-/Stallioned Argos") is unclear to me. Neither do I really understand what’s going on in this stanza nor how it relates to the first, if at all.
It’s the kind of poem I’d need an expert commentary to get anywhere with. There just aren’t the hours in the day to do research into every word in every line. While there are some great phrases and interesting wordplay, there are also several convoluted sentences with deliberately mangled syntax, but not with the distinct voice of, say, Berryman, where you can virtually hear the poet’s voice addressing you.
Anyone for the third stanza?