Sunday, June 05, 2011

Lachlan Mackinnon on Geoffrey Hill's Clavics

There’s been a fair bit of talk concerning Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics in The Independent. Obviously, people disagree over whether his dismissal of the work is justified or not but discussions have focused more on the nature of reviewing itself.

It is true that most broadsheet critical reviews over the past year or two have seemed, well, rather uncritical. Uncritical to the extent that I have wondered what has been going on. This review is the complete opposite of that anodyne tendency, but I disagree with those who suggest it represents a much-needed kick against one of the big establishment names. Hill is absolutely not establishment. He belongs to no school except his own and has pretty much nothing in common with most of the big names in British poetry at the moment.

Nor do I really accept the idea that, just because someone is a big name, they deserve to be taken down a peg or two and given a good trashing every so often. That’s only true if they write a bad book but, sometimes, I get the impression that disgruntled reviewers make a decision to write a negative review before they’ve read a word of the book at hand – either due to peer rivalry/enmity or because they want to draw attention to themselves.

I’m not suggesting that’s true in the case of Mackinnon on Clavics, incidentally. I think it’s a fair review in that he makes his points and backs them up with evidence from the text, and I doubt there’s any underlying personal agenda. There is of course an agenda in the battle for Hill’s reputation. Hill has a massive Collected Poems coming out in the next year or two. It’s what he will be judged on – the early stuff nearly everyone (however grudgingly) agrees is significant and perhaps great, and the later stuff which has so divided critics and readers. Many believe Hill to be the greatest living poet. Others, even those who loved his earlier work, have been driven to distraction by the obscurity (note, I don’t use the words ‘difficulty’ or ‘density’ which could also apply to his earlier work) of the later material. There’s little middle ground in this debate. Hill’s later work is either “the sheerest twaddle” (Mackinnon) or further evidence that he is the “greatest living English poet” (Michael Dirda). In this connection, I’m intrigued by Liam Guilar’s question:

...Can a poet reach a point of eminence where what they write is no longer important because there are enough people ready to find value in whatever they write?

I think the second half of that sentence rings true in many cases, but I haven’t yet read Clavics to know whether the whole question ought to be asked of Hill’s admirers.

I doubt the review marks any real change in the way the broadsheets deal with poetry. They tend to review well known names from the major trade presses and use other well known names from the same major trade presses (often good friends of the writers under review, which is ridiculous!) to write the reviews. The way reviews are conducted in those venues certainly helps with the marketing of books more than the advance of genuine and rigorous critical discourse in this country, and it disappoints me (at times, it enrages me) that reviews have become an arm of the big publishing houses' publicity machines rather than independent evaluations.

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