Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Courtesy of Shiraz: Geoffrey Hill's Clavics - 1

It’s 10pm, my wife is out being an actress, my daughter is asleep. I have settled down with my laptop, a glass of Shiraz – an inordinately large glass – and a review copy of Geoffrey Hill’s Clavics, posted to me by Enitharmon Press. The collection is described in the dust jacket as “an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, the Royalist musician, killed at the Battle of Chester.” So we’re in the 17th century during the ill-fated reign of Charles I. It isn’t the first time I’ve picked up Clavics, which consists of 32 page-long poems, each in two fetchingly-shaped sections. I’ve read poems at random off and on for some time now. I recognise that certain names, phrases, and ideas slip from one poem to another and several long, coherent, note-taking reads are no doubt necessary to review it properly, but I am not going to review it properly. I am simply going to record a few impressions and I’m going to begin with the first poem. In future posts, I plan to say more. I am intrigued, for instance, by the relationship between the two sections of each poem which sometimes seems tenuous, and this is a question which (strangely?) no previous reviewers have addressed. How can they possibly not address that?! One good thing – in the course of writing this paragraph, the Shiraz, pretty rough at first, now tastes much smoother. This has ridiculous metaphorical possibilities when it comes to discussing a Hill collection, but I will refrain.

All this talk of Shiraz etc will no doubt have got rid of the Hill acolytes who swoon theatrically at every syllable he writes. Not serious enough, y’see. There are people who just can’t fathom why readers find Hill “difficult”. They know it all, are vastly more intelligent than ...well... anyone who suggests that there might be a few complexities to overcome when reading Hill. It is reassuring when they use Hill to assert their intellectual superiority without (of course) offering us the slightest proof of their unique understanding. I always enjoy that. Hill knows very well that he is difficult and thrives on the fact. Anyway, the Shiraz is going down nicely and I feel like raising a toast to Astraea, goddess of justice for whom this world was unendurable. Perhaps that owl with the mouse in its mouth, which adorns the cover of Clavics, was one reason why Zeus placed her within a constellation in the night sky. Cheers, Astraea, wherever in Virgo you are (according to that reliable source, Wikipedia, there is also a ‘La Vida es Sueno’ reference, as one of the characters in that play takes on the name ‘Astraea’ when in court. ‘La Vida Es Sueno’ features heavily in Hill’s ‘The Orchard of Syon’). We really need you down here, by the way, Astraea. And Hill also knows it:

Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise
Numerology also makes much sense,
O Astraea!
Indeed. This is how poem 1 begins, so we’re in the realm of metaphysical digging. The Cabbalah is a way of understanding everything, more or less, although it has no agreed canon and can incorporate internal contradictions with aplomb, which is extremely handy for everyone. Hill adds to the mishmash and invokes the goddess who is watching from her starry haven. I read the invocation as angry, sarcastic. As such, I’m taking a rather different view of this poem to Lachlan Mackinnon in his now infamous “sheerest twaddle” review, where Astraea represents Elizabeth I. Hill is trying his best to get to the truth, to the centre of things, but he is locked into his tradition (as we all are, whether we recognise it or not), and moving things on from it is no easy task. He is unhappy with Astraea’s chilled distance and calls her a “bitch” in his typical politically-correct way. She may have been physically exalted but, in Hill’s eyes, she has returned “rich/ To the low threshold of contemplation”, which at least has given Hill the opportunity to prove himself, as ever, the undisputed master of spitting irony (even rhyming ‘bitch’, ‘ditch’ and ‘rich’ is supremely ironic). I should mention at this point that the poems all rhyme and are technically demanding, to put it mildly – plenty of lines with two (or sometimes one) accented beats. Try the form and see how far you get! Anyway, seeing as Astraea isn’t playing her full part, we’re left with the poet/artist/composer (I presume) as:
Her servile master subsisting on scraps
Keeping station
As one pursuing ethics perhaps.

Astraea seems to function as a pitiless form of Muse here, an object of devotion who nevertheless feeds the artist only on scraps. It is a particularly religious feeling, a severe Kierkegaardian sense of the utterly transcendent God who can barely be approached, yet must be obeyed humbly by e.g. the pursuit of ethics. Time to fill up my glass, although I note there is not enough left in the bottle to fill it up more than half.

The second section of the poem riffs on the writing process, partly through the metaphor of musical notation. It can be done with “care” (like prayer) or with “flair” (which I suspect is not so good). He makes reference to musical stress marks, also surely a mischievous allusion to the curious stress marks which adorn some of his poems in other books. If these are simply flair, mere affect:
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

No, don’t do that! I quite like Poem 1 and it’s obviously been written with a great deal of care (and flair too, I think, and just as well). Some readers will be saying, “But that’s quite an ‘easy’ poem, relatively speaking.” And I agree. It is highly compressed writing, a more radical compression than most poets would employ and this, combined with the tight rhyme and accentual scheme, necessitate a degree of odd phrasing and strange syntax, which make certain sections of the poem hard to make sense of – but not impossible. Later poems do present more formidable challenges.

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