Woolfson College is running a War and Civilisation lecture series, based on the interesting proposition that:
as one century of wars seems all too likely to bleed into another, we have become accustomed to think of warfare simply as the destroyer of civilization, the ultimate evil. This understandable view evades the extent to which warfare over the centuries has contributed to civilizations it has subsequently damaged or destroyed.
On Thursday the lecturer was Geoffrey Hill, speaking on the subject of War and Poetry.
Hill, with his great bald dome and patriarchal whiskers, is an imposing presence, a man of substance. His words have weight.
He pretended at first to be daunted by his theme (‘a title to reduce a lecturer to paralysis’) and self-mockingly warned his audience ‘your worse fears will be realised’ before settling to a complex and sometimes elliptical argument about the nature of poetry.
He began by considering how it was through shell-shock that Robert Graves came to an understanding of poetry as necessarily involving stress and ambiguity, and presupposing conflict within the poet’s mind. The Freudian psychiatrist Rivers helped Graves, but psychoanalysis could have led him into a creative cul-de-sac. Analysis can suggest a poem’s outline, but poems are made of words. Throughout the lecture he came back to this essential, quoting with approval a phrase from Marshall McLuhan about ‘the intractable materiality of words’. As an example, he cited Yeats’s A Second Coming:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The word ‘slouches’ is one that could not be paraphrased. Similarly, Graves’s ‘A Portent’ is ‘a poem that moves us simply by being itself’:
If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
He compared lines like these with the design of a modern tank, which can absorb an attack on itself, and become stronger in the process.
Poems are more than the sentiments expressed in them, and for this reason he is clearly suspicious of poems that are conveyors of received opinion. He is unsure about the conventional praise given to Wilfred Owen – ‘Pity’ releases ‘an atmosphere in which it is recommended that one breathes’. In a memorable sentence, he declared: ‘The poetry had better not be in the pity – or it will not survive.’
Philosophically, he said, Owen is perfect (and he compared him to Wordsworth), but sometimes the verse shows artfulness:
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
These, claimed Hill, are ‘an atrocious couple of lines’, because decorative. ‘The last thing he needed was alliteration’.
In contrast to Owen he cites Rosenberg as even closer to Wordsworth, and producing (in ‘Moses’) lines of such density that they may sometimes be baffling, but in which ‘the utterance is uncompromisingly itself.’ He finds much the same quality in David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’
The lecture developed into a discussion of how the poetry that emerged from the Great War leads us to a sense of the type of poetry that is needed in troubled times, such as our own age of ‘anarchic plutocracy’, when ‘the smoke drifts northward from ruined Athens and mingles with the smoke drifting southward from ruined Iceland.’ Hill expressed scorn for ‘safe’ poets (who ‘strangle the unsafe’) and (with qualifications) praised Auden’s ‘The Orators’, and Wyndham Lewis’s ‘One-Way Song’. He bemoaned Eliot’s failure to complete ‘Coriolan’.
Of course, the contemporary poetry that most nearly meets Hill’s criteria is his own, whose words definitely have that intractable materiality that he praises, (and though sometimes they can be baffling, always ring uncompromisingly true).
This brief account can’t, of course, do anything like justice to the richness of Hill’s argument. It was a superb lecture. He is currently up for election in Oxford as Professor of Poetry. The graduates would be mugs if they chose anyone else.