Monday, November 30, 2009

Discuss 18

'In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings.'

Geoffrey Hill


  1. Oh yeah, Hill: man of the poeple.

    Difficulty in itself isn't a virtue. Being any good, having something to say are virtues. Something can be difficult and good (Ulysses) or difficult and a load of bollocks (Finnegan's Wake) or easy and good (Larkin) or easy and bad (Hallmark birthday cards).

  2. It depends on what you mean by 'difficult'. If you mean 'inpenetrable by dint of its range of personal allusion and private meaning to which you cannot possibly be privvy and for which I refuse to offer footnotes or explication', then no.

  3. Film is also a good medium to see this in action.

    And I can see what he means about 'democratic' because an intelligent linking allows the viewer to feel he/she is a co-creator in what is happening.

  4. Democracy and intelligent human beings don't always share the same space, viz. Switzerland's banning minarets by popular vote.

  5. Yes, I suppose one can have democracy in stupidity. But what is the point of having a poem that can only be understood by standing and looking at the third lintel from the left at a temple in Karnak while squinting an eye at the morning Sun. And then, having said that, Horace is reason enough to learn Latin.

  6. I'm too stupid for this blog.

  7. I don't know this quote but it sounds like an attempt to say that art is never elitist. I'm really not sure that is true. Elitism is hardly flavour of the month at the moment, but art which is only going to be understood by a small number of highly educated people, probably of a similar background, sounds elitist to me. Elitist has become such a pejorative term that it is almost impossible to talk rationally about it.

    However, I suppose genius or near-genius trumps all. The greatest artists aren't difficult or easy, elitist or democratic, or anything else. They defy categories. They just are. In trying to put himself into a little box marked "Hard - First Class Men Only", if that is what is going on in this quotation, Hill has done himself a disservice.

  8. I prefer Auden's definition of a democratic poetry, from his defence of Yeats.

    'But there is one field in which the poet is a man of action, the field of language, and it is precisely in this that the greatness of the deceased is most obviously shown. However false or undemocratic his ideas, his diction shows a continuous evolution towards what one might call the true democratic style. The social virtues of a real democracy are brotherhood and intelligence, and the parallel linguistic virtues are strength and clarity, virtues which appear ever more clearly through successive volumes by the deceased.' (Partisan Review, Spring 1939)

    I suppose it's why I have a huge gaping hole where I should have an interest in modern verse. There's so much of it that I really don't understand, though I try desperately hard to enter into it. So, for example, I'm unsure if I like Hill's work. Moments take my breath away, but I can admit the same too of Burgess writing as Enderby, which we're meant to take as a joke and yet you sense there might be something there because, after all, this is Burgess who knew how to write a well-rounded line even if it made no sense.

    But is a linguistic gift the same as poetry? Or, to put it another way: is difficulty the same as complexity? I'm taken into a world of complexity when I read Donne's Holy Sonnets. It's akin to reading Beckett. We're lured into the difficulty of reading 'Endgame' but only when we acknowledge it as a deliberate act of non-interpretability that we can appreciate its complexity. Perhaps I'm not explaining this well enough but, with Hill, it feels like I'm just struggling with the difficulty. Should I just read Hill the same way I might read Beckett: acknowledging the gaps in my understanding but enjoying it for the glimpses of meaning and humour? Is this where his complexity comes from?

    Where I have doubts about modern poetry is when a writer argues that the complexity of the world should be represented by difficulty alone. It almost feels like going back to a previous discussion about science vs the soul where science would be the realm of the complex, the soul that of the difficult. Is my problem that I try to read Hill scientifically, seeking answers, when it is actually closer to a religious meditation which has less to do with the answers than it has to do with the process?

    Sorry for the long comment.

  9. that statement appears so far up itself it's wearing itself as a wig.

    difficulty in the writing of it or in the understanding? of course, the audience will only get the honour if they get the poem.

  10. There's always room in the world for artists whose determined integrity makes them, shall we say, esoteric.

    But when a whole art form becomes - by its conventions and the circle-jerk tyranny of the 'in crowd' - boring or baffling or irritating or alienating for nearly everyone, including intelligent arty people who would like to like it but lack the requisite ability to bullshit and pretend, then the art form is impotent, a failure. This has obviously happened with modern opera and it has also happened, to a large extent, to poetry, which is why the only living poet people regularly quote in everyday life Morrissey.

  11. It strikes me that, although complexity is a necessary pre-requisite to being human, it does not follow that the more complex the more human. Difficulty can certainly make poetry look more significant; one of our characteristics is to look for pattern & meaning in anything we encounter, so if a noteable poet were to publish a string of unrelated gibberish we would tend to believe we were missing something.
    I think I said on the last poetry bit that I suspect poetry is closer to music than prose, as it affects the resonances & wave patterns going on in our brain.

    Bowie did very well out of his cut-ups (I still like the Bewlay Brothers though).

  12. Brit, that (in a nutshell) is the whole problem. The same has happened in modern art where bad (and non-existent) talent hides behind the supposed complexity of 'meaning'. The further we move away from craft (a good word but debased by the term 'arts & crafts') the more we give opportunities to these charlatans.

    Perhaps I'm naive and too old fashioned but I findit hard to have any interest in poets who moved away from meter and form. I think the best modern writers succeed when they give themselves limitations. It's the same in cinema. Innovative filmmakers restricted by genre paradoxically thrive and keep the art alive. I saw 'District 9' just last night, which moved between half a dozen generic concentions: science fiction, mock documentary, horror, satire, anti-apartheid movies. I thought it succeeded because of those limitations, not in spite of them. It's when we have no rules, models, and tradition that we're unable to judge and we're mocked for even attempting to do so.

  13. I just read a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Franz Wright's new book of poems: Via simplicity, a poet attains the universal

    The title of the review indicates simplicity. But that is not necessarily nor altogether the only way to achieve this universal. Here is a quote from the article:

    Wright says that "poetry endures when it possesses passionate and primally sincere clarity in the service of articulating universal human concerns." Only the greatest poets have enough confidence to avoid extrapolating and gesticulating when the thought provoked by the image will do.

    It's not in the difficulty or the simplicity, but it could be in either. Many poets do both, and in the same poem. I think of Billy Collins, but this aspect is also taken up by Emily Dickinson, such as here:


    Because I could not stop for Death--
    He kindly stopped for me--
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove--He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor and my leisure too,
    For His Civility--

    We passed the School, where Children strove
    At Recess--in the Ring--
    We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain--
    We passed the Setting Sun--

    Or rather--He passed Us--
    The Dews drew quivering and chill--
    For only Gossamer, my Gown--
    My Tippet--only Tulle--

    We paused before a House that seemed
    A Swelling of the Ground--
    The Roof was scarcely visible--
    The Cornice--in the Ground--

    Since then--’tis Centuries--and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
    Were toward Eternity--


    This isn't the only way to write a poem, but it can be illustrative of what it seems both Hill and Wright are getting at. The poem is not elitist, but is has a "difficult" center that challenges the reader, even asks for a return read. At the same time, "it possesses passionate and primally sincere clarity in the service of articulating universal human concerns." Part of the democracy of the poem, is seen in how it has lasted all these years, that is has endured.

  14. For me, the most wonderful piss-take of (modern) poetry has to be 'The Poetry Society' an episode from Hancock's Half Hour. The writers Galton and Simpson capture the pretentiousness and snobbery so beautifully. I can 'hear' Warren Mitchell's character,Gregory, the Society's leader, speaking Geoffrey Hill's sentence , which would fit seamlessly into the script, and the audience roaring with laughter at the utter condescension of it all.

  15. In an article on Ben Jonson in Slate called Always With the Complaining!, Robert Pinsky talks about context:

    In his angry denunciations of the stupid audiences, ignorant critics, dumb fads, inept rivals, and general decay of poetry and taste in his time, Jonson sometimes hurled Classical allusions. Most of such references in his 1630s poem "An Ode to Himself," for instance, can be figured out from the context; like Shakespeare, Jonson knows how to set up context so that his audience can feel learnèd: The Aonian springs and Thespia must have to do with art. Clarius has a harp, so he must have to do with being lyrical. On the other hand, we probably need to know that Japhet was the father of Prometheus to understand Jonson's account of "Japhet's line" stealing new fire from "Sol's chariot."

  16. What we need (in south european countries) is less public expenses and les burocreacy

  17. Well, I don't know what Les Bureaucracy thinks but speaking as a regular visitor to this blog, the link to porn prostitute service makes a nice change from the pizza ads.

  18. les burocreacy? Is that something to do with fem-on-femdom? Or have I just invented a whole new erotica sub-genre?