Saturday, 27 September 2008
Hill and Williams
I've just had the good luck and privilege to attend the opening of the current Geoffrey Hill and his Contexts conference at Keble College, Oxford. The first session was a conversation between Rowan Williams and Hill himself, and this was an opportunity to hear two shockingly good intellects in dialogue and mutual accord.
I've just finished an article on Rowan Williams' 'CELTIA' poetry, so the opportunity to see the man in the flesh was delightful. He has an incredibly deep and resonant voice (as does Hill) and they both speak most beautifully, in strong, lapidary sentences. I came out of the session with the feeling that my own thought had been clarified and deepened simply by listening to the two of them speak.
Both articulated positions and observations about poetry and the world which I had but dimly adumbrated to myself. (One of the marks of a really good teacher, I feel, is the ability to intuit a student's half-formed thoughts, to articulate them clearly and resonantly, to enlarge them, and then to give them back to the student, as theirs by right.) Both were humorous. Williams in particular mocked himself for coming up with an opaque phrase like 'the sentimentality of apophaticism', which he clarified by saying that the assertion in the woollier kind of poetry that some things are inarticulable tends too easily to be a trite cop-out. It is the purpose of poetry to say what cannot be said.
The proceedings may well be published in due course, I am assured, so I don't wish to reproduce too much of what was said here. Nevertheless, some of the insights made me nod in vigorous agreement and pleasure at hearing the very difficult and elusive so well phrased. Hill argued that a lot of contemporary poetry consists merely of pensées (putting his finger squarely on why I dislike Larkin), and that poetry is an annunciation or epiphany, 'not the filtering of one's emotions or opinions into a mellifluous medium'. Difficulty, Hill argued, is a sign of the poet's respect for the reader; he then quoted himself, telling us that 'a banal obviousness is what tyrants desire'. Williams fiercely made the the case that the idea that 'Difficulty = Elitism' is one of our contemporary cultural curses. (I silently cheered.) Hill described himself as a 'hierarchical democrat', saying that this hierachical democracy is also not the same as elitism: a subtle point, with the exciting frisson of the thought-crime about it.
A poet, both men maintained, it one who searches for and makes apparent the 'differentiated depths of things', and both were strong on the importance of poetic technique and formalism. 'Technique' (said Williams) 'is a metaphysical instrument that makes its own discoveries'. He referred to the ferociously complex demands of Welsh strict-metre poetry, in which the very difficulty of the rhymes and consonant-correspondences and vowel-assonance prompts the poet to suppress the unconscious inhibitions upon their imagination. This is precisely what I had meant when I wrote of Dafydd ap Gwilym:
There is constantly a sense of absolute wonder at the multiplicity of the world, and behind that, I sense, a spiritual insight into the profound interconnections and likenesses between things. The very nature of cynghanedd reflects this: like a kind of Welsh gematria, the shifting of vowels within matrices of consonants inexhaustibly generates new and startling metaphors which betoken the providence of God at work within his Creation.
But I could never have expressed the thought so well as Hill and Williams. Hill drew our attention to a superb definition of poetry by John Berryman, which he told us that he takes as a personal touchstone. Berryman wrote that 'a poem adds to the stock of available reality'. This, Hill argued, is key - when we read a true, successful poem, our very self and our universe rearranges itself slightly, enlarged. (I was reminded of the critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry's dictum that 'How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.') Too many poems become merely things among other things, objects within the universe rather than things which expand it. Such poems, Hill, only 'add to the stock of available actuality', 'the pile-up plethora of things'.
It was a sober and splendid occasion: the two poets and thinkers together fashioned an abrupt epiphany of their own, a strong palladium against the commodity culture and - the phrase is Hill's - its professionally-opinionated relevance-mongers.