In an insightful essay for The Oxford Culture Review on 16th October, Frances Salter considers the lasting ethic and impact of Geoffrey Hill’s legacy. To read the full essay, please visit The Oxford Culture Review here.
His passing raises a question that recurs in his work: why should poetry, and poets, matter to society? And we can reverse this question. If the passing of a great writer leaves society poorer, can we pinpoint the type of contribution writers make?
This summer saw the death of Geoffrey Hill, often described as the greatest English poet of our time. Beyond the loss of an author whose work I personally enjoyed, I was saddened by the sense that, during a troubled time for the UK and Europe, we had lost an incomparably canny ethical voice. His passing raises a question that recurs in his work: why should poetry, and poets, matter to society? And we can reverse this question. If the passing of a great writer leaves society poorer, can we pinpoint the type of contribution writers make?
Poetry brings comfort, pleasure and a sense of human connection to many of its readers, and these qualities are not to be underestimated. But can it be true, as T. S. Eliot claimed in his wartime lecture ‘The Social Function of Poetry’, that poetry has value and impact on a whole people, regardless of whether or not they read it? If true — and I believe that it is — this sense of poetry’s social function is increasingly undervalued.
Hill was, I think, unique among contemporary writers in his insistence on the deep ethical importance of good writing: he argued that poetry is not entertainment, or self-expression, but a public service of the most crucial kind. In the face of diminishing state funding, and poetry being increasingly regarded as either a worthy but dull component of the educational syllabus, or primarily a form of self-therapy, Hill made an unequivocal case for a poetry that does not turn inward in self-exploration, but looks outward for an adequate voice to speak to and for the culture it resides in.
Hill made an unequivocal case for a poetry that does not turn inward in self-exploration, but looks outward for an adequate voice to speak to and for the culture it resides in.
But how can poets realistically achieve this? Hill provides two answers in his prose writing. First, poetry matters because it can speak for and to a nation. In his Alienated Majesty essays, Hill shows how Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson created new potentialities of speech for a new democratic nation. The US required, at the time, sufficiently challenging, creative voices to produce new modes of communication. Hill argues that ‘genius’ is therefore not simply an elitist Romantic concept, but one of the most democratic of attributes. The work of genius inevitably ‘returns to the essential man’ as great writing does not glorify individual writers so much as it creates and embodies the speech of a nation. Good poetry, he claims, performs this social function by speaking for and to the reader, creating an act of social intercourse: a quality Hill terms ‘bidding.’
It is of course possible to disagree with this concept of nationhood, which seems at best oversimplified; it is hard not to raise an eyebrow at Hill’s choice of three white men as examples of representative voices. While the idea of nationhood is one that has undergone, and no doubt will continue to undergo, much necessary critique, Hill does go some way to addressing the issue of representation in his resistance to the totalising tendencies of collective speech. The idea of collective speech as public service, though full of potential ethical pitfalls and imperfections in the way that it is realised, remains a concept worth exploring and, for Hill, an ideal worth aiming for.
One such pitfall is that poetry which attempts to speak for a nation could too easily become either grandiose or sinisterly nationalistic. In the second half of his answer, Hill claims that poetry is a means of enacting confession, which he sees as essential for a healthy society. This type of confession is collective, implicating the author in the errors of the people, thereby avoiding the hubristic pitfalls of attempts at collective speech. Through the very act of writing, which is a struggle to shape and control language, the author is admitting to the slippery nature of language, as well as its users’ inevitable failure to contain it.
Difficult writing is the best safeguard for democracy because it challenges us to think critically, becoming more reflective and discerning as a result, not least about our own collective failings.
Writing is therefore a contribution to what Hill terms ‘the confessing state’: a society committed to ideas of penitence and forgiveness, that encourages and admires collective admittance of error as part of a process of bettering the community. Difficult writing, he claims, is the best safeguard for democracy because it challenges us to think critically, becoming more reflective and discerning as a result, not least about our own collective failings.
All too often, this is not present in contemporary literature, according to Hill. He writes:
If the socio-political ‘scene’ in recent years has been characterised by an unsuspecting allegiance to ‘slogans [and] sages, by the worship of charisma, instant wizardry, and all that is ‘technically sweet’, we may ask to what extent literary aesthetics have colluded with such sentimentality and cynicism.
He argues that difficult poetry is an essential counter to ‘unsuspecting allegiance’: vital training for a public mind capable of seeing through meaningless political jargon. Though cliché appears to be accessible, and therefore more democratic, it is actually patronising and dangerous, as a society incapable of accessing meaning behind the language used in public discourse is profoundly disempowered. By contrast, difficult poetry, even if it is not understood – or even read – by many, it will through its existence and comprehension by some have played a part in resisting the simplification of public discourse. In his later work, Hill’s own use of obscure vocabulary, political satire and intensely unstable polyvocality are all intentional sources of such difficulty.
In his ethical outlook, and in the quality of his writing, Hill’s poetry is therefore one of the fullest responses I have seen in contemporary literature to the question of, ‘Why does poetry matter?’
In his ethical outlook, and in the quality of his writing, Hill’s poetry is therefore one of the fullest responses I have seen in contemporary literature to the question of, ‘Why does poetry matter?’ Poetry matters because it can be difficult. It involves a conscious grappling with language, for reader and writer, which makes us wiser in how we approach the language of private and public discourse. It matters because it can speak in a way that not only reflects the language of a people, but helps to create it, as seen in the work of writers from the newly democratised USA. And it matters because, if it is the kind of poetry that is committed to collective confession, it is a contribution to a society that recognises the imperfection of human beings whilst minimising the harm this imperfection causes.
A poetry which is able to perform these functions should, in Auden’s words, ‘still persuade us to rejoice’: poetry matters because it excites us with a fresh understanding of the complexity and beauty of the world.
Excerpt reproduced by kind permission of the author and The Oxford Culture Review.