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.
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. 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.
This is, of course, a strikingly high-modernist attitude — a stance which Hill essentially defends. For example, Hill complains that during the Second World War, T. S. Eliot allowed his plays to be heavily edited and adapted for popular performance, and his poetry to become too closely related to the language of popular public and political discourse, especially that of the wireless, which ‘relish[ed] recharging the cliché for immediate purpose’. This too-easy engagement with language caused Eliot to be culpable, Hill writes, of both patronising ‘the People’, and of abandoning the struggle with fallen language which is essential to the confessional function of poetry. Hill’s almost impenetrably difficult late style is therefore partially a response to the late style of Eliot: a rejection of the popular accusation that the high-modernist attitude is elitist.
It is therefore unsurprising that Hill is troubled by poetry that, as he sees it, serves no social purpose but to express the self. He sees the lyric ‘I’ voice as particularly prone towards introversion, increasingly so over the last century, and it is for this reason that Hill frequently — though by no means exclusively — uses the lyric ‘we’ in his later work. Speaking as a ‘we’ is not without ethical problems of its own. For example, speaking collectively can be totalising, by disallowing dissent in an uncomfortable parallel with totalitarian regimes. Hill is aware of the disturbing nature of states which force everyone to, as it were, speak as ‘we.’ He acknowledges that there is a sense of the term ‘confessing state’ which involves the malicious extortion of confession from individuals by the state, resulting in the marginalising of minority groups, such as Hitler’s Germany. Writers are particularly susceptible to making totalising judgements. Hill considers Pound’s 1945 US trial for his anti-Semitic wartime broadcasts, criticising objections to Pound’s imprisonment based on his status as a great literary figure. Clearly, the act of writing can encourage a self-aggrandising tendency towards absolute judgement.
It is with these caveats in mind that Hill attempts, in his late poetry especially, to create an appropriate lyric ‘we.’ Paradoxically, this is a ‘we’ voice comprised of dissenters, in order to avoid the totalising attitude exemplified by Pound. In The Daybooks, for example, Hill rewrites Boris Pasternak’s memorial poems for Alexander Blok: these are poems about writers who opposed Stalinism and Russian communism respectively, and hence are examples of ‘I’ voices resisting a state which demands a ‘we.’ Through this act of ventriloquy, Hill is speaking collectively, as both his own lyric speaker and as Pasternak, invoking Blok: a kind of ‘we’ that is comprised of dissenting ‘I’s.
Hill frequently uses the ‘we’ voice confessionally, in the sense of collective rather than problematically individualised confession: his lyric speaker criticises society’s error while implicating itself in it. This involves both generalised and specific admissions of error. The ‘we’ voice in The Daybooks often admits to its fallen nature, such as in the line ‘We’re broken, though, to stew and sink as waste’, echoing the liturgical confession of The Book of Common Prayer (‘We have erred […] And there is no health in us.’) Though some moments of confession are generalised, others locate the lyric voice in a particular time and place, sometimes confessing to specific acts. For example, in poem forty-four of Al Tempo de Treumoti the ‘we’ refers to Germany, Italy, France and Britain, who signed the Munich Agreement of 1938; the speaker recalls how ‘we surrendered Prague.’ The agreement is now widely regarded as a regrettable act of appeasement, and so Hill’s lyric speaker addresses a particular failing of Western Europe with post-war hindsight.
In February 1939, WH Auden meditated on what the loss of WB Yeats meant for an increasingly troubled Europe. His famous elegy recalls how:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
Though Hill would surely bristle at the notion that his poetry causes anyone to ‘rejoice’, particularly in the nationalistic manner of Yeats, the kind of ethical poetry he proposes certainly seems a response to the intellectual disgrace and pitilessness Auden describes. Though Auden is particularly speaking of pre-war Europe, these are the same charges which Hill’s poetry levies against Western democracies today. Even if it does not have the wide readership outside of academic circles, his ‘unconstraining voice’, with its commitment to difficult and meaningful language, is a sore loss in a time when the language of public discourse is all too often dominated by the meaningless jargon of political spin.
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. Finally, I would suggest that a poetry which is able to perform these functions should, as Auden observes, cause us to ‘rejoice’: poetry matters because it excites us with a fresh understanding of the complexity and beauty of the world.
Frances Salter recently completed her M.St. English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, with a thesis on the effect of theology on conceptions of language in Hill’s late poetry. She is now working on a novel while preparing for further study of theology in modern poetry.