A reader writes:
I was really bothered by certain bits of the article you linked to. We should not expect to understand a poem at a single sitting, but I have read simple haiku that any child could decipher that meet that same standard. Done right, they can take years to appreciate, yet are perfectly accessible. The difference between that and Geoffrey Hill’s poetry is the intended audience. He writes to an elite audience. Not everyone can afford an elite education, and by definition, exactly half of us are someone’s idea of dim-witted. But most everyone is capable of grasping the truth on an emotional level, if only the poets would deign to teach us as we are.
Hill, as poet, seems specifically interested in educating the fewest possible people, those who already are at the top of the entitled heap. It is his right to choose to not cast his pearls before swine. But his claim that he does so in loyal and long-suffering service to the ideals of democracy is one to which I call bullshit.
Another had a similar reaction:
From the ranking of poets, Lord, spare me.
I’m glad that Geoffrey Hill’s work resonated so deeply with Peter Popham; but how many other readers are going to meet this ‘difficult’ poet in his thicket of words in quite the same way. How many others will have Popham’s level of education, an intense wartime experience, and the advantage of having heard the poet himself during his impressionable youth?
Few enough people read poetry these days, and more won’t start reading it if they start with Hill. Why not start beginners off with someone like A. E. Stallings, who is erudite but has the elusive common touch, or John Whitworth, who is verbally adroit and just plain funny?
But the part of the article that really saddened me was Popham’s dismissal of Larkin, and his suggestion that tyrants want poets to embrace ‘simplification’. Surely, the opposite is true; why should they care about Hill, since no one reads him? It is the poet who can by his or her art reach everyone a tyrant should fear.
Should we discard from Homer to Houseman because we understand what they say, or assume that ‘accessible’ poems like Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ will not have its way with us over time, just like – or maybe more likely than – more ‘difficult’ work?
The preface to a recent translation of Greek Poet Kiki Dimoula‘s work addresses the issue of opacity in poetry. Dimoula seems to think that the question isn’t whether poetry should be opaque, but, rather, whether it can be poetry at all without being opaque. She offers a parable to illustrate:
Once, on the road to Alexandroupolis [in Thrace], long before I reached the city, I saw storks’ nests, high up, at the tops of a line of telegraph poles. Protruding from the poles, the bases of the nests were fluffy and shiny, like the fancy frills that decorate cradles, ready to welcome newborns. In the middle of each nest stood a stork, erect, immobile, on one leg, as if in this ascetic position, in this ciphered balance, it was protecting secrecy’s sacred hatchling. Already protected from above by the celestial cradle net. Poetry is like a nest to hide in. It is built on a pointed height so as to be inaccessible to the rapacious curiosity of anyone who wants to see too clearly what’s being hatched inside it. The most efficient way to safeguard concealment is by subtraction. Art is ever-vigilant, elliptical, balancing on one leg. When we write, we subtract.” (xv; emphasis added)
I like this image a lot. Though I’d probably add one clarification from my own point of view: the often inaccessible nature of poetry (and art more generally) applies as much to the author as to the audience. Meaning is concealed. Full stop. This ought not close off the conversation about the “meaning” of the text but, rather, allow us to swim in the capacious possibility of what is being hatched just out of our reach.
Update from a reader:
The whole point seemed to me to suggest that Geoffrey Hill isn’t as difficult as you think. The quotes pulled from his poems didn’t seem particularly hard to understand, and the article is not suggesting that haikus should be indecipherable, or that we should throw out all simpler poetry, as your sputtering readers seem to suggest it does. Peter Popham is merely pointing out that the tar of ‘difficult’ poetry often unfairly suggests nasty politics as well, and that isn’t the case for Hill.
And frankly, the way a lot of his poetry is difficult is not found in allusions that can only be understood by the super educated few, but in the odd meters and unexpectedly dense language. It’s poetry that works well with unpacking, but, as Popham points out, it also is just expressive of a certain time in England, one that is also drawn on for the super elitist Game of Thrones. Oh. wait. no, we are all expected to be able to understand Game of Thrones, even if we don’t happen to understand how it intersects with medieval history.
Maybe your readers, before they cry foul about how elitist Hill’s poetry is, could try reading some of it first? Oh, and it’s that other great difficult and elitist poet, T.S. Eliot, who says, ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ Maybe the problem is not in the poetry, but in what we expect it to do?