This post is written from Paris on November 13, one year after the brutal killing and wounding of (mainly) young (mainly) French people sitting at cafés, watching a sporting event, and going to a concert. A number of them are still in the hospital receiving treatment for their wounds. We all know what terrorism is, and the sad fact that it plays on ignorance and destroys innocent people. Brainwashing is usually required to get people to kill other people and to blow themselves up.
As we begin to cope with the fact that an alt-right candidate is now president elect of a leading democracy, and brace for further hate-crimes (these first days of no response from Donald Trump about incidents of school bullying and unleashed racist slurs do not reassure!), those who read Geoffrey Hill's poetry may feel that they have been prepared, somehow, to resist. For many Americans, that is the only course of viable action. Shocking was the way distorted language colored the campaign, and most likely distortions of language will only get worse.
The sermon Rowan Williams gave at Emmanuel College for the funeral of Sir Geoffrey Hill actually addressed the role of poetry and language.
It is true that poetry is not ‘about’ passive endurance; just as true that it is not ‘about’ inspiring readers to political action, even political violence.
Poetry is a real good, and not the only one. It is an aspect of the hunger for justice. It must do justice in its wording and do what it can to carry stresses that are not only its business. And, as he suggests almost casually, one of the most significant ways in which poetry does this is by memorialising the dead. Geoffrey’s readers will recognise at once the centrality of this to his own practice: if poetry cannot be either propagandist or exquisite, one thing it is singularly equipped for is doing justice to the past of words and speakers, giving voice in a multitude of ways to that always-present cloud of witness, about whose fate in one sense we can do nothing, yet whose life and voice is in some way in our hands.
Poetry, Hill's poetry (and that of Auden, MacNeice, Pound, Yeats, Sitwell, Hernández, Celan...) may be the language the United States needs most now. And plenty of satire will also be needed. As Hill said in his Paris Review interview (2000), "genuinely difficult art is truly democratic." It counters propaganda's binary simplifications.
I would venture to say that Sir Geoffrey might have been singing along to this melody.Links
Broken Hierarchies, published by Oxford University Press.
Rowan Williams, "Sir Geoffrey Hill," PN Review 43:2 (2016).
"Geoffrey Hill, the Art of Poetry #80," Paris Review 154 (Spring 2000).