Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mr. Bojangles, dance!

Wouldn’t it be great if authors would write a review of their own works that took up the leading points, highlighting the original accomplishment, and guiding the confused reader a bit into the work itself? Readers of modernist texts in particular might find this kind of exercise helpful. Charles Péguy did just that, under a pseudonym, for his late long poem Eve. There were several reasons for this. Speakers of French will notice that it is a language that contains the phrase "Moi, je…." But rather than being taken up with himself, Péguy was anticipating the kind of reception his work was likely to get, and wanted to avoid misinterpretation. He must have been worried about being overly admired by the very people he found himself more inclined to be writing against. One hundred years ago, in 1913, Péguy was writing with a driven urgency.

Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies arrived in my mailbox yesterday. I think the notion of driven urgency might also do well to describe it. It is Hill’s own "boutique des cahiers" of sorts, containing sixty years of poetic composition. In the revised, much longer  "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres" I read: 

Things are desperate here as I believe
you know, Lady. The poor in heart possess
three fewer skins; subsist on swallowed glass;
Commedia constrained to no reprieve.  (165)

Seasoned and un-seasoned readers of Sir Geoffrey Hill will find much to be excited about in the word-play and resonance in this volume, especially in the most recent poems. For the nursery-rhyme crowd or those that enjoy Stevie Smith:

Mind drift. Mend craft. Deemed folly. Shamed. Daft.   (606)

Tony Harrison fans may be intrigued: 

You should all fuck less
and pray more. Climate 
is now dynamite. (618)

For those who prefer Colin Firth, there is:

The old King’s speech favoured our new wireless— (634)

For capitalism-bashers:

Out-of-sync Dollarton on the north shore. (639)

For Benjamin Britten fans:

Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes (641)

For those who favor iambic pentameter combined with social justice (see the context):

Still I would check my name if I were you. (650)

Then there’s a bit of Auden-bashing (but I think in jest):

Very strange man, Auden, very strange man. (659)

Oh, and by the way, with the 100-year anniversary of the great massacre of World War I on the horizon, those looking for allusions to that war will not be disappointed. This is true especially in several poems published here for the first time. To some extent the volume commemorates the poet’s luck at having a father—at having the luck of being fathered, and those circumstances that saved the poet’s father from the Somme.

Singing its beatitudes is perhaps a rather pitiful attempt at a first encounter with the book, and (so far) I’ve only given it about three hours. But then, reviewers and mere bloggers can be comforted from the outset as to the company they keep, when one reads: "Small steadfast throng / go get it wrong"(608). Of course it will take a bit more time to "come 'round right" as in the Shaker Song, but this I have already understood: If Péguy was a "footslogger of genius" (144), Hill is the "jumping boy"(487) that never stopped tap dancing. "He talked of life," as Jerry Jeff Walker sang in 1968. But these words should be heard with the voice of Nina Simone: 

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.