Tuesday, September 01, 2009

brevity & guilt

[A recent snap of Geoffrey Hill, channelling the elderly Ruskin]

Once in a while a blog post comes along that "convicts" me, as they used to say in my church's youth group – that both convinces & personally accuses: thou art the man (as the prophet says to David). Don Share's Dr Johnson-illustrated post on long books & brief meanderings did it last week, & practically disabled me from blogging for the time being. I can concur wholeheartedly with Don's
I'm increasingly tired of reading and trying to get anything out of all the spurts and blurts and mini-reflections I take in, online in general and in contemporary poems in particular that I look at. Worse, I'm definitely & unapologetically a big book guy.
So I've pretty much stopped tweeting for the time being: a genre – at least for the nonce, in my eyes – more to be followed than participated in. And I'm rethinking "100 poem-books," at least for its last stretch, which seems to have descended into blurbage, precisely what I was hoping to avoid when I kicked it off.

In general, it seems to me there's little sense, particularly for a bear of little brain such as I who continually struggles to connect one thought to another, in issuing wee disconnected thoughts on a daily or weekly basis. It bespeaks the sort of solipsism that the impatient, long winded-world is continually accusing Twitter of.* I don't want Culture Industry to become a collection of tweets: its inspiration, after all, was Adorno's Minima Moralia, in which the form of the micro-essay becomes the concentrated isotopic bearer of incredible density of reflection.
And then those long books: I too love them. This summer I finally finished Fors Clavigera; I hastened through David Copperfield in a single ecstatic week; and I read, in 10- or 12-canto hauls, Alan Mandelbaum's version of the Divine Comedy. Right now I'm well on my into yet another reading of Moby-Dick. When I'm reading Moby-Dick I'm convinced that the entire world is arranged – 19th-c. American lit courses & all – so that I can guiltlessly immerse myself in Melville every year or two.

When I'd read Don's post, tho, I realized a hankering for a big book of deep substance, of real density – a steep mountain, not the easy Fuji-walk of Melville's narrative. So I hauled down a 700-odd page volume that had taken pride of place on the shelf since Amazon delivered it, but which had only been cursorily leafed thru: Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings. I'd long since read the first three books included here – The Lords of Limit, The Enemy's Country, & Style and Faith – so at the moment I'm finishing up the penultimate of two uncollected collections, "Inventions of Value."

What strikes me immediately, if peripherally, is what one might call the "Guide to Kulchur-" or the "Bottom: on Shakespeare-effect" – that the critical writings act as an immediate gloss on the poetry, so that the oblique references of Hill's poems can very often be glossed by the subjects & references he treats in the prose in a rather more straightforward manner. (There is simmering, somewhere among the multiple stovetops of my attention, an essay on Ruskin & Hill...)

Not that the "rather more straightforward manner"of Hill's critical prose amounts to anything like reader-friendliness, on the level, say, of Terry Eagleton. Hill's prose bristles with circumlocution, is burnished with a kind of density of reflection that reminds me of how a job candidate here once described the experience of reading Hegel: "You read each sentence twice before going on to the next, then at the end of each paragraph you stop & try to figure out if you know what's going on; more often than not, you don't, so you start over."

I'm happy to report that by the point of "Inventions of Value" (lectures delivered mostly around 2000), Hill's prose is rather more straightforward than in his 1st 2 collections. And his overall arguments, tho developed in an enormously subtle manner, are both graspable by a bear o. v. l. b. & immediately relevant to the making of poems – and to civic discourse in general. I think the problem most academic readers will have here is the vast shift of perspective necessary to sympathize with Hill's dour & uncompromising analysis of language, probity, and "inherent value." For Hill, that is, most fashionable contemporary discourse of relativism (linguistic, cultural, etc.) is so much cant, frittering away the attention that ought to be devoted to a close analysis of the relationship of morality and language. For Hill, the definitions of "intrinsic value" (or "inhaerent value") found in Hobbes, Locke, Ruskin, & Newman (i. a.) are not historical fossils, but prisms by which the contemporary poet must judge his own work.

It's dense stuff, but exhilarating with a kind of moral authority that one doesn't encounter very often in contemporary criticism. A taste of Hill at his grouchiest (is he writing here of Basil Bunting, a poet for whom – alas – he has zero sympathy?):
One is put in mind [when comparing Locke & Ruskin on, roughly, "intrinsic value" and a "labour theory" of value] of the fate of certain elderly authors who, rescued from oblivion by cĂ´teries and the editors of small-circulation journals, are invariably described as having been hitherto 'strangely' or 'unaccountably' neglected. The 'neglect' by some kind of imaginative fiat is simultaneously held to be both their 'documentary claim' to present notice and an intrinsic part of the 'neglected' author's newly proclaimed value. A vicarious solipsism is also a demeaning charity.
Oh yeah – momentarily forgetting Bob Archambeau's recent tragic encounter with the car door (how's that wheelchair working out, Bob?), I went out & bought a new bicycle. Look for me around the streets of south Florida (or perhaps in the emergency rooms).

*There are too many exceptions out there not to note at least one: Nick Piombino, for instance, who seems to be seriously thinking thru the formal implications of the 140-character constraints.


Emma J said...

Oh, yes. Thanks for this post.

And good luck on that bicycle.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Great analysis, Mark. One could spend a full decade following up on Hill's references in those essays.

CivilizeMe said...

Not a hill, but a mountain range.

When he was in Boston, I would time to time walk past his office, never going in -- never wanting to impose -- but always wanting to see whether all that moral and intellectual density had warped the local spacetime. I'm no physicist, but I felt I could detect a discernible dip in the hallway outside his door...

Vance Maverick said...

Not to be simplistic...well, OK, to be simplistic, because that's the point: there should be no question of guilt (indeed perhaps your use of such a loaded word is ironical). Work out what balance of big and small, heavy and light you find rewarding, and pursue it to that extent. There's no obligation to blog. There may be an obligation to monographize, but if so you've met it, and moved on into a freer space of possibility.

Captcha: "riump", the triumph of Procrustes.