Wednesday, September 09, 2009

the poet's role

Interviewer: What is the role of the poet in our world?

Geoffrey Hill: He has none. In London, when a taxi driver who loves to talk with his passengers, asks me what I do, I tell him I am a retired university professor. It is best to leave that I am a poet to the last. The driver would collapse with total laughter while driving and that would be dangerous. The great poet has no social function. The mediocre, yes, he finds himself delivering fashionable platitudes to the public. The true poet is completely isolated.

[NB: The uncharacteristic gracelessness of the prose above, I take it, is due to the fact that it is excerpted from a interview conducted in English, published in French translation, then retranslated back into English. Just saying.]


Vance Maverick said...

He makes a pretty good effort to be modest, doesn't he? Sustains it through the third sentence (though I think the exaggeration there is an early sign of wavering). Even in the fourth sentence, we can hold out hope that he's not speaking of himself -- but this collapses in the fifth.

I have a lot of respect for Hill, but he does wrap himself ostentatiously in the mantle that was already motheaten on Eliot.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

roles of the poet: 1)provides a reason to leave the coffeehouse early 2)fills up the smallest shelf in the bookstore 3)stains greeting cards 4)keeps vanity presses above water 5)drives teenagers to drug abuse 6)generally useless cannon fodder

Krishna said...


Philip Metres said...

GH has a hauteur that Americans could never pull off; he is sustained (enabled?) in this view by centuries of good aristocratic theory and practice, no?

Not that I'm Mayakovsky or anything...

Archambeau said...

Not a lot of aristocracy in Hill's immediate background (wasn't his father a cop?).

But there's a pretty solid 150 years of theory and practice behind the idea of the poet as a creature somehow outside of society. If you're feeling generous, you could call it the ultimate counter-cultural position.


Vance Maverick said...

Right, "aristocracy" is mostly a distraction here. But Hill is invested in (the idea of) an established tradition, in a way that Eliot had to strain to emulate.

On reflection, this is I think what bothers me about Hill: that he wants to tell us something we already know. He's much sharper than most such people...but in the end I group him with someone like, say, Richard Avedon, who is far sharper than the run of celebrity photographers, yet who, in the end, shows you pictures of celebrities. Hill is to a great extent trying to raise the "pleasing wraiths of former masteries", and reinscribe their authority.

E. M. Selinger said...

Here's Horace on the subject, at least obliquely:

To instruct or delight must be the poet's aim,
Or to sound at once both pleasing and practical.
Older readers scorn the frivolous,
The gentry don't want poems too severe.
The poet pleases all who mingles the useful
And graceful, who both advises and allures.
His book enriches dealers and crosses seas
To carry the author's fame to distant days.
--Epode II.iii (“Ars Poetica”)

The poet's social function? To delight and instruct readers, enrich his dealers (booksellers? publishers?), and make the author an enduring celebrity.

A more appealing ideal than total isolation, if rather harder to achieve.

mongibeddu said...

My paraphrase of Hill: "I'd be embarrassed to call myself a poet, and most non-poets would be embarrassed for me if I did. Generally speaking, the worse the poet, the more unembarrassed the admission."

I basically agree.

Ben F.

Jason Mitchell said...

I'm reminded of Auden, from The Dyer's Hand:

"But if a stranger on the train asks me my occupation, I never answer "writer" for fear he may go on to ask me what I write, and to answer "poetry" would embarrass us both, for we both know nobody can earn a living simply by writing poetry. (The most satisfactory answer I have discovered, satisfactory because it withers curiosity, is to say Medieval Historian.)