[Geoffrey Hill on the left, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams center – try imagining Ron Silliman with Pat Robertson – oh, never mind.]
Someone should write a book on poets' rate of production. I once began a Parnassus essay on Ted Enslin with the following snarky anecdote:
Two friends of mine were waiting at the maître d's desk in a posh New York restaurant, when one of them whispered urgently, "Look over at that table – there's Joyce Carol Oates! She's having dinner with a guy – and he's holding her hand. He must be telling her he loves her." "Naw," the other said, "he's just trying to keep her from writing during the meal."I went on to compare Enslin – who's published a veritable blizzard of books over his long and immensely prolific career – with Cid Corman & Robert Kelly, & gave some thought (& rather too much snark) to the effects of overpublication, overproduction.
I think I had in mind, as counterexample, a poet like Basil Bunting, who popped off at 85, leaving behind – what? – 250 pages of work, only a handful of lines of which I'd be willing to sacrifice on that desert island. Or Geoffrey Hill, whose slim volumes – at least thru the mid-90s – emerged with such irregularity and constipated, impacted grace that one couldn't imagine His Giant Dourness becoming a publishing machine like John Ashbery or T. C. Boyle.
Well, there's a new Geoffrey Hill book out: Oraclau | Oracles, just published by Clutag Press in Thame, Oxfordshire. As it comes closely on the heels of A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin, 2007 – an earlier chapbook version by Clutag in 2005), it's worth casting an eye over Hill's publishing pace, as he nears 80.
I met Hill once in I think it was 1987, at Campus on the Hill, where I was impressed by his savage comb-over (he'd just gotten what seems a very bad haircut, so the combed-over portion failed to meet the hair on the other side of his bald spot, as tho he'd been imperfectly scalped), limp handshake, & implacable seriousness. I was already deeply impressed by his poems – I had his first Collected Poems (Oxford UP, 1986; Penguin, 1985), which brought together 5 books & one longish poem published over 25 years:
For the Unfallen (1959)For those who're counting, that's something like a book every 4 years. There was a lapse between the Collected Poems & Hill's next volume, but when that one came out, it was as if someone had turned on a spigot:
King Log (1968)
Mercian Hymns (1971)
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)
Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1984)
Canaan (1997)What's more, the jacket copy for Oraclau | Oracles announces that this book is actually only one of five collections Hill has completed since A Treatise, one of which will appear in 2012, and all five of which will constitute the "final section" of Hill's Collected Poems 1952-2012, "scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2013."
The Triumph of Love (1998)
Speech! Speech! (2000)
The Orchards of Syon (2002)
Scenes from Comus (2005)
Without Title (2006)
A Treatise of Civil Power (2005/2007)
Oraclau | Oracles (2010)
My word. 12 collections, then, in 16 years. The man has picked up the pace a bit. What's most surprising is that Hill's post-1990 work is to my mind his best, retaining the gnarly intensity of the early work but transposing it to a decorous (& sometimes flippant) vernacular, plumbing the moral issues with which he's always been obsessed more deeply than ever. I haven't read Oraclau | Oracles yet, but I'm itching to; at this point in Hill's career, more collections are just more of a good thing.
Maybe I should reconsider that Joyce Carol Oates joke. Or maybe read some more of her books. Naw.