Thursday, October 21, 2010

Geoffrey Hill's production pace


[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)
King Log (1968)
Mercian Hymns (1971)
Tenebrae (1978)
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)
Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1984)
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:
Canaan (1997)
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)
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."

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.

6 comments:

Ed Baker said...

so he
(seemingly) suddenly
erupted
and a continuity / a run of of 'stuff' was produced
and the means to get that 'stuff' out into the light (ie. published)

what IS so strange in this-all that you find?

just maybe he
as have so been
many many many other artists/poets

who have spent their (individual)
Twenty Years Before the Mast

then .... P O W ! right-in-the-kisser every day they write a book.

every moment they are riding on a wave and
after all is said, done,and written,
there IS only one wave:

non-differentiation

Vance Maverick said...

Not sure whether you know this, Mark, and I'm not at all sure it matters, but every time I've seen this mentioned, it's explained as due to Hill's successful treatment for depression. (Example at random.)

Don Share said...

Vance is right; Geoffrey explains this himself in his interview with Carl Philips from a few years back.

Meanwhile, Clutag Press sez:

"Since the publication of A Treatise of Civil Power in 2007, Geoffrey Hill has completed five new collections. Under the general title The Daybooks, they include Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti, Odi Barbare, Oraclau |Oracles, and Clavics.

Clutag Press plans to issue Daybooks II: Odi Barbare in 2011. The five volumes constitute the final section of Hill’s Collected Poems 1952-2012, scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2013."

Ron said...

There may be a photo of me with Joseph Campbell or Huston Smith somewhere, and the extended family runs the gamut spiritually.

Vance Maverick said...

Reading a bit in Hill now (the Selected from the cover of which he glares out in possibly comic self-seriousness); not-quite-surprised to find him too linking Ruskin and Pound (Triumph of Love CXLVI).

Richard said...

Vance is Parmigianino of Ashbery;s ('Self Portrait in...' book's fame and I think Ron might be referring to his distant relation to Tennyson...

Depression? That's no good. Sad to hear, good he has overcome it if he has.

I didn't know he had written any more books. I just started re-reading and studying 'Mercian Hymns' - incredibly good.

Great poet. Silliman, like Ashbery, a very different kind of poet. All interesting,all vital to our culture if anything is.

R Taylor.