Thursday, 24 March 2011

The 'Intimidating Legacy of the Past': Hill and Enright

  One of the most interesting items in the latest PN Review (198, March-April) is an overview by Jeffrey Wainwright of 'Geoffrey Hill's First Lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry'. Even in his concise synopsis, Wainwright gives a vivid sense of the profundity and complexity of Hill's discussion (clearly cognate with the themes of his work in verse) of poetry as perjury, his insistence on the need for an 'ontological' reading of poems which 'adds to the stock of available reality' and his wondering if there are poets today 'working at a pitch equal to the demands set by the history of poetry'.
    A field of influence restricted to other contemporary poets and a scope of reading not much broader than the latest magazines and e-zines seems a besetting flaw of much current poetry, particularly by younger writers - along with this comes a sort of passive acceptance about the nature and status of received poetics, and a wholesale avoidance of the intellectual engagement with poetry and language as contested historical phenomena which Hill urges as central to the poet's endeavour.
   By chance I found similar notions promulgated by DJ Enright (not actually - lest I start sounding too old-bufferish - a poet I've ever warmed to) in his Intro to the Oxford Book Contemporary Verse 1945-80 from as far back as 1979:

'Here are writers who have spared themselves the discomforts attendant on what W. Jackson Bate has termed 'the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past' through the simple expedient of ignoring the past...chiefly for the young and for busy people who look for quick returns: the type of writing which, abandoning the ancient poetic habit of making connections between one thing and another as either vulgar or  old hat or 'academic', gives itself up to unconnected whimsies, velleities or spasms.'

    Just seen that Carrie Etter has a podcast of the Hill lecture on her blog:


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