Why, even its annotations would require annotations!
It’s a commonplace in the UK that the seventy-nine-year-old Geoffrey Hill is the best poet now writing in English, which doesn’t mean it’s not true. Like Paul Muldoon and Frederick Seidel, two other contenders, Hill started tight and grew weird. And he grew talky. In the first three decades of his career, he published five books. Then in 1997 Canaan inaugurated his logorrheic, ssri-enabled mode: fantastically knotted densities of a cantankerous prophet who knows he can be too dour for his own or anybody’s good. The Triumph of Love, which followed just a year later, is one of the most hermetically learned collections of poems since The Cantos—its annotations would require annotations. Hill had become an open sluice—Speech! Speech! (2000) could be the title of his collected poems: The Orchards of Syon (2002) begat Scenes from Comus (2005), which begat Without Title (2006) and A Treatise of Civil Power (2007), which begat the odd five-part series The Daybooks, of which Clavics forms the fourth volume but is, Star Wars-like, the second to appear (after last year’s Oraclau|Oracles).
The clamor for “accessibility” in poetry has always been absurd. Paradise Lost and Jerusalem are less accessible than ever, I suppose, but when people complain about “accessibility” they mean they wish John Ashbery would write poems with paraphrasable content. Hill’s not amused. In Speech! Speech! he waves away the objection:
wantonly obscure, man sagt. accessible
traded as democratic, he answers
as he answers móst things these days | easily.
This restates Hill’s claim, in a Paris Review interview from 2000, “that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.” It is restated again in A Treatise of Civil Power: “that which is difficult/preserves democracy; you pay respect/to the intelligence of the citizen.”
By this measure, The Daybooks may represent Hill’s most democratic vistas yet. The dust jacket claims that this volume is a tribute to early seventeenth-century poetry and music, in the form of an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, the Royalist musician, killed at the battle of Chester, which spells “unputdownable” as far as I’m concerned. Each of the thirty-two sections of the sequence is composed of two stanzas, together forming, more or less, the shape of a key (“Clavics,” the epigraph informs us, is “the science or alchemy of keys”—quoting the, ahem, 2012 edition of the oed). But you don’t need to know anything about William Lawes or clavicular alchemy to delight in Hill’s pageantry of rapid-fire wit, nastiness, and sheer intellectual wow. Hill always ranges far beyond his ostensible occasion.