Book Review: Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill

In Broken Hierarchies, Oxford University Press collected the impressive poems of master poet and poetry professor Geoffrey Hill from his 21 books of poems, written between 1952-2012. The size of this collection could very well intimidate readers still trying to decide if they want to write poetry or even read 973 poetic pages, but frankly, many of the poems might be lost on them anyway as many may be on me.

So, when this lovely review copy arrived, I approached it with caution, keenly aware that the hundreds of books of poetry I’ve read and many books of poetry essays I’ve enjoyed did not totally prepare me for the poetic work of THE Professor of Poetry elected by the University of Oxford. In addition to that distinctive honor, Geoffrey Hill taught poetry for many years at highly prestigious universities, whereas I, aside from English Lit in college and a lifelong love of poetry, am self-taught.

Nevertheless, I gladly recognized the play of traditional forms with meter, true rhyme, and such slant rhymes as well/heal, hurt/heart, live/grieve. Sound echoes, word plays, repetition, and refrain bring musicality to these poems, too, including the free verse, prose poems, and other forms the poet devised for use in various sections throughout the book – all of which are worth studying and employing by poets serious about the literary quality of their own work.

I also liked having the opportunity to follow the progress of a renowned poet, which Editor Kenneth Haynes made possible by presenting the poems along the timeline they were written. What surprised me, however, is that the poems in the first half of the book seemed more accessible than those in later sections.

Keeping the title in mind helped me to gain entrance to the poems, which address hierarchies that interest and often disappoint the poet: theology, religion, politics, British history, fine arts, and literature. In the second verse of “God’s Little Mountain,” for example:

I thought the thunder had unsettled heaven,
All was so still. And yet the sky was cloven
By flame that left the air cold and engraven.
I waited for the word that was not given.

This disappointment in hearing nothing but thunder resurfaces visually in “The Pentecost Castle” #3 of Tenebrae, which says, “You watchers on the wall/ grown old with care/ I too looked from the wall/ I shall look no more.” And so, “1 Lachrimae Verae” calls upon the “Crucified Lord” with this indictment: “I cannot turn aside from what I do;/ you cannot turn away from what I am./ You do not dwell in me nor I in you/ however much I pander to your name….” And yet in “4 Lachrimae Coactae” the “Crucified Lord” is still called “Lord” in this seeking where “I fall between harsh grace and hurtful scorn./ You are the crucified who crucifies….”

According to “Parentalia,” the poet or poetic personae finds “the things of earth snagging the things of grace.” Yet hope flickers in verse XVII in “The Triumph of Love,” where “If the gospel is heard, all else follows./ We shall rise again, clutching our wounds.” Then, in XXIII, we find “What remains? You may well ask. Construction/ or deconstruction? There is some poor/ mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy./ But the Psalms – they remain….”

Faith remains, too, in CXXI which asks “So what is faith if it is not/ inescapable endurance?” And then, “Light is this instant, far-seeing/ into itself, its own/ signature on things that recognize/ salvation….”

In verse 1 of “The Orchards of Syon” we suspect a magic show of wordplays beginning “Now there is no due season. Do not/ mourn unduly…./ Watch my hands/ confabulate their shadowed rhetoric,/ gestures of benediction; maledictions/ by arrangement….”

Is this what literature is – a magical trick of calling into being what we wish or fear that may or may not be there? Or, as “The Argument of the Masque” expresses in verse 6, “That, in these latter days, language/ is the energy of decaying sense….” and “If power’s fuelled by decay,/ so be it – decay being a natural force.”

“Ludo” demonstrates this decline of meaning in language by following a stream of consciousness – not of thought, but of sounds. As verse 1 says, “We who are lovers through a grace of days/ in diverse ways; who to variant clays/ are self-adherent; and heirs apparent/ to parent fears and fears recurrent….” You get the idea or, rather, the sound effects. Apparently, this wordplay wasn’t played out but beautifully played down in “Oraclau,” which begins “The rain passes, briefly the flags are lit/ Blue-grey wimpling in the stolid puddles;/ And one’s mind meddles and muddles/ Briefly also for joy of it.”

Yes! And isn’t that what poetry brings! …the joy of writing, the joy of freely associating this with that, the glee of musicality, and even the bliss of ranting eloquently when life and its hierarchies disappoint us for a while — at least until we regain our balance, perhaps, by writing poems or reading fine poetry such as this.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of the poetry book, Living in the Nature Poem, published by Hiraeth Press. Look for her new book Outside Eden soon from Kelsay Books.

Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, hardback

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